By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's late in the morning, New Year's Eve, and most of Dallas is still reeling from another of the Cowboys' trademark December meltdowns, their team sent home early yet another year. For the city's vast army of professional sports yappers, Christmas has come again.
Inside the Central Expressway studios of KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan, members of the G-Bag Nation, the station's midday show, compare DeMarcus Ware to a rabid, pre-gunshot Old Yeller and debate whether Jason Garret, the Cowboys' perfectly mediocre head coach, should return in 2014. The show's newest member, a 36-year-old former Major League pitcher named Mike Bacsik, waits quietly, patiently, but not necessarily calmly. With his lengthy left arm resting atop his open laptop, and the rest of his 6-foot-2 frame perched upright in his chair, he's ready to pounce, aching to chime in.
Finally, Jeff Cavanaugh, one of the hosts, swings his chair toward Bacsik, motioning for him to speak up. Off Bacsik goes, uncoiling like the pitcher he once was: "The problems with this organization go so far beyond who the head coach is at any point and it just makes me mad."
You get the sense it's no manufactured sports take, that Bacsik is genuinely distraught. Though a pitcher by trade, his is a lifelong love affair with multiple sports, which accounts for a substantial dose of the adrenaline. But he's also just excited to be in a studio, working and talking, which seemed impossible not long ago, after a series of drunken, idiotic tweets that he punctuated with some casual racism. He was back in radio, improbably, after being left for dead in the second career he loved only a few years after he famously flamed out of the first.
It was in his gloomy motel room at the Kirk's Motor Court in Burlington, North Carolina, its air thick with the scent of low-rent rooms and its carpet stained with who knows what, that Bacsik finally broke down and cried.
It was 1996. He was 19 and had been drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 18th round. He'd starred in baseball and basketball at Duncanville High and turned down a full ride to play baseball for Texas Tech, the school where Sue — then his girlfriend, now his wife — was already enrolled. He was making $825 a month pitching for the then Burlington Indians — officially a professional ballplayer, but $250 went to the "roach motel" room he shared with a roommate, a fellow pitcher who would play seven seasons without making the bigs. Using prepaid calling cards, Bacsik called home three times per week, but that did little to curb the homesickness he felt for his two and a half months in Burlington.
Sue, now a pediatrician, was supportive, even if her "plans for us were crushed," she says. "He was in Burlington, but it might as well have been Australia, since it was before email and cell phones. That's when I learned my first grown-up baseball lesson — don't make plans."
Bacsik, though, was losing faith. What did I do? he thought to himself that night in his room. I've got a girlfriend going to the same college I could've gone to. Through the tears, he wondered if he was letting a far-from-guaranteed fantasy of baseball stardom get in the way of a very real life and love that anyone would envy.
"I went through high school and summer ball, and I was the best player," Bacsik recalls, sitting in a cluttered conference room near his broadcast booth. "Very rarely did I get on a field where there were better players than me. I remember thinking, right after I was drafted, 'I'll play in the minors for two or three years, then get to the majors and pitch until I'm 40, retire, and it will all be awesome.'"
Bacsik impressed his coaches during his earliest days in the minors, but his stat sheet was never enough to make the phone ring. By 2001, his sixth season toiling in rickety buses and sweltering locker rooms, he wondered if it ever would.
"Some of my friends were getting that call," Bacsik recalls. "I was really mad one night about not getting promoted and I prayed. I said, 'God, if it's not your will for me to play in the big leagues anytime soon, I want to accept that. I want to thank you for the chance to just play baseball for a living.' The next day, Eric Wedge, who was my Triple-A manager, called me and he said, 'Mike, I just got the call, you're going up to the big leagues.' I know that may sound like a load of malarkey to some, I mean, I wasn't homeless and it was just sports, but God was there for me then."
Bacsik was there. Now he had to stay there. A new emotional tug-of-war presented itself, with Bacsik getting called up into a comfortable life in the high-dollar, five-star world of the MLB, only to be sent down. The pulling of Bermuda grass from under Bacsik's cleats would happen more than he could've imagined.
"Being sent to the minors was like graduating high school after making all of the grades you needed to make," he says, the pain still resonant. "I'd been handed my diploma and a few weeks later, it was as if the school decided to take the diploma back. Getting sent down to the minors is like getting called into the boss' office to be fired, and I got called into the boss' office a lot."