Forgotten Player of the Moment – STEVE BALBONI
(by ED AGNER)
I was going to do a review of the AAA All Star game but I missed the first 6-7 innings and the 7,000 year old tape I used to record the game shredded into sad little bits that were cursed and punched and kicked and screamed at – and all that BEFORE my ham-fisted attempts at fixing the tape proved about as fruitful as expected. Stupid lack of any discernible skills or abilities.
My lack of any sort of valuable and/or transferable skills aside, the whole point in me reviewing the AAA All Star game was to celebrate my strange love for minor league baseball – AAA baseball, specifically; the Columbus Clippers, to be exact. Why the strange love for a stranger thing? I had never really given much thought to before, to be honest. It was just there despite myself.
But I see now that minor league baseball is beautiful – far more beautiful than its big brother, the majors – in that it’s…so…funky. Yeah. I reckon that’s the best little catch-all description, maybe.
See, to survive, the minor leagues have to provide a little bit of everything AND it has to do it all on the super-duper cheap – which, for most, the latter is the biggest selling point. There’s your wholesome yuck-a-licious and hackneyed family events and attractions like the frickin’ San Diego Chicken at every other game, or a piddly 5 minute post-game fireworks display (that, of course, looks like a display of sparklers an 8 year-old would be too ashamed to mess with in comparison to the fireworks displays your redneck neighbors drunkenly put on while blowing off another finger in celebration of ‘Merican Indeeeependence), or birthday party-level games with mutant-like mascots (who always look deformed and scary – thanks, in large part, to a season of abuse from drunken fans – like a throw-away Kroft acid-visions that even they couldn’t figure out how to make a show of, making you realize just how big league that god-forsaken Chicken really is); wholesome, fun, silly, sorta-sweet little events to take the kid’s and the mother’s attention away from the boredom of the game and/or the fact that daddy’s getting drunk again.
And mixed in is this ultimate element of sleaze in strange-oid events like $1 a beer college nights (Don’t drink and drive! Drink responsibly! Dollar a beer! Wanna refill?), or Grand Funk Railroad post-game concerts, or lonely-hearts-club get-togethers for the over-40 and divorced set where so many old, drunken people are messily making out (in the aisles, in the family sections, at the concession stands, in the dug outs, trying to sneak into bathrooms together, etc., etc., etc.), that entire little league teams are horribly, mentally scarred for life *shudder* Trust me on that – and if you’re lucky, this can all happen on the same night.
And then there’s special events for the middle of the road fans, like appearances by local quasi-celebrities that either no one knows or cares about or that the mass populace despises – I’ve seen weather people booed mercilessly and chased around the interior of the stadium in drought-stricken summers; and so-called TV and radio news “hotties” laughed and winced at when seen outside the safety of the studio lights and angles, without studio make-up artists or not in air-brushed promo-pictures.
Oh, and of course there’s the always-craptastic give-aways that make you feel cheated even though you got a freebie in that gym bag made of paper mache, or logo baseball only slightly more durable than a wiffle ball, or the mesh-hat made of some form of petroleum product that started to melt to your head and give you hives as you sat under the stadium lights.
And with all those promotions out came the great mix of odd-ball people who would never step foot in a major league stadium – for price reasons, mostly, but also because of the more prim and proper air about the big league stadiums that discourages people from being real people in a real environment and where kids are expected not to run off and destroy everything in sight and men beaten down by life are supposed to keep their drunken swearing to a murmur and old biker ladies are supposed to keep their halter-tops on and knife fights are looked down upon as too low and common. No one really cares about the game at a minor league stadium. No one knows but maybe a player or two. It’s not about being a fan of the laundry or hero-worshipping, it’s all about merely being there, getting out of the house on a summer evening and being part of the scene, man. Yeah.
The scene. The melange of old coots sitting around talking about seeing Johnny Mize hit 700 foot homers with one arm out ta right field there, just about killing a school bus fulla chil’ren, I tell ya. Fat families looking dirty and living close to the bone eating out of grocery bags full of junk food they brought in to avoid paying concession prices. Shiney, TV commercial skinny families living high on the hog, running back and forth to the concession stands for some new treat every half-inning. Dingy-looking, sleepy-eyed, sad and wobbly strung-out folk sitting in the GA seats at the top of the stadium needing a cheap place to crash for a few hours. Ugly couples trying to look all lovey-dovey cute and failing miserably but, because of the top-notch effort, you cut ’em a break and pray that they can’t reproduce. The cute couples looking so ugly in their preciousness to be openly despised. Old couples who don’t talk or interact or even need to anymore. The good, the bad, the ugly, the anonymous, the mix, man. The mix.
You don’t get mixes like that at big league stadiums when everyone’s intent on being a
cheerleader for the home team and the cost of tickets allows in, for the most part (and especially in the good seats), only over-dressed yuppies looking for a cool place to talk business BS on their cell phones.
But the BIGGEST selling point to me, now in my old age, is the whole, strange artificial flavor of things – the sortakinda, almost, close-but-not-really-in-any way-close-enough imitation vibe of the proceedings where, try as they might to be big league the cut-rate/low-budget state of affairs makes it all fall noticeably and comically short like foreign cultures putting on an American front, or song-writers trying to be Dylan-esque, or K-Mart shoes trying to knock-off Air Jordan’s.
Yeah, those guys down there playing are OK (some of whom you might’ve seen on the tube in their better days and now they’ve faded and are slumming it/fooling themselves on the way out; some of whom you can tell you’ll see plenty of on the tube on their way up to bigger and better things; and some of whom, like you, are just hanging around, getting by, and trying to hold on to this scene before having to return to the horror of a real job). But – aside from the gems just killing a year here until they’re off to much-much better, or are being screwed over by clueless organizations – there’s a reason they’re here and not collecting the big checks in better places. The lame, the rag arms, those slow of bat and feet, the lunkheads, those gifted but with fatal flaws; they try hard and mean well, but they’re just short, just off enough to make them perfect for their environs and vise versa.
Yeah. I really-really-really love me some minor league baseball. I’ve sure gotten my few bucks worth over the years at minor league games too – from the San Horn incident, to Sunday afternoon game with a Christian concert afterwards when the Flanderseseseses got sloshed and tried to boo Pat Kelly out of the stadium, to dodging all of Drew Henson’s errant throws, to credit union nights when the fights in the stands were more entertaining than the games to – YES! The legend of Steve “Bye Bye” Balboni. (I was gonna get to him eventually. You people really need to relax.)
Balboni was a massive, lumpy, pasty, balloon-headed shmoo-ish guy who could probably STILL get work as a henchman on The Soprano’s. There was nothing at all beautiful or handsome about him – just pure brute hit-or-miss strength beneath a shy smile and a whoooole lotta ugly.
But ugly is not the issue here – mostly. What really mattered was that Balboni was a massive beast who could absolutely plaster the ever-loving crap out of a baseball – or look like the biggest goof in the world when striking out like a low-rent Babe Ruth perfect for the low-rent minors. And every Clipper fan/regular had a favorite tale of a gargantuan Balboni blast or a fall-down funny swing and miss (personal faves: Homer – a screaming line drive Balboni hit out to right that went over a small building, several trees, a road and landed in a cemetery almost 500 feet away; that’s to his opposite field, mind you. Whiff – Balboni takes a cut that would have exploded a few discs in the backs of mortals, spins on his back heel, stumbles backwards and falls to a lean on the catcher who slumps backwards into the umpire wedging both in a squat position as they struggle to hold Balboni’s girth upright – with his bat wiggling away in the air as he fights to somehow regain balance. Eventually, the three just fell into separate heaps on the ground as the stadium giggled away. Ahh, raw power!)
Anyway, Balboni was a Yankee stud prospect in the very-early 80’s who just couldn’t catch a break. He’d mash the bejeezus out of the ball in AAA leading everyone and their brother to call the Yankees complete idiots for not calling him up. Then he’d get called up, get introduced to a big league breaking pitch, about kill himself in the process of hacking at a thing that cannot be hit and get sent back down to Columbus in favor of some new sort of VETERAN PRESENCE~! Steinbrenner had a fancy for at that minute. It happened a lot. Phil could probably tell you better than I about the trail of Yankee VETERAN~! first base crud that came through there in the early-80’s in between the succession of failed Balboni experiments and the eventual rise of Don Mattingly. I’m certain it’s too ugly to look at. Anyway, this Balboni jerk-around soon got the infamous name of The Columbus Shuttle and earned the Yankees quite a few laughs of derision and completely set Balboni’s career back a few years, but on the bright side, I got more Balboni to watch.
Yeah, selfish Clippers fans like me didn’t weep for Balboni much because, no matter how stupid the Yankees were, we loved the big galoot and wanted him here. Seriously, we did love him (in fact, Balboni was like my third favorite player behind the god-like Johnny Bench and Goose Gossage – who MIGHT have jumped up to a first place tie with Bench if he had also beaned Steve Garvey in the ’81 series), he was as close to Babe Ruth as we would ever get and that was fine with us. We loved his mammoth blasts, his humiliating whiffs, his shy smile and the goofy way he carried his shmooish self – shoot, we even didn’t mind his farcical attempts at defense. But, most importantly, what we loved most with Balboni on the team was that the Clippers were winners, an oddball mix of old, recycled has-beens and young bashers possibly on the way up – with the Balboni-Marshall Brant 1B/DH combo like a faux-Bash Brothers precursors on the small scale.
(OH! That Brant-Balboni mention reminds me – EMBARASSING STORY ALERT! ‘Round about ’82-83 when B&B mania was running wild, the two used to stand outside the dugout after games autographing whatever you passed down. So I get a 50 cent team poster, a dime pencil and stand in line. Unbeknownst to me, I was in the Brant not the Balboni line. And, all excited after getting my autograph, I yell out to my buddies, “All right! I got Steve Balboni’s autograph!,” because it was THAT difficult to tell apart a guy who looked like an All-American Boy and a guy who looked like an over-inflated Paulie from the Rocky movies – fortunately, Marshall Brant was saint-like and only chuckled a little bit instead of calling me out as the doofus that I was/am. And, oh yeah – as we’re all standing in line there getting Balboni and/or the not-Balboni autographs, this skinny little slap-hitting LF named Mattingly strolls by looking up to the throng to see if anyone wanted HIS autograph only to be totally ignored by everyone. Yeah, I hate myself as much, if not more than you hate me.)
Anyway, so despite Balboni’s godliness in AAA, the Yanks pretty much gave up on the guy since he, ya know, didn’t hit in the handful of AB’s he got with the club in the bigs. So, after the ’83 season, the Royals dangled some magic VETERANNESS~! in front of the Yankees and Columbus lost its big, goofy shmoo.
On to KC, Balboni got the chance to play everyday and had a huge ’85 season where he hit 36 homers in the Royals’ World Series year – creating the Balboni Curse in the process – before skipping around to Seattle, Texas and even back to the Yanks before calling it a career.
But, selfishly, none of the rest of Balboni’s career really mattered to me. Once Balboni left Columbus even the Clippers hardly mattered much to me for a while. Oh, sure, it was good to see Balboni get the chance to put together a few nice years in the bigs and ensuing Clippers like Hensley Muelens and Kevin Maas were fun in their own right for varying reasons, but after Balboni left, minor league baseball just wasn’t as enjoyable.
Of course, I’ve grown ancient and the nuances and strange particulars of minor league baseball – and the Clippers, specifically – have grown on me again. I appreciate the funkiness of it all now. I have a tolerance for the hokiness of mascots cavorting with the kids and mugging with the umpires. I anxiously await the drunken shouts for the game to hurry up and get over so .38 Special can take the stage on concert nights. The mish-mash of the sad and the ugly and the mundane is something I’ve found to be far more beautiful than the antiseptic sameness of the majors. But I still miss the faux-Ruthian hits and misses of Steve Balboni and his faux-god-like status, his shy smile and bloated shmooishness. I come across many another people at Clippers game who do the same as we reflect back on the wonder of time gone by and exchange favorite Balboni tales. And in an environment of imitation where no one is supposed to care about the anonymous string of players passing through or the even the games themselves – that says something special about how really beautifully great the big, ugly, shmooish Bye Bye was to us all.