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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 fife."
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 pick-off 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.