One Defining Moment
Monday, February 25, 2008
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 24
One recent morning, out on the back practice fields at the Washington Nationals' spring training headquarters, a player was approached by one of those middle-aged autograph hounds, the kind with the vaguely sketchy appearance and the three-ring binder full of baseball cards. The man carefully pulled a card out of its sleeve, handed the player a Sharpie pen and appeared to make a small request of him. The player smiled, nodded and said, "Sure."
And then Mike Bacsik jogged away toward his next assignment on another day of spring workouts, and the autograph hound grinned and looked down at the trophy he had just bagged: "Mike Bacsik," the card read, in Bacsik's neat, loopy handwriting. "Bonds HR #756 8-7-07." Any second now, it should be showing up for sale on eBay.
"I always sign it that way, if they ask," Bacsik said later. "I'm a sports fan. I understand why you'd want something like that. Hey, it's part of history."
It has been 6 1/2 months now since that fateful night by the San Francisco Bay, when, on a 3-2 count in the fifth inning, Bacsik reared back and fired an 86-mph fastball that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds crushed into the seats -- the home run that broke Hank Aaron's cherished all-time record and that thrust Bacsik, at the time a 29-year-old journeyman, into the sort of spotlight no pitcher covets.
But a funny thing happened. Bacsik seemed to . . . well, if not embrace the moment, then at least not push it away. The goofy, talkative lefty with the bald head and the love of the television cameras became a media sensation, then a cult hero, then -- this offseason -- a bit of a cottage industry. He started doing a radio show in his home town of Dallas, and appeared on ESPN as an analyst during the playoffs.
That one moment of infamy, it seems, has been very, very good for Mike Bacsik.
"For 12 years of my career, I'm a nobody that nobody goes up to and asks for anything, and now people actually want my autograph," Bacsik said. "Hopefully, I can improve this year and maybe people will want my autograph for being a good pitcher."
The chances of that happening with the Nationals, while not impossible, have gotten longer this spring, as the franchise has beefed up the stable of pitchers in its farm system to the point where it is far less likely for a now-30-year-old journeyman with only 51 big league games under his belt to make their roster, let alone thrive there. Though he made 20 starts for the Nationals last year, going 5-8 with a 5.11 ERA, he warranted only a non-guaranteed minor league contract this year.
"In the situation we're in right now it's probably a little tougher for [older] guys to do it, because we are making progress," Manager Manny Acta said, speaking about the team's pitching in general. "And obviously, a couple of years ago the lack of talent that was here kind of helped some guys."
Bacsik said it would be "going too far" to say the Bonds home run has changed his life. "I'm not rich because of it," he said. "I'm not guaranteed a big league contract because of it. At home, I'm not treated different because of it. Have I had phone calls and stuff because of it? Yeah, maybe."
Have any of those phone calls come from Bonds himself? Bacsik is coy when asked that question. The most he will say is that he has a cellphone number for Bonds. "But it doesn't even go straight to him," Bacsik adds. "It goes to a secretary or something. And besides, Barry has enough things going on right now without me bugging him."