By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
But Bacsik did get Bonds to autograph a bat after that game, and he has a huge, panoramic photo of the historic home run -- signed by all his Nationals teammates, plus Bonds -- hanging in his bedroom.
Perhaps because of Bacsik's accommodating stance toward the media in the aftermath of the homer, it was not long before some folks were suggesting he grooved the pitch intentionally -- that he wanted to be the one who gave it up. Even his own teammates, though always in jest, wondered out loud, "how in the world," right fielder Austin Kearns said, "do you think you're going to throw a 3-2 fastball, 86 mile per hour, past Barry Bonds?"
Bacsik said he wasn't trying to give up a homer, but neither did he want to walk Bonds. "I wanted to go after him," Bacsik said. "I wanted to strike him out."
"If you know my son, you know there's not a snowball's chance in hell" that he grooved the pitch, said Bacsik's father, who also pitched in the big leagues and who is also named Mike. "He's just trying to win. I heard one guy [on the radio] say Michael was a steroids guy like Barry, and so he was trying to help a fellow juicer out. Well, no offense, but you can look at Michael's body and know he's not a juice guy."
Not long after the homer, Jay Levy, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" got a telephone call at the office. It was Mike Bacsik -- "the guy who gave up Bonds's homer," Bacsik said into the phone -- and he was looking for work.
"I really pushed for it," Bacsik admitted recently. "I said, 'Jay, I'd really love to do this. I love baseball. I feel like I know what I'm talking about.'"
For Levy, the call wasn't entirely out of the blue, since Levy had already heard from Bacsik's agent and a Nationals public relations official who had called on his behalf.
But, Levy said, "I don't often get players calling." In fact, Levy said, it had never happened before. But soon, some meetings were convened, and some tape of Bacsik's interviews were viewed and some strings were pulled -- as Levy said, "When we looked at it, it seemed like a great opportunity to get the guy who gave up number 756 to Barry Bonds" -- and suddenly, there was Bacsik's bald head on the Worldwide Leader during the postseason.
"I had a blast. I loved it," Bacsik said. "I mean, I hope I play baseball for a long, long time, but when I'm done I'd love to do television work full-time."
Throughout October, Bacsik did in-studio spots on "Baseball Tonight," "ESPN First Take" and ESPNews, analyzing postseason games. He was candid and witty, and even critical at times, second-guessing Chicago Cubs Manager Lou Piniella for taking ace Carlos Zambrano out after the sixth inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
"He's a smart guy who knows how to tell a story, which is tremendously important on 'Baseball Tonight,' " said ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, who worked with Bacsik in-studio. "His knowledge of the game was very impressive, which is to be expected, but you'd be surprised how many guys in baseball don't pay attention to what is going on around them. With Mike, if you asked him how he pitched a guy, he could recall specific pitch counts from June.
"Mostly, I was amazed how calm he was on the set, right from the start. Some guys are scared to death the first time out, or the first few times out, but he seemed at home in front of a camera."
Levy also gave Bacsik high marks for his insight and "passion for the game," but stopped short of saying there is a future for Bacsik at ESPN. "The timing was right this time," Levy said. "But down the line, I wouldn't close the door by any means."
If Bacsik makes it back to TV, he promises never to leave his cellphone on during a live segment, the way he did during a "First Take" segment one morning. Bacsik was chatting with host Dana Jacobson when all of a sudden his phone started ringing in his pocket. He cringed, but otherwise made it through the segment until a commercial break. When they came back from break, Jacobson teased him about the ringing cellphone.
"That was just Barry calling," Bacsik deadpanned. "He signed with a team, but he made me promise not to tell which one."
With one quick sound bite, Bacsik had taken a potentially embarrassing situation -- something no one in that chair would ever wish to have happen to himself -- and turned it into a positive. Apparently, it is something he does extremely well.