Living in Moline, Illinois in the off-season puts Dakota Bacus in a league of his own. He is the only active professional baseball player in that town. Moline is on the extreme western side of the state along the Iowa border and 94 miles up US-61 to Dyersville, Iowa where the Field of Dreams was filmed. For Bacus, maybe his life is part Field of Dreams and part from The Rookie.
Bacus was the jock in Moline and Chelsy met Dakota from an adjoining town when they were 15-years old. It’s a small town and fortunate enough to have a baseball team in the high school that has to drive far to play their spring schedule. The pair dated into their college years doing the long distance thing until he was drafted by the Oakland A’s and the pair split up, but never lost touch. Then they got back together a few years later, and as things happen, Chelsy who coincidentally is a labor and delivery nurse, found out she would need a labor and delivery nurse herself. Yes, the couple was expecting. Nearly two years ago, Peyton was born, and Chelsy described her as daddy’s girl. While Peyton cannot grasp everything going on around her with her dad’s baseball career, it has been the talk of the town in Moline.
The city of Moline has a population of nearly 50,000 which would not have even filled up RFK Stadium to 100 percent. Moline is one of the Quad Cities, along with neighboring East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and the cities of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. John Deere is headquartered there and is by far the largest employer. Baseball executive Warren Giles lived in Moline, and Bacus is now the biggest name in town. Due to COVID, there were no viewing parties of Bacus’ debut. But plenty of people bought the MLB.TV package to watch Nats baseball like Bacus’ Uncle Jim who is on top of everything with the Nats. He was guessing along with me on text messages how manager Dave Martinez would go with his bullpen after Austin Voth was pulled in Atlanta.
For Chelsy and Peyton, they were in a hotel by the Nats’ Alternate Training Site when Dakota had to head off early for the group’s COVID test. Later on, Randy Knorr and pitching coach Brad Holman who were his manager and pitching coach at Fresno last year told him he was going to be called up. Bacus had waited years for those magic words.
“We were in a hotel in Fredericksburg for five days at the time,” Chelsy said. “He called and said, ‘Hey’ and I said ‘What’s up’ and he said, ‘I’m going to the big leagues’. I didn’t even have time to process it. I don’t even remember what else he said until he told me, ‘Start packing, love you bye.’ It really took a day to set in.”
Uncle Jim was a little more intuitive to figure it out without those words. He’s known Dakota since he was born.
“Dakota called me two times, and I didn’t accept his call because I was working,” Uncle Jim said. “He called again and I knew it in his voice, I said, ‘NO WAY!’ He said, ‘I’m going to the bigs’. I could hear the emotion in his voice. I told him I love him. I said, ‘Just be you. The slider got you there. That’s your money pitch.’ I wish I was there in-person to see it.”
So Chelsy packed up all of Peyton’s toys and they headed to D.C. where they got a hotel room but that would be Dakota’s temp home as Chelsey had to drive back to Moline because of work. Like everyone else, she also had to watch Dakota’s debut from afar instead of the family section in the stadium as every other Nats family member was able to do prior to COVID.
“We watched the debut from the hotel room in D.C.,” she said. “Appearance number two we listened on the radio on the drive back to Moline, and [Tuesday] night we watched it on TV from Moline. The plan is to take time off and drive back to D.C. in two weeks if the team allows it because of the whole COVID thing.”
The whole COVID thing has kept her out of the loop of getting to know the other player’s and coaches wives, girlfriends, and families. Her baseball connection only goes as far as some of the wives and girlfriends of players’ from the Fresno team, and Dakota’s closest two friends, Derek Self and Jordan Mills, were both released from the team. This only added to the stress level.
Of course this was also the end of the two-year Fresno deal, and nobody knows where the Nats Triple-A team will play next year. Bacus does know the business of baseball can be cruel as he spent nine seasons in the minors and signed back with the Nats as a minor league free agent. He has seen guys he came up with retire years earlier or with COVID just get released from baseball. His call to be part of the 60-player pool for the Nats was the closest he had ever been to making it until now. ‘Perseverance’ is an overused word — but it is the story of Bacus’ life as he never gave up. His future is as certain as his health, his stats, and the roster size which finally worked to his advantage this year with the permanent expansion to 28-players for 2020.
“I’m kind of the optimist and he is more of the realist,” Chelsy said. “I thought it was going to happen last year. He was doing so well so I thought it was going to happen last year. This year I thought it might happen because there were less players to choose from once he made the Fredericksburg team.”
While Bacus technically is a rookie, his age and receding hairline could confuse you. There are a dozen players on this team who are younger, and keep in mind, the Nats were the oldest team in the Majors last year. But there are rarely 29 year old rookies. He made his debut 231 days short of his 30th birthday. Friday will be a full week in the Majors, even though his first game was five games earlier due to the resumption of the suspended game that was moved from Nats Park on August 9th to Orioles Park at Camden Yards on August 14th. It is one of those baseball anomalies from 2020 that will be part of his story of how he went back in time. He pitched two perfect innings, with some weak contact, and his last out on a “3-1 ground-out” when Asdrubal Cabrera gave him a feed covering first base. In total, he has pitched in four games, but that first one was the one he will talk about for a long time!
“I really made it. I did!” Bacus said about his debut. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I really did it! … Getting that last out at first when Cabby threw me the ball, I looked in the glove, and I was like, ‘I think you did, man. Look at that.’ It’s kind of cool to be able to say I’m a big leaguer now.”
Bacus was even nervous about the drive from from the Alternate Training Site in Fredericksburg, Virginia to D.C. to catch the team bus to Baltimore. He and Chelsey were driving in two separate cars. That I-95 north traffic was heavy, and he did not want to miss the bus.
“I think I was more nervous on the drive up,” Bacus said. “I think the reason is we put so much pressure on a situation like that, and I think for me, it took me a long time to realize that it doesn’t matter where we are, what level, it’s still 60-feet, six inches.”
Baseball lives are measured in dog years, and Bacus now wants to be a permanent fixture in that Nats bullpen, and when the phone rings get up there for that 60′ 6″ from the pitching rubber to the plate. He wants to keep things simple on the field and off. Back when he was a kid and was being scouted, his Uncle Jim would talk to scouts, and he recalls the days when Tampa was still the Devil Rays when Dakota was in High School.
“They were talking about him being a second round draft pick,” Uncle Jim said. “Next step he did get drafted — but it was the ninth round. … Things finally worked out. It took time, and we had hoped it would have happened sooner. Dakota is in a good place now.”
In his place in baseball history, Bacus became the 19,779th player in Major League history. It is still an exclusive club that Bacus wants to be a part of for many years to call himself an active player. He wants his grandparents, Uncle Jim, Chelsey, and Peyton to all watch him at Nats Park. That is the next part of his dream since he did not get that in 2020.