Chris Michalak had become so inured to life on the road that when
his agent called the recently released lefthander in May 2000 to
tell him that both the Dodgers and the Padres were interested in
signing him for their Triple A affiliates, Michalak's first
impulse was to get behind the wheel. He loaded his wife, Shannon,
who was six months pregnant with the couple's second child; their
two-year-old daughter, Madison; and the family's belongings into
his 1998 Nissan Pathfinder and headed west from Durham, N.C. "I
didn't even know where we were going," he says. "I had just been
cut by Tampa Bay [the parent organization of the Durham Bulls],
our apartment lease was up, and we had spent the last three days
in a roadside inn. It was either Las Vegas or Albuquerque, and it
didn't matter which."
Michalak's attitude was understandable, given that his baseball
life had been an eight-season, five-organization odyssey, but now
his traveling days may be over because the 30-year-old has
finally cracked a big league rotation. (His only previous
experience in the majors was a five-game stint as a reliever with
the Diamondbacks in 1998.) After shutting out the Red Sox for
eight innings last Saturday to run his record to 5-3 and lower
his ERA to 2.73, Michalak has locked up the fifth spot in the
Toronto rotation. "Having a guy like Chris out there every fifth
day has been very comforting," says Blue Jays manager Buck
Martinez. "If Mike Sirotka hadn't gotten injured [out for the
season with a left shoulder injury], we probably wouldn't have
even taken an extended look at Chris in spring training. You can
see a different level of confidence in him now. He knows he
belongs in the majors."
Michalak had doubts, particularly after his 2000 season at
Albuquerque (the terminus of that cross-country haul), where he
went 11-3 with a 4.26 ERA while being used primarily as a starter
for the first time since 1994. "I finally got a chance to start,
and I put up decent numbers, but the Dodgers never called me up,"
says Chris, now also the father of 10-month-old son, Tyler. "It
left me wondering if I ought to look for something else to do
with my life."
Michalak's good work hadn't gone unnoticed. Toronto pitching
coach Mark Connor, who had worked with Michalak when both were
with the Diamondbacks, urged the Blue Jays brass to invite him to
camp. "I knew how hard he works," Connor says. "He can't rear
back and throw his fastball by you, but he's got good location,
and he isn't afraid to throw his change or his curve for strikes
when he's behind in the count."
A native of Joliet, Ill., and a 1993 Notre Dame graduate, Chris
throws from the left side because his father, Leo, a factory
foreman, convinced him at age seven that he needed to protect his
natural right throwing arm for football. (Michalak led Joliet
Catholic High to the '87 class 5A state title.) Leo also taught
Chris his pickoff move, a deceptive slingshot of the left arm as
his body falls toward the plate that had made him the AL leader
in pickoffs, with four, through Sunday.
Michalak's baseball journey has included stops ranging from
Modesto, Calif., where he helped push his Class A team's bus down
a desert road into a gas station, to the Dominican Republic for
winter ball, during which Shannon's morning sickness was so bad
that she and Chris frequently subsisted on ramen noodles because
they were all she could keep down. Though he's settled in at the
SkyDome, Michalak still feels rootless. "I've lived like a nomad
for so long, it's all I know," he says. "I don't know if I'll
ever feel comfortable in one place."
If he keeps pitching well, he may find out.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON