I live in a small upper Midwest metro area of about 130,000 people. It is located within a five-hour drive of major league ballparks in Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and both Chicago parks as well as several minor league ballparks. If you like to watch baseball, it’s an ideal place to live. Our area has fans from all of those teams, naturally, but the largest and most active group of fans in our area are those of the New York Yankees.
My friend, Charlie Aldrich, a promotor extraordinaire, is the ringleader of this group. The club numbers close to 50 and every year they put on a baseball card and autograph show where they bring in a former Yankee. In the past, they’ve brought in some big names from the past: Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Sparky Lyle, and Joe Pepitone, just to name a few. One year, they arranged for Mickey Rivers to appear, but alas Mick the Quick stiffed them. He never got on the airplane. This year’s guest was Steve Balboni, former Yankee and Royal great. Steve was generous enough to set down with me for an interview.
He doesn’t look much changed from his playing days, still sporting the iconic mustache. The first thing I noticed is the guy has huge hands. He also looks like he could still step onto the field and start smashing home runs.
Steve Balboni made his major league debut with the New York Yankees on April 22, 1981. The Yankees also had another good young first baseman in their system by the name of Mattingly, so it was inevitable that one of them was going to be traded. That turned out to be Balboni, who was sent to the Royals on December 8, 1983, in exchange for Duane Dewey and Mike Armstrong. The trade ended up being one of the best trades of the decade for Kansas City, as Balboni was the missing piece to the puzzle that eventually put the Royals on top.
Balboni played in Kansas City a little over four seasons and they were his best. In 566 games, he slashed .230/.294/.459 with 119 home runs and 318 RBI. He was paid to deliver power in the middle of the Royals lineup, and he did, averaging 29 home runs per year from 1984 through 1987. He picked up some MVP votes in 1984 and in 1985, the year he set the Royals club record for home runs with 36, a record that stood for more than three decades.
BL: When did you start playing baseball?
SB: I started playing when I was a youngster. I just loved it. I played as long as I could remember. I grew up in New Hampshire and Manchester, the town I grew up in was a big baseball town. I played Little League, Pony League, high school. The coach of Eckerd College, Bill Livesey, a small school in St. Petersburg, Florida, recruited a lot of players from New England and New Hampshire specifically, and I ended up going down there and had some success.
Editor’s note: Livesey had a great eye for talent, first transforming Eckerd into a small school power, then moving on to the New York Yankees, first as a scout, then later as director of scouting, where he helped them return to prominence with the selection and signings of Derek Jeter, Andy Petitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. Yankee GM Brian Cashman called Livesey “the architect behind the architect.”
BL: Were you the first big leaguer to come out of Eckerd?
SB: No, Joe LeFebvre (Yankees, Padres Phillies: 1980-86) made it before me.
BL: Being from New Hampshire, were you a Red Sox fan?
SB: Yes, a big Red Sox fan until I signed with the Yankees, then became a Red Sox hater. My family still rooted for the Red Sox, when they weren’t rooting for me.
BL: Did you play other sports in high school?
SB: I did. I played some football. My senior year, the track team was practicing inside, I picked up the shot put and threw it, and the coach said, “you’re going to throw the shot for us.” So, I did but baseball was always number one for me.
BL: Who gave you the nickname Bye Bye?
SB: That was my sophomore year at Eckerd. I was having a really good season and there was an article in the St. Petersburg Times, a great article, and the headline was “Bye Bye Balboni”. Later, the Yankees got ahold of that and when I was at AA Nashville the fans started using it and it stuck. When I started in New York, Phil Rizzuto started calling me “Bye Bye.”
BL: Tell us about your experience playing for the Yankees.
SB: Yeah, it was unbelievable. It was a great experience. I’ll never forget my first spring training, all the great players, Mickey Rivers, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent. I learned a lot. The Yankee organization was a winning organization. They stressed winning right from the start. Great coaches. It was a hard lineup to break into.
BL: Your first career hit with the Yankees was a triple, one of 11 you hit in your career. It came in your first at-bat. Tell us about that.
SB: Well, left-center field in the stadium was 430, anywhere else that was a home run, which would have been better. I hit it to the fence, I don’t know how I got a triple (laughter).
BL: You had one stolen base in your career.
BL: You were playing for the Royals; it came against the Yankees.
SB: It came against the Yankees (laughter). They didn’t hold me on. Speed wasn’t one of my assets. The Royals didn’t want me to walk. They wanted me to swing the bat and not clog up the bases.
BL: You played in the Pine Tar game for the Yankees. What went through your mind when you saw George lose his mind?
SB: The funny thing is we were in Kansas City before, maybe two weeks before the Pine Tar Game, and Billy Martin saw his bat. Billy was waiting for George to do something against us, then he said he would check the bat. We knew something was going to happen, we just didn’t know when. I didn’t know George at the time, but when he came out of the dugout, I thought he was going to hit the umpire. I thought, “the guy’s gone crazy, he’s going to hit him.” It was a crazy scene.
BL: You came to the Royals in 1983, which was a great trade for KC as you were the missing piece for them. Tell me about the trade.
SB: Yeah, it was bittersweet, I really didn’t want to leave the Yankees. That was hard, but Dick Howser was the manager in KC, and he was tremendous. He called me and said that I was going to be his first baseman. He gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. He was just a great guy to play for. Career-wise, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
BL: Ninth inning, Game Six, 1985 World Series. You’re in the on-deck circle when Jorge Orta beats out an infield grounder that changed the Series. What was going through your mind?
SB: The thing is, I thought he (Todd Worrell) came off the bag. We all thought he came off the bag. Now, when you can slow it down, you see that he was on the bag, but when it happened, all of us thought he came off the bag. We didn’t think it was a bad call until we saw it in the paper the next day (laughter). Things just kept going. I thought I was going to bunt. I looked in and they said swing away, and fortunately I got a hit and we ended up scoring two runs.
BL: First, you hit a fairly routine pop foul that dropped between Jack Clark and Darrell Porter.
SB: Yeah, the wind in Kansas City can be a little tricky. Clark probably thought that the ball was going into the dugout. Clark slowed down and it dropped, which was fortunate for me. The whole thing was kind of crazy. After my hit, we had runners at first and second, tried to bunt them over and that didn’t work. Then there was a wild pitch, which put us at second and third. They walked Hal (McRae) the Dane Iorg gets a hit and it’s over.
BL: Being a World Champion, how’d that feel?
SB: Oh, it’s the greatest feeling. You know playing in the World Series is fun, but you don’t realize it until it’s over, you’re so focused on each game. You’re exhausted at the end of it, but then you realize, wow, that was a lot of fun.
BL: Were you able to see any of the World Series games in New York in 2015?
SB: No, I was working for the Giants at the time. I was able to see some of the 2014 World Series and that was a little strange. I was working as a scout for the Giants and went to some of the games.
BL: You played for some great managers (Bob Lemon, Billy Martin, Dick Howser, among others). Who was your favorite?
SB: Dick Howser. He was so good to me; he was just a great guy and really great to me. He was an easy manager to play for.
BL: Tell us about Billy Martin.
SB: Billy was a smart guy. He always was ready for the situation. He always seemed to have the guy at the plate he wanted, or the pitcher on the mound that he wanted.
BL: What was it like playing with those ’85 Royals, Brett, White, McRae?
SB: Oh, it was great! We had such a great team. We had a really close team; we did a lot of things together. We’d go out and there’d be 15 of us. I’d never been on a team as close as we were. We thought ’84 was going to be a rebuilding year. They had kind of cleaned house, but our young pitchers came around and we thought, “wow, we’ve got something here.”. We made the playoffs in ’84 and in ’85, we still weren’t expected to win, there were probably three or four teams in the AL East that had a better record than we did but in the second half of the season, we were playing as well as anybody. Our young pitching was outstanding.
BL: You set the Royals club record for home runs with 36. The record lasted for 32 years. Let’s talk about that.
SB: Yeah, that was a good number at the time, especially with the balls they were using. And it was a big ballpark. When I first went there with the Yankees, I thought, this isn’t so bad, but when it’s cool, early in the year, late in the season, it gets tougher. It’s a big ballpark (Royals Stadium).
BL: Were you able to talk with Mike Moustakas after he broke the record?
SB: No, I sent him a message though. The Royals had me record a message to him and I think they played it on the board after he broke the record. I was surprised the record lasted as long as it did. I thought maybe Bo Jackson would break it.
BL: You hit your first career home run, May 13, 1982, in Oakland, off Tom Underwood. Tell us about that one.
SB: You always remember your first home run. I hadn’t faced Underwood before. I got a good pitch to hit and that was it. It’s always good to hit your first one (laughter). Oakland wasn’t an especially big ballpark, and the ball carries well there. The Yankees got the ball, wrote everything out on the ball. It was nice.
BL: The fans in Columbus (Clippers) and in Oklahoma City still love you. What was your favorite city to play in?
SB: (Long pause). I loved playing for New York, but Kansas City was my favorite. I wouldn’t necessarily want to live in New York, but I enjoyed playing there. The Yankees had this winning attitude and when I was traded, I thought I might lose that, but the Royals at the time also had that winning attitude, that we were going to win every time we went on the field.
BL: Tell us about your life after baseball.
SB: I took a few years off to spend with my kids. Helped coach my son’s high school baseball team during his senior season. I got back into coaching in the minors with KC and St. Louis. Then I went to work for the Giants for eleven years as a scout.
BL: What’s your thoughts on the game today?
SB: Not a big fan. It’s changed, the way the game is played. I love baseball more than anything, but a four-hour game is too much. The money’s different, the experience from when I came up is different.
Many thanks to Steve Balboni for his time and we wish him the best of luck.