From ND to MLB: Chris Michalak

Chris Michalak

It took 18 years with 13 organizations and 23 teams — 19 of them in the bush leagues — for Chris Michalak to get to this point. He stands at the center of the diamond on a sunny Jersey Shore afternoon and bobs his head to Hall and Oates coming out of the ballpark’s public address system.

His job is pitching coach of the Hagerstown Suns, the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, and his task at the moment is throwing batting practice to the Suns starters, including top prospect Bryce Harper. But Michalak just can’t help himself. In between pitches, he bounces to the music and sings along with the “Ooh-oos” in the chorus:

What I want you’ve got
And it might be hard to handle
Like the flame that burns the candle
The candle feeds the flame — yeah, yeah
What I’ve got’s full stock
Of thoughts and dreams that scatter
Then you pull them all together
And how I can’t explain
Oh, yeah
Well, well you
(Ooh-ho, hoo-ooh, ooh-oo)
You make my dreams come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)
Well, well, well you
(You-hoo, hoo-hoo-ooh)
Oh, yeah
You make my dreams come true
(You make my dreams)
Come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)

What’s clear after all these years and teams and towns and cities is that baseball is still fun — still a game — to Michalak. It almost has to be, after so many bus trips and minor league towns and hotels. But as Michalak throws to players literally half his age, guys who were born when he was in high school or on scholarship at Notre Dame, he can’t help but enjoy himself.

“I think I counted it up and I want to say that, out of the 50 states, I went to 36 of them, just from playing baseball,” Michalak said during an interview before the Suns faced the BlueClaws at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., last month. “Besides the U.S., I’ve been to Canada, the Dominican, Venezuela and over to Europe playing for Team USA. It was crazy when I realized all the places that I would have never seen if I wasn’t playing baseball.”

Now 40, Michalak has been playing or coaching baseball at the highest levels for more than half his life. He attended Joliet Catholic High School outside Chicago, a school that often has students enroll in college 100 miles east on I-80, among them a diminutive football player who went by the name of Rudy. Though it would seem natural that a three-sport star like Michalak would have his eye on playing for the Fighting Irish, he didn’t have Notre Dame in his sights, not at first.

“I had letters from Florida State, Stanford, Arizona State, [Texas] A&M,” he said. “And I got the one from Notre Dame, I got it and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really neat,’ but I didn’t send it in. Coach [Pat] Murphy called me and he said, ‘Chris, this is Coach Murphy, did you get our questionnaire?’ I was like, ‘Yeah Coach, I got your questionnaire.’ I’d love to come there, but there’s no way I could get in there academically.’ He said, ‘What are your grades?’ I was in honors classes, I had a straight-A average. But I just didn’t think, the prestige of Notre Dame, I can’t get in there. There’s no way I’m gonna get in there. I told him all my test scores and everything. And he goes, ‘Fill out the questionnaire. You’re not going to have a problem getting in here.'”

Michalak returned the questionnaire and, in the fall of ’88, visited South Bend for a football game.

“They had a Saturday night game,” he said. “They were opening up against Michigan. This was the year they won the national championship, so it was ’88. I went up there for the Michigan game and Pat Pezavento took me around campus. He was a Joliet Catholic guy from my area. I was amazed at how beautiful everything was and just the buzz that was going around. We got to run out onto the field with the football team for the pregame. They’re going their excercises and stuff. Was on the field when they got into the brawl in the tunnel with the guys from Michigan. Right then, I was like, this is the place I want to be.”

If that football game gave Michalak the idea that Notre Dame was the place for him, a baseball exhibition later that fall drove it home.

“They played Miami in football [that season]. I was able to go up there on Thursday night and watch them play an exhibition game against the baseball team,” Michalak recalled. “They played Thursday and Friday before the football game on Saturday. Alex Fernandez was at Miami. Miami was a national powerhouse at the time, and I watched Notre Dame just crush them, and it was awesome. Just awesome. I got an opportunity to go somewhere where I can get a great education and be part of a program that’s up and coming and be a part of something special. So it was really a no-brainer.

“I never took a trip anywhere else. I said I didn’t want to see anything else, this is the place for me. I ended up committing there and ended up going there. I never even took an official visit, because I had one set up and — I’m sure the people at Notre Dame will find this hard to believe — I was supposed to come up for a basketball weekend, and there was a blizzard, believe it or not. So the weather was bad and I never went up there.”

That team that crushed Miami in an exhibition went on to go 48-19-1 in 1989 and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1970. In Michalak’s four years, the Irish went 46-12 in ’90, 45-16 in ’91, 48-15 in ’92 and 46-16 in ’93, reaching the NCAA field in the last two years. In four seasons, Michalak went 34-13 with a 3.21 ERA, 12 saves and 263 strikeouts in 372 2/3 innings. He’s the first of three Irish pitchers, followed by Aaron Heilman and J.P. Gagne, to win 20 games and save 10 over the course of his college career.

Entering the 2011 season, Michalak’s seven career shutouts still ranked first in school history, tied with Jean Dubuc (who pitched for the Irish from 1907-08) and Frank Scanlan (1907-09). Michalak was also third in wins (34), fifth in saves (12), fifth in strikeouts (263) and second in appearances (92) entering this spring. His strong junior season — 10-5, three saves, 2.20 ERA, 118 2/3 innings, 64 strikeouts — still ranks second in innings (and most by a junior) and first for most innings without throwing a wild pitch. He capped that season by winning the Midwest Collegiate Conference Tournament MVP and all-MCC Tournament honors, as well as first-team all-MCC accolades.

In ’93, when he went 11-5 with three saves and 83 strikeouts in 117 1/3 innings, Michalak once again made the all-MCC first team and remains third in Notre Dame history in victories in a season, third in innings and third in complete games, with 10. He was also named to the NCAA East Regional all-regional team after the Irish went 3-2, losing in the final to Long Beach St. in Tallahassee, Fla.

The A’s drafted Michalak in the 15th round in 1992 after his junior year, but he returned to school and Oakland took him in the 12th round in ’93. He became one of four players drafted in that round to reach the Major Leagues; Todd Greene (Angels), Bryan Corey (Tigers) and Alex Cora (Twins) were the others.

Michalak began his professional career in the short-season Class A Northwest League with the Southern Oregon A’s, a team that has since moved to Vancouver, Canada, and remains an Oakland affiliate today, as the Vancouver Canadiens. Michalak started 1994 with the West Michigan Whitecaps in the full-season Class A Midwest League and, after 15 starts, moved up to the Class A Advanced Modesto A’s. His 1995 season began in Modesto and included seven games at Double-A Huntsville, and ’96 was split evenly between Modesto and Huntsville (21 games each).

That’s a lot of miles busing up and down the West Coast, around the Great Lakes and down South. And they weren’t without incident.

“In the Cal League, one of my many years there, we were heading back to Modesto,” Michalak said. “We were down in the southern part of the state, so it was a long bus ride back. We were in the middle of nowhere, it was the desert. The bus driver, she was pulling into the gas station. I’m not kidding you, from about here [in the third-base dugout] to first base [was the distance to get to the station], and it just dies. We’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ She’s like, ‘I ran out of gas.’ Everybody got out and we pushed it into the gas station.”

But a diesel bus can’t just be topped off and get back on the road. The fuel lines have to be cleared out and primed before the tank can be refilled and the engine restarted. It would be at least an hour.

1994 Topps Prospects

“We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,'” he said. “It’s smokin’ hot. The only thing that saved us — we look across the street and there’s an indian reservation, a casino. You saw 25 guys just walk straight across. There’s no cell phones or anything. We’re like, ‘Just call us — just come over and get us, come pick us up.’ About an hour later, we hear the honk. Guys cashed in their chips. I made about 200 bucks, so I didn’t care about the bus running out of gas.”

After four seasons in the Oakland organization, Michalak still hadn’t reached Triple-A, and the club released him after Spring Training in 1997 — the first of 20 periods of free agency in his career. A week later, he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a year before they would field a Major League team. Michalak spent the entire ’97 season back in the California League, Advanced Class A, with the High Desert Mavericks. He began the ’98 season in the Rangers’ system, on loan from the Diamondbacks, pitching 10 games for Double-A Tulsa. In May, he was back in the Arizona organization at Triple-A Tucson — the first time he’d be just a step away from the big leagues.

The call finally came in August 1998, when the Diamondbacks purchased the 27-year-old Michalak’s contract from Tucson. They were on an East Coast road trip, having just wrapped a series in Philadelphia and headed to New York. On Aug. 22, 1998, at Shea Stadium, the call to the bullpen came.

“It was crazy just warming up in the bullpen,” Michalak said. “Guys from Shea, the fans let me know how bad I was, how bad I was going to do. I went out there [to the mound], I threw my warmup pitches and I’m waiting for the ball to come in from the third baseman, and he runs in to me and hands me the ball and it’s Matt Williams. And he’s like, ‘You ready, kid?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ ‘Alright, here we go.’ I’m like, ‘God, that’s Matt Williams. He just handed me the ball. This is it.'”

It was the seventh inning with the Diamondbacks trailing, 8-4. The Mets had Nos. 5-7 in the batting order coming up: Brian McRae, Todd Hundley and Carlos Baerga.

“I had a 1-2-3 inning,” Michalak said. “I threw the first pitch, kinda on the outside corner where I wanted it, and the umpire called it a strike, and I was like, ‘Alright.’ Same thing I’ve been doing for a long time. It was awesome. It was incredible.”

McRae struck out swinging on four pitches and Hundley went down looking after working the count full. Baerga flied out to right. Michalak stayed on for the eighth, giving up a leadoff double to Rey Ordonez, followed by two groundouts — the second of which drove in Ordonez — and a flyout. Two innings, seven batters, one hit, one run and two strikeouts: Michalak had his first line in a box score. He pitched in four more games that season, all Diamondbacks losses, though he didn’t get a decision in any of them.

Released by Arizona in the offseason, Michalak signed with the Angels, beginning the 1999 season at Triple-A Edmonton. Released in June, he signed again with the Diamondbacks and finished out the season in Tucson. Granted free agency again at the end of the season, Michalak signed with the Devil Rays for the 2000 campaign but was released in May after six games at Triple-A Durham. The Dodgers were his next organization. After starting 35 games over his first two professional seasons, Michalak had made just 15 from 1995-99, and all of those had come in ’98 and ’99. The Dodgers put him back in the starting rotation and he won a career-high 11 games against three losses in 21 starts for Triple-A Albuquerque. That set him up for his best season as a pro.

“The season I had in 2000 with the Dodgers in Triple-A … carried over into 2001,” Michalak said. “I had a real good year in Albuquerque that year and then it just gave me the confidence. I always believed I could pitch at the big league level, but the success I had in 2000 gave me a lot of confidence. Then I went to winter ball and had a lot of success in the Dominican. I remember pitching that winter before the 2001 season, I was pitching in the Dominican, we were playing in the championship series. The lineup of the team we were playing against had Tony Batista at third, Miguel Tejada at short, Carlos Feebles at second, Raul Mondesi. I think Manny Ramirez was the DH. Juan Encarnacion and Luis Polonia in the lineup. And I beat them. And that just let me know that I could pitch at that level.”

Now 30 years old, Michalak went to Spring Training with the Blue Jays in 2001 with a shot to win the job as the team’s fifth starter to begin the season. Toronto had traded David Wells to the White Sox in the offseason, getting left-hander Mike Sirotka as part of the package and expecting the southpaw to be part of the rotation. But a torn labrum not only kept Sirotka out of Toronto’s rotation in ’01, he never pitched again. So there was an opening behind Esteban Loaiza, Steve Parris, Joey Hamilton and Chris Carpenter (the future NL Cy Young Award winner for the Cardinals). As the exhibition season went on, Michalak started to separate himself from his main competition.

“The funny thing is the guy I was competing against was Roy Halladay,” Michalak said, grinning at the memory. “They kept giving me the ball and I kept getting the job done. At the time, Roy threw straight over the top and scuffled a little bit in Spring Training and they sent him all the way back down to extended spring and changed his arm angle, and I think that’s turned out pretty good for him.”

Michalak laughed. “He’s winning Cy Youngs and throwing no-hitters and I’m in Hagerstown being the pitching coach.”

By March 27, the Blue Jays had made their decision. First-year manager Buck Martinez sent pitching coach Mark Connor to get Michalak.

“He calls me in and he says, ‘Hey we need to talk to you,'” Michalak recalled. “And as we’re walking, he mumbles under his breath, he goes, ‘Man, I hate this part. This stinks.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god. No way. This isn’t going to happen to me again.’ Everybody’s telling me, ‘Hey you’re going to make the team.’ I beat the Yankees, did all this stuff in Spring Training. So we go into Buck’s office and they’re both sitting there. Buck starts on this spiel. He goes, ‘Chris you’ve had a great spring and we can’t say enough about what you did. But I’m sure you’ve heard about the rumors that we’ve been trying to trade for another starter. That’s how the game of baseball is, we’re always trying to improve. We’re trying to make that trade for that fifth starter.’

“And he goes, ‘Unfortunately’ — and he paused — ‘Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get a fifth starter, so you’re gonna have to start for us against the Yankees.’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ I said a couple things you probably can’t print, and everybody was laughing. It was the old, We’re going to mess with you a little bit. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Don’t do that to me.’ They were laughing. After that, I don’t even know what happened. I couldn’t remember. It was an awesome day.”

The Blue Jays opened the season on Sunday, April 1, with a win against the Rangers in Puerto Rico. After taking Monday off, they played a three-game set at Tampa Bay, losing the first but taking the next two to open the season 3-1. Loaiza, Parris, Hamilton and Carpenter started the first four, but because of the off-day between Puerto Rico and Tampa Bay, Martinez elected to keep Loaiza on regular rest, handing him the ball for the fifth game, the series opener at Yankee Stadium. On the hill for New York was a young right-hander out of Notre Dame making his Major League debut: Christian Parker. Michalak got the start the next afternoon, missing a matchup of former Domers by a day.

Much like Irish football coach Brian Kelly would do nearly 10 years later, Michalak made sure to take in Yankee Stadium the day before he was scheduled to pitch, to get over any mystique and aura (as his former Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling might have put it) about the ballpark.

“The day before, Friday, the first night in, I went out and checked out the monuments and all that stuff,” Michalak said. “I wanted to get all of that, the awe of being in Yankee Stadium, kind of out of my system. Just made myself comfortable with the surroundings and stuff.”

Getting comfortable was the goal again the next afternoon.

“I tried to keep everything just as normal as I possibly could,” he said. “I ended up taking the subway in, whatever train it is. I took that, dropped me off right at the park, walked in and went through all my pregame stuff and ended up watching ‘Rudy’ in the clubhouse that day before the game. It just happened to be there, and I put it on, and all the guys ended up watching it with me.”

“Rudy” may have put Michalak in the right state of mind to go out and play the part of David to the Yankees’ Goliath. The Bronx Bombers were coming off their third World Series title in four seasons and had a lineup of stars.

“Once I got into the bullpen — same thing there — the fans are hanging over watching you,” Michalak said. “I just tried to make it as simple as possible. My biggest thing was, I was saying to myself, ‘Alright, whatever you do, your first pitch, get it to the catcher. Don’t bounce it, and don’t throw it over his head.’ I just tried to make it as simple as I could. I started out easy. I wasn’t trying to light up the world. I was just trying to make it basic, and then I got into the rhythm of the bullpen. And then I kept the same thing when I went out for my warmup pitches: If I can just get it to the catcher, then we’ll be OK. And I did that.

“And then the first hitter, I think I faced Knoblauch, Jeter and I think maybe O’Neill was batting third. And I had a 1-2-3 inning. And then after that, it was just like, ‘OK. Here we go. Let’s go and do it.’ And Billy Koch got the save, and just running out on the field, I couldn’t believe it. It made everything that I had gone through, all the miles all the sacrifices that my wife made for me at the time, it just made everything worthwhile.”

Knoblauch popped out to second base and Jeter and O’Neill went down swinging. Michalak pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing no runs on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts. Toronto scored three times off New York starter Orlando Hernandez, and that was enough. Michalak was 1-0 as a Major League starter.

On June 17 that season, the Blue Jays were in Montreal for an Interleague series against the Expos. Michalak laid down sacrifice bunts in his first two plate appearances, then came up in the seventh with two outs, nobody on base and the Blue Jays leading, 1-0. He fell into a 1-2 hole against Tony Armas Jr.

“He threw a slider right into my bat,” Michalak said. “I hit it to right-center field and the center fielder dove, but it got by him and went to the wall. This was at old Olympic Stadium, and the funny thing was, when I rounded second, I had one foot on the dirt and one on the carpet, and my spike got caught. So from second almost all the way to third, it’s like I’m running downhill. My arms are flailing and I’m trying not to fall down. I caught my balance and got to third and everyone’s dying in the dugout because I looked like an idiot trying to get to third.”

It was the first time in Major League history that a pitcher had tripled in his first official at-bat, and the first triple by a Toronto Blue Jays hurler. But then leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart came to the plate unaware of his responsibility to help Michalak catch his breath by taking a few pitches. Stewart flied out on the first offering.

“I was still winded and I had to go back out there, so of course I go out and give up a run,” Michalak said. On the second pitch of the inning, Milton Bradley tripled. After a walk to Rob Ducey, Mike Mordecai lifted a sacrifice fly to center to score Bradley. Michalak got out of the inning by getting Jose Vidro to ground into a double play. “The guys were upset with Shannon, saying, ‘He’s got to give you time to catch your breath.'”

After winning his first three starts and five of his first eight decisions through May, Michalak went more than a month — from May 26 to July 8 — between victories. After losing three of his four starts from June 28-July 15, he was moved to the bullpen. Six appearances and 11 runs later, the Rangers claimed him off waivers. In 11 appearances with Texas, Michalak went 2-2 and picked up his only career save.

The 2001 season turned out to be the only one of Michalak’s 18 summers spent entirely in the Major Leagues. He began 2002 with Texas, pitching in 13 games for the Rangers and one for their Triple-A affilliate in Oklahoma City before being released at the end of May. He signed on with the Red Sox, pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket to finish out the ’02 campaign. From 2003-05, he bounced from Louisville to Colorado Springs to Indianapolis to Albuquerque to Tucson, the Triple-A farm clubs of the Reds, Rockies, Brewers and Marlins.

In February 2006, Michalak signed again with the Reds just as Spring Training began. After going 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA over 22 starts with Louisville, he returned to the Majors at the age of 35. On Aug. 12, he came on in relief in the second inning at Philadelphia after Elizardo Ramirez allowed five runs. Michalak went 6 1/3, allowing one run on three hits to earn the victory. He pitched in seven more games, starting six of them. He went just 1-4, getting through five innings only once.

All of 2007 was spent at Triple-A Columbus in the Nationals’ system, and 2008 saw return engagements with the Reds (signed Jan. 4, released March 28), Rangers (signed March 30, released May 25), Marlins (signed May 30, released July 29) and A’s (signed Aug. 1, not re-signed after the season).

Thirty-eight years old when Spring Training began in 2009, Michalak was still looking to pitch, but no one was looking at him for even a role as a situational left-hander out of the bullpen — no “LOOGYing” for him.

Instruction“I was having trouble getting a job pitching, and the Blue Jays called me and said, ‘Hey we know you still want to pitch and everything, but we need a Gulf Coast League pitching coach here at extended [spring training],” Michalak said. “He had to go home because of an illness in the famly. They said you can come out here, keep pitching, we’ll let you pitch, but you still have to do some of the pitching coach’s duties.”

Michalak signed a minor league deal with the understanding that if another organization called looking to bring him on as a full-time pitcher, Toronto would let him out of his contract. When the season started, Michalak appeared in two games for Triple-A Las Vegas as an emergency fill-in, then returned to Dunedin, Fla., where the Blue Jays’ training camp is located, along with their Class A Advanced affiliate in the Florida State League. After a couple of appearances for Dunedin, Michalak was shifted over to extended spring training to work with the most raw of Toronto prospects.

After the draft in early June, the Blue Jays asked for a decision.

“The Blue Jays said, ‘Hey we need to know, if you want to keep pitching, you’re going to have to go do it on your own, or you can take over the pitching coach job,'” Michalak said. “At the time, it was a no-brainer. I got two kids and a wife to think about. I’m like, ‘I’ll be the pitching coach.’ I was very fortunate. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity and I enjoyed doing it.”

After the 2009 season, the Blue Jays made the same offer of a pitching coach position in the organization, but if Michalak wanted to keep pitching, he’d have to do it on his own with another franchise.

“I had called the Nationals and asked them if they needed [a pitcher],” Michalak said. “I still wanted to pitch. And they said, ‘No, but we have some openings as a pitching coach.’ I was getting a lot more calls for a pitching coach than I was for being a pitcher, so I kind of saw the writing on the wall.”

He took the job with the Nationals, who slotted him with their Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md.

“It just seemed like this was a better fit for me at this time,” he said. “So I was excited to be here, I had known a lot of people in the organization from the time that I played here. It just seemed like they were going — nothing against the Blue Jays or anything like that — that this was going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of it, and it’s been fun.”

Chris Michalak autograph And that’s where Michalak is today, transitioning from a pitcher to a pitching coach as seamlessly as he did from Joliet Catholic to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to the A’s organization. Including summer collegiate leagues like the Cape Cod League, where Michalak pitched for Chatham in 1991, it’s been 20 years or more since there wasn’t a ballpark to go to and a uniform to put on.

“There’s teams I played for that aren’t even around anymore,” Michalak marveled. “Southern Oregon doesn’t have a team anymore. For a while, Tucson didn’t have a team. I played for 13 different organizations. In my attic, I’ve got a pro shop. I could open up my own store. The Diamondbacks don’t even have the same colors, and when I was with the Devil Rays, they’re the Rays now. I’m getting pretty old.”

He laughed, then continued.

“I have my jerseys, the ones that I was fortunate enough to get to the big leagues with, I’ve got all the jerseys and they’re actually hanging in my son’s room. I’ve been very fortunate. Seen a lot of stuff.”

And he continues to see it, in Hagerstown and Lakewood and Rome, Ga., and Asheville, N.C., and Charleston — both in South Carolina and West Virginia — and points in between.

“Every town that I go to, I enjoy, because I’ll meet somebody,” he said. “A lot of times I go somewhere, I’ll meet somebody from Notre Dame, and that’s cool. I made a lot of great friends through Notre Dame that I still keep in touch with that have supported me and helped me along the way.”

And Michalak has no doubt helped countless players during his long journey, both his teammates and his charges, whether it’s watching that night’s starting pitcher warm up in the bullpen down the third-base line or firing fastballs to the hitters in between choruses of “Hoo-oohs” and “You-hoos” with Hall and Oates.

On a night when bad dreams become a screamer
When they’re messin’ with the dreamer
I can laugh it in the face
Twist and shout my way out
And wrap yourself around me
‘Cos I ain’t the way you found me
And I’ll never be the same
Oh, yeah
Well, ‘cos you
(Ooh-ho, hoo-ooh, ooh-oo)
You make my dreams come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)
Well, well, well you
(You-hoo, hoo-hoo-ooh)
You make my dreams come true
(You make my dreams)
Come true
(You-hoo, you, you-hoo, hoo, you, hoo)

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