- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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When Mike Bacsik answered the cell phone he was sitting on another minor league charter bus, this one going from Toledo to Columbus. The movie "Lions For Lambs" was playing on the drop-down monitors.
"Tom Cruise is in it," said Bacsik, "and that other guy -- I call him Roy Hobbs. I forget his name in real life."
"Robert Redford?" I said.
"Yeah, that's him."
Weird he would mention Redford ...
On Aug. 7, 2007, Bacsik overthrew a 3-2 fastball to Barry Bonds, the man whom federal prosecutors now say was The Unnatural -- and a liar too. The pitch was supposed to be down and away, but the ball found the chunky part of the plate and stayed there until Bonds drove it toward the right center field stands of AT&T Park.
This from the TV play-by-play: "And Bacsik deals. And Bonds hits one high! Hits it deeeeeeeeeeep! It is outtttta here!"
Bacsik didn't bother to turn around. He knew.
A pitch and a swing. A journeyman and a prodigy. In the time it took for that fastball to land in a human sea of outstretched arms and hands, Bacsik, Bonds and career home run No. 756 became soldered to baseball history.
The two of them have so little in common. Bonds has residences in Beverly Hills and Aspen. Bacsik lives in an apartment in Columbus with his wife, 3-year-old daughter and newborn son.
Bonds has a Web site that sells old batting gloves for $500 a pair, autographed jerseys for $2,000 apiece, and never-used autographed outfielder gloves for $5,000 apiece. Bacsik doesn't have a Web site, but he can go on Amazon.com and bid $2.95 for his 2008 Topps baseball card, the one with San Diego catcher Josh Bard's autograph mistakenly stamped on it. "They never corrected it," said Bacsik. "It's one of a zillion."
Oh, and one other thing: Bonds has been indicted on 14 federal counts of making false declarations to a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice. Bacsik hasn't.
"I can't imagine that," said Bacsik of Bonds' legal dilemma. "I'm scared to death of jail or prison. I can't imagine going through court, having to figure out somehow, some way not to go [to prison]."
So much has changed since the fifth inning of that August 2007 game by the bay. And yet, these two career ballplayers are connected by a singular moment and a stark reality.
Bonds is no longer a San Francisco Giant. Bacsik is no longer a Washington National.
And they both want the same thing: another chance.
"I was 22 when I first reached Triple-A," said Bacsik. "There were some veteran guys on that team who had played in the big leagues. I remember thinking, 'Man, I'm not going to sit around here when I'm 30 years old playing Triple-A baseball. If I haven't established myself by then, I'm not going to be here.'"
A short pause.
"So here I am," he said, "30-years old, sitting on a bus from Toledo to Columbus, trying to make it to the big leagues."
If you want to root for somebody in baseball these days, Bacsik is a nice place to start. You root for him because he's taking those bus rides again, this time as a converted reliever for the Columbus Clippers of the International League.
He doesn't want to be there. Who would? Nine months ago he was a starting major league pitcher facing arguably the game's greatest hitter in one of the game's greatest moments. Now he's facing the Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs.
Bacsik has thought about quitting. He's talked about it at the weekly chapel services, about -- how did he put it? -- "letting go and being free of the game." And then the game pulls him back.
"I love this game so much," said Bacsik. "[Union executive director] Donald Fehr wouldn't want me to say it, but I'd go play in the big leagues for the same salary I'm getting here."
Do you think Bonds loves the game as deeply as that? Or does he love the game only when the game loves him back? I'm just asking.
You root for Bacsik because on April 4, the day after Opening Day at Columbus, Clippers manager Tim Foli handed Bacsik a phone in the clubhouse. It was Bacsik's wife, Sue. There were complications with the pregnancy.
The condition is known as Placenta previa. There was hemorrhaging and had it continued without medical attention, both Sue and the baby could have died.
A clubhouse manager rushed Bacsik to his apartment. Then they followed the ambulance to nearby Riverside Methodist. Sue, a pediatrician herself, spent the next 20 days in the hospital. So did Bacsik when he was in town.
"Hospital in the morning ... game ... back to the hospital ... sleep," said Bacsik.
Jacob Ryan Bacsik was born April 21, 2008, by C-section. Mother and son were fine. The father fainted during the procedure.
Years from now Bacsik will take Jacob to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame gave Bacsik a lifetime pass after he donated the Nationals ball cap he wore the night he gave up the dinger to Bonds.
What will he tell Jacob that day? That he pitched against the man who was tied for the all-time home run lead with Henry Aaron. That in 1976, Bacsik's father, Mike Sr., pitched against the great Aaron when Aaron had 755 career homers. That when it became obvious that Bacsik would face Bonds in that Aug. 7 start, Mike Sr. told him, "Go after him with your best stuff. If you strike him out three times, nobody will ever remember you. But I will."
Bacsik gave it his best, but the pitch stayed middle up and that was that. Bonds' bat left a bruise mark on the ball.
Afterward, Bacsik and Bonds met briefly. Bacsik congratulated him on the historic home run. That's when Bonds said something that caused Bacsik to do a double take.
"He said, 'I'll see you on TV next year,'" said Bacsik.
It could only mean two things: Bonds thought he would play in the American League this season. Or Bonds thought his career was finished.
Bacsik was an 18th-round pick in the 1996 amateur draft. Bonds was the sixth overall pick in the 1985 draft. But it is Bacsik, with less than two years of major league service time, who still grinds away, still rides those buses.
Bonds wants back in too, but in the meantime you can find him at charity events, rap video shoots, workout rooms and courtrooms.
"I know how important that home run was to the history of baseball," said Bacsik, "but I'm just trying to get back to the big leagues. It's Barry Bonds' record. I'm just a footnote."
He's more than that. He's a guy getting by on $20-a-day meal money, $15 of which goes to the clubbie. He's a guy who plays for the love of the game. All he wants now is another chance.
And a baseball card with the right signature.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
22hEthan Sherwood Strauss