By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 7 -- Mike Bacsik had been cool with the notion all week. He is a bit of a historian, a bit of a sports nut, so being part of one of the most momentous occasions in baseball history would be, in a way, just fine. He is, too, the son of a pitcher, and sons of pitchers know that home runs happen, and they must be shrugged off.
"You either have to be a really special player to be remembered in this game," Bacsik said late Tuesday night, "or be part of a special moment."
As it turned out, the 29-year-old lefty from Dallas -- a man who was nearly out of baseball a year ago, someone whose season began with the Washington Nationals' Class AAA affiliate -- now has his moment, however perverse. Bacsik will forever be linked with Barry Bonds, who passed Hank Aaron's all-time record Tuesday night at AT&T Park by drilling Bacsik's fifth-inning fastball into the seats in right-center field.
That the Nationals came back with a four-run eighth inning and took an 8-6 victory -- their seventh in eight games -- mattered not to those in the crowd of 43,154. The comeback featured a go-ahead double from Felipe Lopez, who told Bacsik after Bonds's historic shot not to worry, that the Nationals would win.
But with one out and the bases empty in the fifth, Bacsik, the Nationals' starter, worked Bonds to a full count. Bonds already had a single and a double, and with the wind blowing out, the possibility that he could hit his 756th homer -- the most ever -- filled the park.
The possibility rested in Bacsik's next pitch, a fastball down the middle of the plate. He is not an overpowering pitcher, and his hardest pitches top out in the mid-80s. He relies instead on breaking pitches he must control.
"The way Mike throws, he's going to give up some home runs," Bacsik's father, Michael J. Bacsik, said by telephone earlier Tuesday. "You can see that."
The elder Bacsik would know, because he spent parts of five seasons in the majors. And he would know, too, that the fastball Bacsik threw at that point wasn't good enough to sneak past a hitter of Bonds's caliber, of his accomplishments.
"I knew he couldn't overpower me with his fastball," Bonds said, "so I wanted to take his curveball out of play."
Needing to come with a strike, Bonds had done that. The fastball came at 86 mph, and Bonds simply crushed it.
As Bonds powerfully thrust both his arms in the air, knowing the result long before the ball landed, Bacsik watched the inevitable as well. When he began the season with Class AAA Columbus, he didn't know he would make it back to the majors for the first time since 2004. In a pro career dating back to 1996, he had allowed 29 homers in the big leagues, 168 more in the minors. None approached the magnitude of this shot.
"It's pretty special," Bacsik said, "to be part of history like that. ... As a kid, you always dream of this moment. Unfortunately, as a kid, you dream of being the one hitting the home run, not giving it up."
In a way, Bacsik had his father to thank, because 31 years ago, the elder Bacsik helped keep the mark at 755. That night in Arlington, Tex., Bacsik was called on in the fourth inning to face the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers' cleanup hitter that night: designated hitter Hank Aaron.
Aaron broke Babe Ruth's then-record of 714 homers in 1974, and by the time he faced Bacsik and the Texas Rangers that night -- Aug. 23, 1976 -- he was 42, six weeks from playing in his final game.
By the elder Bacsik's best memory, the Rangers were holding a giveaway -- seat cushions.
"I think everybody that came got two free cushions and 10 beers," Bacsik said. "It was the loudest crowd I ever heard."
Aaron had last homered on July 20, No. 755. There was no way of knowing he would never hit another.
So when Bacsik started the fifth, Aaron was the second man up, and he flew out to right field. Bacsik was a hard-throwing right-hander who fell off the mound on his follow-through, "kind of the exact opposite of Mike," the elder Bacsik said of his son, the soft-tossing lefty.
In the seventh, Aaron came up again. "He hit a one-hopper," Bacsik said, "right off my [rear]. It was one of those where you yell out before it hits you."
Bacsik remembers throwing Aaron out at first, and he remembered the first at-bat as a bloop single to right. But the play-by-play from the game shows that Aaron ended up with an infield single in his second at-bat.
Either way, Aaron had faced Bacsik, went 1 for 2, and did not homer. That provided a subtle backdrop for Tuesday's events.
"If my dad was so gracious to give up a home run to Hank Aaron," the younger Bacsik said Tuesday, "we could both be at 756 right now."
Ultimately, neither Bacsik felt like giving up the record breaker would be a problem.
"To me, it doesn't matter," Bacsik's father said. "I would just like him to have another quality start. A whole bunch of other guys have given up homers to him."
Repeatedly in the days leading up to the event, the younger Bacsik invoked the name of Al Downing, the man who allowed Aaron?s 715th homer, the one that broke Ruth's mark. He did so again late Tuesday night.
"He won 20 games and was an all-star," Bacsik said. "So now my next goal is to win 20 games and be an all-star like Al Downing."
For two at-bats, Bacsik avoided Downing's fate. In the second inning of a scoreless game, Bonds was the first man up. After working him to a full count -- which included a popup in foul territory that might have been tracked down by second baseman Ronnie Belliard -- Bonds drilled a double.
That led to a two-run inning for the Giants, though by the time he batted again in the third, two homers for the Nationals -- a solo shot from Lopez and a two-run blast from Austin Kearns -- Washington led, 3-2. This time, Bonds saw just two pitches, a curveball that was in for a strike, and a fastball he poked into center for a single. That hit was followed by Bengie Molina's two-run homer to left, and Bacsik trailed 4-3.
Yet the score seemed insignificant to everyone in the crowd. It hardly mattered that Brian Schneider's homer tied it for Washington in the fourth.
When Bonds came up in the fifth, Bacsik was faced with the same obstacles every pitcher had faced in Bonds's recent home at-bats -- flashes, a crowd standing in anticipation. He fell behind 2-0, came with a fastball for a strike, and Bonds then fouled off the 2-1 pitch. After Bacsik missed with a breaking ball, Bonds hit a chopper down the first base line, one fielded by first baseman Dmitri Young. He might have been out. But umpire Wally Bell ruled it foul by a fraction, and Bonds had another pitch to see from Bacsik.
It was the one Bonds needed. After the homer, Bacsik walked off the mound, stood in the infield, then strode to the dugout for a 10-minute break, allowing Bonds to soak up the adulation and speak to an adoring crowd. Several Nationals eventually clapped. Schneider took a knee and stayed on the field, "the best seat in the house," he said.
"I'm real happy we won for the team, but as far as excitement, that was unbelievable," Lopez said. "I had goosebumps. It was awesome."
After the ceremony, Bacsik retook the mound and retired Molina, then Ray Durham on a pop-up that he caught himself.
And as Bacsik headed back to the dugout on the first base line, Bonds emerged from the opposite dugout and strode slowly to his spot in left field, television cameras trailing all the way. One night 31 years ago, one Mike Bacsik held Hank Aaron at 755. Tuesday night, his son couldn't hold Barry Bonds at the same number, so there is a new home run champion -- and a new pitcher linked to him.