While we're playing the I-70 Series against those rascals across the state, let's revisit one of the heroes of the 1985 World Series, #49 on our list - Steve Balboni.
Steve Balboni was a fan favorite in a kitschy sort of way. He was fat and bald with a sweet mustache and he bore a strong resemblance to Dennis Franz. He looked like he belonged on the Pro Bowlers' Tour rather than on a Major League Baseball team. He hit a lot of home runs and struck out a lot with his "all-or-nothing" approach to hitting. That approach earned him the nickname "Bye-Bye Balboni" for all the home runs he hit. He was the first baseman for the only championship team in Royals history, and that season he set a franchise record for home runs in a season that still stands to this day.
Steve Balboni hailed from New Hampshire and played ball at Eckerd College in Florida. After making the Sporting News All-American Team, he was taken in the second round of the 1978 draft by the mighty Yankees. He hit just one home run in 62 games in his first pro season. Then Balboni decided to turn the power ON!
He hit a league high twenty-six home runs the nest season in A ball, striking out a magnificent 152 times and winning league MVP. He was even better the next season in AA, hitting thirty-two home runs, again a league high, while hitting .301 and again winning league MVP. In 1981, he smacked a league leading thirty-three home runs in AAA Columbus, while making his Major League debut in a handful of games for the Bronx Bombers.
Balboni continued to mash in Columbus, hitting fifty-nine home runs over the next two seasons, again leading the league in home runs each season. He would shuttle in-between Columbus and New York, playing sparingly for the Yanks and showing he had difficulty hitting Major League breaking balls.
Several teams inquired about Balboni at the 1983 Winter Meetings. He was blocked in New York at first base by Ken Griffey and Don Mattingly. The Royals had an opening at first, as they intended to deal Willie Aikens, recently convicted of drug charges. They wanted to inject some power into the lineup as well, as they finished twelfth in the league in home runs in 1983. On December 8, the Royals acquired Balboni and pitcher Roger Erickson for pitcher Mike Armstrong and Duane Dewey.
''It was a very difficult decision. We would have liked to see his power work in New York. But we have three other people who can play first base, and we were never sure he could reproduce those minor league statistics.''
-Yankees General Manager Murray Cook
The Royals immediately named Balboni their starting first baseman. In the first series of the season, Balboni cracked a three run home run against his old team as the Royals whipped the Yanks 15-4.
''One thing they do here that they didn't do in New York is that someone talks to you. They talk to you and let you know how things are. [Manager Dick Howser] told me at first I wasn't going to be platooning, then things got real bad and he explained that he had to platoon. I was going bad and so were a lot of the right-handed hitters. He had to do something to try to score some runs. But at least I kept playing part of the time while I was in my slump. I don't think I would've gotten that chance with the Yankees.''
The burly first baseman hit a lot of home runs, but he also struck out a lot. He became the second big leaguer ever to strike out in nine consecutive plate appearances. He would end up finishing third in the league in strikeouts with 139. He was clutch down the stretch for the Royals that year, hitting .329 and slugging .659 in September with seven home runs and twenty RBI as the surprisingly good Royals fought off the Angels and Twins to win the division.
"I've always struck out a lot and I'm not going to change anything. I don't know exactly how many (homers) I've hit this year with two strikes, but there's been quite a few."
Balboni would go 1-11 in the ALCS against Detroit as the Tigers overwhelmed the young upstart Royals. Balboni finished the year with a team high twenty-eight home runs. Only John Mayberry had hit more home runs in a season for the Royals. Even more impressive was how well Balboni hit despite playing half his games in spacious Royals Stadium. Balboni hit just .216 with ten home runs at home, but .273 with eighteen home runs and a .579 slugging percentage on the road. Overall he hit just .244, but slugged .498 and finished nineteenth in MVP balloting.
Going into 1985, the Royals felt they had a strong ballclub as defending AL West champs with a strong pitching nucleus. On the offensive side, the club was counting on a healthy George Brett and a slugging Steve Balboni to drive in runs. Balboni got off to a great start, collecting hits in thirteen of his first fourteen games, including four home runs. On April 30, he cracked a grand slam that proved to be the difference in a 5-1 win over Chicago. In July he went on a tear, homering in six out of seven games, hitting .296 for the month while slugging .612.
"Steve strikes out a lot, I know, and he always has. I'm always getting people telling me I ought to rest him against certain pitchers. But the thing about Balboni is that he never lets the strikeouts bother him. That's what he does best - hit home runs and drive in runs. I've stayed with him. I know that if I do, at the end of the season his numbers will be there."
-Royals Manager Dick Howser
"Steve Balboni's home run is making another orbit."
-Tigers third baseman Tom Brookens, after the deafening sound of a Lear Jet passed by
The Royals engaged in a tough pennant race with the California Angels that September. Balboni did not fade under pressure, slamming nine home runs and driving in seventeen over September and October. He hit a grand slam in a 5-1 win over Minnesota, and hit the game-tying home run the next night in a 6-5 win that tied the single-season franchise record for home runs. On the last weekend of the season, the Royals clinched their second consecutive division title. Balboni would add two more home runs to set a new franchise record with thirty-six home runs. He hit just .243 and struck out a league high 166 times, but his home runs were third in the league and he finished nineteenth in MVP balloting.
"He's the most unpredictable hitter I've ever seen. There's no way to tell if he's in a slump. He swings so aggressively that anytime he gets it airborne it has a chance to go out. He's knocked in a whole lot of key runs for us."
Balboni struggled mightily in the ALCS against Toronto, going 3-25 with no extra-base hits. He fared much better in the World Series, hitting 8-25 with five walks. His single in the ninth inning Game Six helped kick start the rally that would result in Dane Iorg's pinch hit single to stave off elimination. The Royals would go on to become World Champs and the spotlight on the national stage made Balboni a cult folk hero.
"The truth is, I root for Balboni...It's a personal thing: He's bald, I'm bald. (No doubt about it, Vinny, the last baseball player who got me this excited was Joe Garagiola.) In his baseball cap, he looks like Mike Stivic, the Meathead. I always liked that show. As shy as he is, he still seems like a nice, gentle man. Reggie Jackson says affectionately that Balboni is one of the softest, sweetest players in the game."
-Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post
"How can you not like him? Or not root for him? A guy who would boo Steve Balboni would stone Santa Claus."
-Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times
Balboni's numbers would dip a bit in 1986. He would hit just .229 with a team high 29 home runs and 88 RBI despite battling back injuries. The Royals distracted by injuries to star George Brett and the diagnosis of brain cancer for manager Dick Howser, suffered a 76-86 season.
In 1987, the Royals offered Balboni a severe pay-cut from $450,000 guaranteed to a $100,000 base salary plus incentives to guard against Balboni's recurring back problems. Balboni struggled mightily to begin the season, suffering an 0-31 slump that would lower his average to .143 in May. He could not lift his average above .200 until June, and spent much of the season hovering above the Mendoza Line. He was benched much of July, and spent the last half of the year at designated hitter, so George Brett could move to first to make way for rookie Kevin Seitzer. Balboni voiced his displeasure and attracted criticism for being self-centered.
"You don't want to go up there and strike out or make outs, but no matter what I do, it won't make any difference in this season. "Nothing will ever change that. The fun's all gone for me. It just doesn't mean the same. This is a situation where you just have to look out for yourself because they sure won't look out for you. They've pushed me into a situation where nothing else really matters. "You can have a little personal satisfaction, but that's about it. You can't get involved in the team concept. That's not right, but that's what they've done to me. If I had known in advance what would happen (this year), I never would have come back. It was a mistake. It won't happen again."
Balboni would end the year hitting just .207 with 24 home runs. He asked the Royals to let him go and the team was all too willing to comply. Balboni found no interest from other clubs that winter, and went as far as contacting clubs himself to find a job. The Royals were passed over by sluggers Don Baylor and Carlton Fisk, leaving them with a void in their lineup. In the end, Balboni and the Royals needed each other. Despite being unhappy with the pay and the role as a part-time player, Balboni returned to Kansas City.
"I don't have much choice. Sometimes you have to go backward a little bit in order to go forward."
Balboni was the team's opening day first baseman in 1988, but played sparingly after that. He appeared in just 21 games, hitting .143 when the Royals released him just before Memorial Day weekend. He signed the next week with the Seattle Mariners.
"It's kind of tough when no one wants you. I was real happy Seattle wanted me. But they were the only ones."
Balboni would hit .251 in 97 games with the Mariners, slamming 21 home runs. That winter they dealt him back to the Yankees where he spent the next two seasons as a bench player, hitting seventeen home runs each season. He then spent the next three seasons in Oklahoma City, the top affiliate of the Texas Rangers. After a cup of coffee in 1993, Balboni finally retired at the age of 36.
Balboni spent some time in the Royals organization as a coach, before joining the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals. Today, he is a private hitting instructor with his own website.
Twenty-two seasons have passed since Balboni hit thirty-six home runs in a season, and not a single Royal has surpassed his total. Rany Jazareyli has written about "The Curse of Balboni", a theory in which the magical barrier of thirty-six home runs prevents a team from winning it all unless their top hitter has less home runs than Balboni hit in 1985. Although that curse was broken in 2001, the Royals home run record still stands.
Fewest Home Runs to Set a Franchise Single-Season Record
1. Steve Balboni, 1985, Kansas City Royals - 36
2. Gary Sheffield, 1996, Florida Marlins - 42
3. Gorman Thomas, 1979; Richie Sexson 2001 and 2003, Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers - 45
4. Alfonso Soriano, 2006, Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals- 46
"I'm surprised it's been around this long, especially the way guys are hitting home runs now. Unfortunately, it's not saying a lot about the power the Royals have had. I mean, gosh, 36 homers are not very much nowadays."