Tales from the clubhouse: Bonds and Bacsik

With no news on the state of the 2020 season expected until sometime today, the baseball world was left Sunday with nothing else to do but wax nostalgic and watch a documentary about the breaking of one of the sport’s most hallowed records 22 years ago. The Great Home Run Chase of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was beloved by everyone at the time, cringed at now because of the added layer of context we now have for what took place.

Watching it, though, reminded me of the breaking of another of baseball’s most hallowed records 13 years ago, when Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron for the all-time record with his 756th home run, an event equally tinged with controversy. And an event that took place against the Nationals.

As Bonds began to inch his way toward history that summer, I distinctly remember looking at the schedule at some point and thinking to myself: “There’s a decent chance he’s going to do it against the Nats in August.” And as that West Coast trip drew closer and Bonds surpassed the 750 mark, it started coming into much clearer focus.

On Aug. 4, a Saturday, he hit No. 755 in San Diego, matching the record Aaron held by himself for 33 years. On Aug. 5, a Sunday, he got the day off. On Aug. 6, the Nationals arrived in San Francisco for the start of a four-game series that was now going to be the center of the sports universe.

The odds of a Nats pitching staff that was, well, pretty atrocious getting through a four-game series without giving up at least one homer to Bonds were nonexistent. It was going to happen. It was just a matter of when, and off which pitcher.

The series opener was started by John Lannan, who would go on to be a perfectly capable starter for the club for four-plus seasons but at that moment was a 22-year-old rookie making his third career start. The tall left-hander had begun that season at Single-A Potomac, then was rushed to the big leagues because the Nationals were just that desperate in the pitching department.

Lannan was an unassuming, soft-spoken kid from New York who shouldn’t have been thrown into a fire like this but actually handled it all exceptionally well. He had the misfortune of getting ejected from his major league debut two weeks earlier in Philadelphia after he plunked Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in succession in the bottom of the fifth. Utley broke his hand in the process. Howard had homered in his previous at-bat. Plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt assumed the worst and gave Lannan the heave-ho, even though the kid wouldn’t have known how to intentionally throw at anybody if given the order.

Now here he was a couple weeks later starting on national television against the guy trying to break the all-time home run record. As a beat writer, you genuinely don’t root for or against the guys you cover. But I will admit privately hoping Lannan didn’t give up the homer, thinking it could have lasting effects on the kid and potentially derail a promising career.

Turns out we had nothing to worry about, because Lannan was more than up for the challenge. He faced Bonds four times that night. The worst he did was walk him once. He retired Bonds the other three times, inducing a double-play grounder out of him in the fifth and then striking him out in the seventh with the game tied 1-1.

So it was onto the next night, Aug. 7, and now the man on the mound for the Nationals was Mike Bacsik. Again, I don’t root for or against the guys I cover. But I will admit privately thinking to myself this would be the right guy to give it up. Not because he was a bad pitcher or a bad person. But because Bacsik had been around the block a little, was pitching for his fifth big league club at 29 and had the kind of self-deprecating personality that made you think he would handle the notoriety of this moment well.

Which is exactly what happened.

Bacsik faced Bonds three times. All three resulted in base hits, though not for lack of effort on his part. The lefty got ahead 0-2 in the bottom of the second before Bonds evened the count at 2-2 and ripped a double to the gap in right-center. One inning later, Bacsik started Bonds off with a first-pitch curveball for a strike, then gave up a single to center on another curveball.

When Bonds came back up to bat in the bottom of the fifth, you wondered whether Bacsik had anything left to show him. Some have since questioned whether Bacsik actually grooved a pitch down the pipe to Bonds, including teammate Tim Redding, who publicly accused him of it in a radio interview three years later.

I didn’t think anything fishy was going on at the time, and after re-watching all three at-bats Sunday, I’m more convinced everything was on the up and up. For the first time all night, Bacsik fell behind in the count, missing high and away with a fastball and then down and away with a curveball. But he immediately battled back with a perfectly placed fastball on the outside corner for strike one, then got Bonds to foul off another fastball that evened the count.

The next two pitches, in my mind, were the critical ones. Bacsik’s 2-2 curveball just missed down and away, and even the Giants’ announcers were impressed Bonds didn’t bite at it. Then with the count full, Bacsik threw another curveball and had Bonds completely fooled. The big slugger was way out in front of it and could only tap a soft chopper down the first base line, foul by a couple of feet.

Those were two quality pitches by a guy trying to get the best hitter in the game out. But he didn’t have a third one in him. Catcher Brian Schneider called for a fastball away, and Bacsik missed his target. The 86-mph offering - that’s as hard as he threw - came in belt-high on the inner third of the plate. And Bonds wasn’t about to miss that pitch.

The press box at the Giants’ gem of a ballpark is situated right behind the lower deck, and the visiting beat writers sit directly behind the plate. It’s the best press box seat in baseball. And it provided the perfect vantage point for this history-making moment.

The image forever imprinted in my mind: A lone, white baseball shining brightly against a solid, black sky. It hovered there for what felt like 30 seconds but in reality was maybe three ticks of the clock, then disappeared into a sea of humanity beyond the 421-foot sign in the deepest portion of right-center field.

As the overflow crowd roared and fireworks went off above, Bonds became the first major leaguer to round the bases for the 756th time, an unquestionably remarkable achievement and yet one that didn’t feel fully genuine in the moment and still doesn’t today. He was greeted at the plate by his family, then by Willie Mays, then on the scoreboard by Aaron, who graciously congratulated him on breaking his record.

All the while, the Nationals watched respectfully, Schneider from behind the plate, Ryan Zimmerman and others from the infield, Bacsik from the visitors’ dugout. He did return to finish the inning, which ended with the Giants leading 5-4, though the Nats would come back to win 8-6 (a legitimate source of pride for those players and manager Manny Acta, who wanted to show the national audience they weren’t a pushover ballclub).

Bacsik After Bonds HR Sidebar.jpgBacsik would conduct his postgame interview in the Giants’ press conference room, that’s how many reporters were there to cover that game. But before he did that, he did something I’d never witnessed before and haven’t experienced again since: He conducted an interview with the Nationals beat writers while the game was still in progress.

Yep, in a scene typically permitted only in spring training, former Nats PR director John Dever instructed the three of us on the beat - The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, MLB.com’s Bill Ladson and me - to head down toward the clubhouse in the seventh inning. Bacsik came out into the hallway and let us interview him right then and there.

And, as predicted, he handled it all exceptionally well.

“You either have to be a really special player to be remembered in this game, or be part of a special moment,” the son of a former big league pitcher said. “It’s pretty special to be part of history like that.”

Bacsik impressed national media members when he held his official press conference after the game, as well. Compared to Bonds, who was his usual defiant self as he deflected questions about the legitimacy of his record, Bacsik was a breath of fresh air. This was his one and only opportunity to be the center of attention, and he was going to make the most of it.

Though their careers bore no resemblance to each other, neither Bacsik nor Bonds played in the big leagues again after the 2007 season. Bacsik did return to the Nats in 2008 on a minor league deal and appeared in 36 games for Triple-A Columbus. But he hung up his spikes after that and transitioned to a career in broadcasting in Dallas.

Bonds? Well, you know what has happened to him in the 13 years since he hit No. 756.

You don’t see that game aired very often, though. At a time when just about every baseball game of historical significance is being rebroadcast to help us get through this unprecedented stretch with no baseball, Bonds’ record-breaker isn’t celebrated very much.

I still have my own conflicted feelings about it. But I’ll always be grateful I had the opportunity to witness and chronicle it in person, and to watch an otherwise forgettable journeyman left-hander experience his 15 minutes of fame.

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