What's in store for the victim of No. 756? Ask these guys

Soon there will be another name on the list right next to Downing, Branca, Eckersley, Williams, Trachsel, Darcy, Terry, Stallard and many more. It is the list of pitchers who gave up famous home runs, from record breakers to pennant-winning blasts to those that ended the World Series. Many on the list were (or are) good pitchers, yet their careers, even their lives, were changed forever perhaps by missing a spot, and making the wrong kind of history.

Soon, a pitcher will give up home run No. 756 to Barry Bonds. Afterward, that pitcher should speak to Al Downing, who, 33 years ago at age 32, gave up No. 715 to Hank Aaron.

"You're going to differentiate in your story, aren't you?" Downing said, smiling. "For some of us, it was inevitable. Someone was going to give it up."

Downing, who understands his place in history, will not let 715 define his career or his life. He went 123-107 with a 3.22 ERA in his 17-year career. He won 20 games for the Dodgers in 1971. He was a good pitcher. He wasn't just the man who gave up the homer to Hank Aaron.

"How many times have I seen it? I get whiplash," Downing said, laughing. "Every time I see it, I see my head turn to the right real fast. I get asked about it all the time. I told a writer, 'Why do you want to talk to me? You know, Hank hit 40 more home runs after that one. Why don't you go talk to all those pitchers?' But I don't mind. Anyone who understands the essence of the game knows that you're going to get hit. This is not Little League."

Downing says he knows that he'll be seeing that home run, and hearing about it, now more than ever.

"I just roll with it," he said. "I hear it every time I meet someone for the first time. People say, 'Oh, you're the guy who gave up No. 715.' That's how some people introduce me. I say, 'Why does that have to be the topic of conversation?' I've spoken to Ralph Branca many times when he was in Dodgers spring training. It never came up. Anyone who plays professional sports knows there are going to be lots of ups and downs. I've had to climb a lot of mountains, and I've been to the top of the mountains. I wish it hadn't happened, but if it hadn't, I never would have experienced it."

What advice would Downing give a pitcher facing Bonds when he's at 755?

"I'd tell the manager to let the pitcher pitch," he said. "I'm afraid they're going to walk him up by eight runs."

Downing had no intention of walking Aaron that April night in Atlanta.

"I'm not bitter about it," he said. "I've given up hits that had more of an effect because they had an effect on the outcome of the team. That hit didn't. I have friends of mine who say, 'you should play it up.' But no athlete wants to brag about something like that because he wasn't the one who set the record. It's like when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points. That poor guy Darrell Imhoff's name comes up every time when the 100 is discussed. But I remember Imhoff for going to Cal-Berkeley. I remember him as a good basketball player."

Ralph Branca was a good pitcher. He went 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA in his 13-year career. At age 21, he won 21 games for the Dodgers in 1947. In 1951, he won 13 games, completed 13 and had a 3.26 ERA. In the final game of a three-game playoff against the hated Giants, Branca gave up a three-run home run in the ninth inning to Bobby Thomson, erasing a 4-2 lead, and sending the Giants to the World Series. It was arguably the most famous home run ever: "The Shot Heard 'Round The World." Thomson rounding the bases is one of the greatest scenes in baseball history and Branca, wearing No. 13, head down, is one of the saddest. He is willing to talk about it 56 years later. He couldn't be more gracious.

"If I had my druthers, I would have gotten him out." Branca said. "But there was nothing I could do about it. I haven't dwelled on it. It was the hand I was dealt. I'm not a crybaby; I'm not going to cry about it. It is what it is. You go forth. You want to go on [and] live your life."

Branca says he is asked about it: "not daily, not weekly, maybe a couple of times a month. Early on, in the '60s and '70s, it was a little tough. We played an old-timers game on the 25th anniversary. That was tough. But time heals all wounds. I'm taking the high road. Bobby Thomson is a nice guy. We're friends. We've never dwelled on it. We've never talked about the pitch."

But now, Branca will talk about the controversy from the 1951 season.

"They [the Giants] had an edge," he said. "In '54, we knew they were cheating. That really made me angry. They had a telescope hooked up. They had a buzzer system. That made me angry. If it [stealing signs] is on the field, it's part of the game. If it's not, it's not part of the game. They had it [sign stealing] in Cleveland and Chicago, and I heard they did it in Kansas City, but no one hooked up a buzzer system that can't be detected. That made me angry. But I took the high road until the Wall Street Journal story came out Jan. 31, 2001. After that, I loosened my tongue. I could talk about it. They [the Giants] went 37-7 down the stretch to win the pennant. No one goes 37-7 down the stretch, not even the '27 Yankees. It's the most despicable act that I've seen in the game."

Branca pitched only five more years after that homer, winning 13 games. That was more than Phillies reliever Mitch Williams did after he gave up the game-winning home run in the ninth inning to Toronto's Joe Carter in Game 6, ending the 1993 World Series. Williams was traded after that World Series to the Astros. He pitched three seasons for three different teams, a total of 52 games, a total of six saves, 37 fewer than he had in the 1993 season. But no one handled the adversity -- then and now -- better than Mitch Williams.

"I've said it a thousand times, whether it's a spring training game, a regular-season game or a World Series game, I hate to lose; I don't care," Williams said. "But it was another game. Yes, it was a World Series game, but it's not more important. I said it after the game, and I say it now: No one died. I just got beat. It wasn't the first time, and damn sure not the last."

Was it hard to get past?

"That part was easy," Williams said. "The hard part was getting traded. I was 43-for-49 in saves. It was my best year, and then I got traded. When I left Philly, I knew I was mentally done. I knew it would never be the same. It was the first time I'd heard [Phillies manager Jim] Fregosi say what he said. I thought I was traded because Philly would not accept me, but Fregosi said recently that my best years were behind me. That's a different school of thought. That really confused me. I know my velocity was horrible at the end, but ..."

How often does he hear about the Carter home run?

"Every day, someone says something; every day," Williams said. "That's a forever deal. I have no problem at all with it." But it hasn't changed Mitch Williams. "Oh God, no," he said. "Ask Krukie [John Kruk, a former teammate, and current analyst on ESPN]. He'll tell you I'm the same irritating SOB that I've always been. I've said before that if you play the game, someday you're going to get beat on the grandest stage, and I did."

Dennis Eckersley's stage wasn't quite as big. Yes, it was the World Series, but it was only Game 1. Sadly, for his Oakland A's, the 1988 World Series turned in favor of the Dodgers, and never turned back, when Eckersley gave up a game-winning home run to pinch hitter Kirk Gibson, whose hamstring was so injured, he could barely walk to the plate. Eckersley called that homer "a walk-off," and since then, all such homers have been called walk-offs.

"All the time, no big deal," Eckersley said when asked how often he's asked about it. "After a while, it loses its sting, but for chrissakes, it's been 20 years. It's an assumption that people make when they see me. It doesn't matter if they like me or not, people can't help but ask."

Eckersley says he has seen the highlight too many times, but he's used to it now. "They came out with that MasterCard commercial; they play that all the time," he said. " I really get it at World Series time. I see it as much now as I ever did. It's like a ritual."

Eckersley was a very good reliever at the time of Gibson's homer, but after it, he became a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the most efficient closer in major league history: In 1989-90, he had more saves than base runners allowed. In 1992, he won the American League Cy Young.

"I was lucky; it happened early on in my [second] career," he said. "I was in the process of reinventing myself. I was in such a grateful mode of my life. That really helped. From where I came from, that homer was no big deal. I got by. I was sober. (Eckersley had had a drinking problem, which he was in the process of beating.) That was more important to me."

Eckersley hasn't interacted much with Gibson since the home run. He didn't interact much with him before.

"I've done a couple of card shows with him; I've done a couple of interviews with him where we have to relive how great he is," Eckersley said. "That's sickening."

Eckersley's home run likely will never be forgotten. Slowly, Steve Trachsel's place in history has diminished. In 1998, he gave up the 62nd home run to Mark McGwire, breaking Roger Maris' record for home runs in a season.

"I think it was the shortest big home run ever," Trachsel said, laughing, of the line-drive homer that barely cleared the left-field fence down the line at Busch Stadium. "I think it's the shortest one Mark ever hit."

But the notoriety for Trachsel lasted a long time. "For three years, it was pretty much every day, every few days," he said "It has kind of died down, especially since Barry [Bonds] did it, too. And he [McGwire] hit eight homers more that year. It wasn't like he finished with 62."

Trachsel is still pitching effectively in the major leagues, this year, for the Orioles. He has won 77 games since McGwire's home run.

"People ask me about it," Trachsel said. "Was I happy that I did it, or unhappy that I did it? Does it bother me? Did I throw him something so he could do it? But it didn't affect me in any way. After that game, a week and a half later, I pitched the game that got us into the playoffs."

It has been almost nine years since he gave it up. "I don't have to see it every day of the week like I used to" he said. "I saw it on 'The Best Damn Sports Show'; they had their countdown of top 50 home runs, or something like that, and it was No. 22. It definitely could have been worse."

It will be worse for the next guy on the list, the guy who gives up No. 756 to Barry Bonds.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Is This a Great Game, Or What?" has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. In addition, click here to subscribe to The Magazine.