KANSAS CITY — Big men don’t cry. That much you learn with your baseball milk. So I guess the idea of a 6-foot-3 home run hitter bawling is pretty much out of the question. Just the same, I keep visualizing Steve Balboni, all 225 pounds of him, returning to his hotel room after the game, stripping down to his undershirt, cuddling up with a bag of Doritos, and weeping.
It is not because he is sensitive, which he is. It is not because he speaks with all the volume of a monk, which he does. It is not because, without his cap, he looks like the “before” picture for a hair-weave ad.
No. It is because when I think of what I might do if I was my team’s top home run hitter and my bat suddenly turned to Silly Putty in the playoffs and World Series, crying shamelessly quickly comes to mind.
And that’s the great thing about Steve Balboni. You can put yourself in his shoes. True, they probably won’t fit, but that’s not the point. The point is, in a world of high-priced superstar athletes who get sly looks every time they sniffle, Balboni remains that rarest of animals — a Chevy among Jaguars. A Ritz cracker among caviar. He’s no dapper Dan
When the Royals arrived here for the American League playoffs, they cut neat figures entering the clubhouse. There was Willie Wilson in a jacket and tie, Dan Quisenberry in a wool vest and blazer, George Brett, Frank White, and Lonnie Smith all looking dapper.
And then along came Balboni, his forehead perspiring, shirt open three buttons, the hair from his chest poking out, looking like a drummer in a wedding band on a 10 minute break. He went right for the food table, scooped up a handful of potato chips, and waddled over to his locker, leaving a trail of nibbled crumbs.
Now I don’t know about you. But I like that kind of guy.
In fact, ever since that day, he has been my favorite player. Unfortunately, this has not helped his performance. In fact, after hitting 36 home runs in the regular season, he has done nothing but sink, going two-for-eight in the series with nothing bigger than a single and only one RBI. Now to empathize with Balboni is to agonize with Balboni.
(By the way, I think another reason he is so appealing is because he sounds like something you buy in a deli. “Gimme half- pound provolone, quarter-pound cole slaw, and a pound of balboni, OK?” But back to the point.)
The Royals all like Balboni. They also need him desperately now. With DH Hal McRae, the team’s second-best hitter, effectively erased by the rules, Balboni is the only Royal other than George Brett capable of hitting the long ball.
The Royals are mostly weak hitters. They have problems scoring runs. They have been called “George Brett and the 24 Dwarfs.” They need big hits. But Balboni’s bat — especially with men on base — has been even more silent than the man who swings it, which is awfully silent. This is a guy who got married and didn’t tell any of his teammates. “Why didn’t you tell us?” they asked afterward.
He said it never seemed like the right time. Balboni’s time running out
Eight games is nothing in the regular season. In post-season play, it’s an eternity. So when KC manager Dick Howser says it’s not fair to put pressure on Balboni to produce, in the back of his mind he knows time is running out.
Balboni is not happy with his play. “I’ve been terrible,” he says, his small voice a mismatch for his chunky body. “I haven’t been able to knock in runs. I’m leaving men on third base. I’m not doing good enough.”
When someone asked him why, with McRae out of the lineup, he wasn’t batting
cleanup, he answered, “I don’t deserve to.”
He does not lie.
You want to see Balboni do well. It’s rare you find a pro athlete anymore who could honestly just slip back into regular life with no transition time. I believe Balboni could do it. His family owns a car wash, and he has said that, without baseball, he’d probably be working there now.
Instead, he’s in a slump in the worst possible time, the World Series, trying to rediscover his old friend, the bat.
During the season, Balboni earned the nickname Bye-Bye for the way he knocked balls out of the park. Now people are invoking the name with different connotations. There are snickers when he comes to bat, boos when he strikes out. What can he do?
“It’s great to be in the World Series,” he says quietly, “but it’s not as great when you’re doing lousy.”
Big men don’t cry. They just keep swinging.