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    Mudville: December 2, 2021 2:52 am PDT
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    Say Hello to Bye-Bye

    Steve Balboni’s professional career was a four-part play with each segment playing an integral role in the creation of a fan favorite and beloved slugger, one who left his mark on big cities and small towns across baseball’s landscape for 16 seasons.

    Balboni made a name for himself early in his career as a dominating minor-league slugger and closed his career in the same fashion, using both acts to bookend the chapters that took place in New York and Kansas City, where he enjoyed his greatest success. There were cameos in Seattle and Texas but the man known as “Bye-Bye”, a nod to his ability to send the baseball far, far away, will likely be best remembered for helping the Royals win the 1985 World Series.

    It all adds up to a fascinating career, one that gained Balboni, who hit 420 combined homers in the Major [181] and Minor Leagues [239], legions of fans and the reputation as a devastating long-ball hitter. He was a high school star in New Hampshire and added to his mystique with an impressive career at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

    It was on that path, definitely not a well-traveled one by those seeking a road to the Major Leagues, which Balboni garnered national attention and caught the eye of Yankees scouts, who made him a second-round pick in the 1978 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

    “From the moment I signed, I loved the organization and the people in it. I definitely wanted to stay with the Yankees. But I wanted an opportunity to play every day.”

    NEW ENGLAND BEGINNINGS, FLORIDIAN DEVELOPMENT

    Balboni grew up in New Hampshire and is quick to point out that “there weren’t a lot of scouts there” when he was playing high school ball. He had an opportunity to go to The University of New Hampshire but they wanted him to play football and baseball. He was a standout defensive end who also played some offensive tackle and tight end.

    “I loved watching football; I was a big fan,” said Balboni, 64, who resides in New Jersey. “But baseball was my number one sport. I loved basketball, too, but I didn’t have the ability or talent to play basketball. I played in high school, but I was just big underneath [the basket]. Height-wise I wasn’t close enough but 6-foot-3 is close enough in New Hampshire. I enjoyed it but baseball was the only sport I wanted to play after high school.”

    Bill Livesey, who would go on to a distinguished front-office career with several teams [including the Yankees] was one of the first people to recognize Balboni’s talent. He had managed in New England in the well-respected Cape Cod Summer League [he’s in the league’s Hall of Fame] and was coaching at Eckerd when he made a push to get Balboni.

    “They [Eckerd] didn’t give scholarships so Bill Livesey had to recruit from New England because all the Florida kids were already taken,” Balboni said. “He had players from Worcester, Mass. and New Hampshire, players from all over there. I played against them or their brothers and he got a hold of my name and gave me a call. I went to visit the school and as soon as I went, I thought this is where I need to be. My parents were good enough to pay for it and it worked out really well.”

    Balboni became a dominant force at the Division II school, hitting 47 home runs and driving in 166 runs in three seasons, numbers that ultimately got him elected to the Sunshine State Conference Hall of Fame. His 26 homers in 1977 helped earn him one of his two ABCA/Rawlings Division II All-American selections. He was also named an All-American by The Sporting News in 1978.

    His power got him noticed and the Yankees didn’t hesitate to take a chance, drafting him 52nd overall in 1978.

    “I had no idea about the draft,” Balboni said. “When I left New Hampshire, I had no idea how good I was or how bad I was. I didn’t know what the competition was like, either. But when I got down here, we were playing with or against a lot of guys that got drafted. We played some of the top Division I schools in the country, including South Carolina which was No. 2 at the time.

    “I started to see the kind of competition I was facing but I also knew I could compete with them. I felt power wise, I was as strong as or stronger than anyone I played against. I was a Red Sox fan but I loved the Yankees right away. My family wasn’t 100 percent about it. They were cheering for me but it was hard for them.”

    BOMBS AWAY

    The Yankees sent Balboni to West Haven [Conn.] of the Double-A Eastern League where he would play for future Yankees manager Stump Merrill. However, the parent club’s plan was to have Balboni learn how to catch to make him more versatile and he spent much of his time at West Haven working behind the plate. He had two at-bats and struck out both times before ultimately being sent down to Fort Lauderdale of the Class-A Florida State League.

    Though he got to play in the FSL, he didn’t fare much better, hitting .205 in 176 at-bats. He did drive in 19 runs and pick up his first professional homer, but never really found the kind of groove he was in while playing for Eckerd that spring.

    “The way they explained it to me was that they wanted me to be a third catcher,” Balboni said. “Just knowing how to catch, they said, would get me into the Major Leagues to be on a team. It was strange because I didn’t really catch. I was working on catching but I didn’t play at all. I was there for a few weeks and then they sent me to Fort Lauderdale and the catching stopped.

    “Between everything – from the time I signed and by the time I really started playing – I wasn’t really able to stay in shape as if I were really hitting and stuff like that. I was playing every day when I went to Florida, but I struggled. It was a rough time. I didn’t hit very well, I had one home run, and then they sent me to instructional league where, after playing a half year in Florida, I started to hit and feel really good.”

    The following season marked the beginning of Balboni’s record-setting minor league run. He led the Florida State League in homers [26] and RBIs [91], marking the first of four consecutive seasons he would lead his respective league in homers, to earn MVP honors.

    Balboni would lead the Double-A Southern League [34] in 1980 [once again earning MVP honors], and Columbus of the Triple-A International League in 1981 and 1982 with 33 and 32 homers, respectively. When combined with his two years of leading the American Association in homers [1992-93], Balboni became one of only 14 players in minor league history to lead his respective league in round trippers at least six times. Bunny Brief [1911-1926] and Ken Guettler [1945-56] are atop the list with eight home run titles on their resume while Ray Perry [1948-54], Muscle Shoals [1939-55] and Norm Small [1940-50] each did it seven times.

    “Fort Lauderdale was a tough park,” Balboni said. “It was not an easy park to hit in. All the parks in that league are big. They are big league parks [for spring training]. I think the next closest person had 12. So it wasn’t easy but the competition was really good and that was the big thing. The home runs weren’t the big thing. I knew if I hit the ball hard the home runs would come.”

    The home runs did keep coming but the call to New York didn’t. While Balboni was getting promoted every year and moving from one level to the next he said the baby steps were more disappointing than frustrating. That the Yankees were up front with him from the outset, however, made the situation more palatable.

    He was also being thwarted because the Yankees were still an American League power at the time and had big-time, albeit aging, stars at first base such as Chris Chambliss, Bob Watson and Ken Griffey. Throw in the likes of Don Baylor and Bobby Murcer at the designated hitter spot and Don Mattingly’s presence, first in Columbus and then New York, and it was easy to see where fitting Balboni in became difficult.

    “It was disappointing to see others players doing as well as I did move up and I was staying in one place,” he said. “I had people [in the organization] telling me this is our plan and you’re in our plan. Being part of a plan made it easier to accept. They didn’t lie to me. They did everything they said they were going to do. And they did call me to the Majors my first year in Triple-A.”

    Balboni made his Major League debut on April 22, 1981, going 1-for-2 with a triple, an RBI, two runs scored and a walk against Detroit at Yankee Stadium. Five days later he went 1-for-3, doubling in a run at Detroit before being sent back to Columbus. He returned for a late-season call-up but the experience was indicative of the career fits and starts that he would experience over the next two seasons in the Bronx.

    While the Yankees couldn’t commit to Balboni full-time, it didn’t prevent the fans from showering him with affection. His reputation as a slugger had preceded him and he was already a fan favorite before arriving in New York.

    “That first Yankee Stadium experience was incredible,” Balboni said. “It’s a good thing we were playing Detroit. I had faced their pitcher [Howard Bailey] before [in the Florida State and Southern Leagues] so I knew him. There was nothing like walking out there for that first at-bat and have the crowd cheer. It seems so loud. It was incredible. And [legendary Yankee Stadium PA announcer] Bob Sheppard, that voice, it was amazing.

    “The whole experience of walking out there was surreal and hard to put into words. There were so many emotions. I was excited and determined to do well but I was nervous. There were a bunch of things going on at the same time. [Yankees broadcasters Frank] Messer and [Phil] Rizzuto would talk about me a lot on Yankee games. They knew a lot about me so that added to a lot of people knowing about me. I think that had something to do with it. They talked about me so much it was like a huge welcome. It was pretty incredible.”

    Balboni rode the Columbus shuttle in 1982-83, never fully getting a chance to prove what he could do on the big-league level. He hit 92 home runs in his three seasons at Columbus [teammate Bryan Dayett won the International League home-run title in ’83 with 35 while Balboni hit 27] but had just 200 at-bats with the Yankees over that same span, during which he hit seven homers and had 23 RBI.

    Balboni’s life and career were about to change, though.

    KANSAS CITY, KANSAS CITY HERE I COME

    The combination of having no available full-time roster spot in New York and Kansas City’s need at first base led to the Dec. 8, 1983 trade that sent Balboni and Roger Erickson to the Royals for Duane Dewey and Mike Armstrong. The Royals were parting company with Willie Aikens, the slugging first baseman who had connected for 77 homers in four seasons. But Aikens was one of four Kansas City players involved in a federal drug probe, so the club cut ties with him leaving the void at first.

    While the move caught Balboni a bit off guard, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for his career. The Royals were managed by former Yankees skipper Dick Howser, who knew of Balboni from his time in the Bronx.

    “I had really mixed feelings about the trade,” Balboni said. “From the moment I signed, I loved the organization and the people in it. I definitely wanted to stay with the Yankees. But I wanted an opportunity to play every day. If I had a choice, I would have liked that opportunity with the Yankees. It did work out best for my career, though.

    “Howser was huge. I owe him so much. I probably owe him my career. He was the biggest reason why they traded for me because when he was with the Yankees I was coming up but I didn’t hardly know him at all. I had seen him in spring training and I might have talked to him. Right from the start, though, he was the first phone call I got after the trade. He made me feel welcome and told me how glad he was and that I was going to be their first baseman. He showed a lot of confidence in me and I owe him a lot.”

    Balboni had some ups and downs during his first season in Kansas City but Howser’s faith in him never wavered. He kept reassuring the young slugger and ultimately Balboni finished with 28 homers and 77 RBI while finishing in the top 20 in the American League MVP race.

    The Royals, meanwhile, surprised some by winning the American League West. Though they were swept by the Tigers in the ALCS [Balboni was 1-for-11 with four strikeouts] Balboni had proven his worth and solidified his hold at first base.

    Howser’s decision to place Balboni’s locker next to veteran Hal McRae’s in the clubhouse also proved crucial in 1984. Balboni soaked up every bit of knowledge the veteran offered over the next few years and that also played an integral role in his development.

    “Hal McRae was a huge part of my career,” Balboni said. “I think Howser did it on purpose, putting his locker next to mine. I learned so much about hitting and about pitchers. He was great. He would sit there after games and talk to me about what I did and what I didn’t do. I owe Hal a lot for helping me through those first few years.”

    The unexpected playoff appearance set the stage for Balboni and the Royals in 1985. Balboni would hit a career-high 36 homers [still third-most in a KC season] and drive in a career-best 88 while once again finishing in the top-20 among MVP vote getters. The Royals rallied against Toronto in the American League Championship Series and then edged the Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series. Balboni hit .320 [8-for-25] in the World Series and drove in three runs but had no homers.

    “1984 was a huge surprise because our young pitching did so well,” Balboni said. “It was supposed to be a rebuilding year. We had a young staff and a lot of young players and we made the playoffs. We were expected to do better in 1985, but I don’t think anyone expected us to win the World Series. Look at the competition from the four or five teams in the American League East. I think four or five teams had better records than us.

    “The key was that we started to play well at the end of the season and into the playoffs. Our pitching was amazing and anyone of them [the starters] could go out and shut out anyone we played. I didn’t feel like I had a horrible ALCS but I ended up with only one hit and that was a bloop single. I started swinging better in the World Series, like I knew I could. I felt like I had to battle my way through. I didn’t hit many balls real hard but I found in the World Series that if I just put the bat on the ball some good things happened.”

    KANSAS CITY, KANSAS CITY HERE I GO

    The World Series year was the high point of Balboni’s career. He would hit for power in 1986 and 1987, combining for 53 homers and 148 RBIs but his batting average was dropping. He hit .229 in ’86 and then .207 in ’87 before the Royals released him on May 27, 1988.

    “It didn’t surprise me,” said Balboni. “Things were going downhill. ’85 was a good year but I felt like I could do better. In ’86 I was doing better but hurt my back in the middle of August. I was looking at 30 homers and 100 RBIs – but I hurt my back and my season was pretty much over.

    “When I came back in ’87, things had changed. I don’t think they had confidence in me. I started DHing and then I went from DH to platoon and it seemed to go downhill from that point.”

    Balboni wasn’t out of work long, signing with Seattle on June 1. He went on to have a strong four months, hitting .251 with 21 homers and 61 RBIs. At the time, it looked as if he had found a new long-term home. The Mariners, however, dealt him to the Yankees the following March. Balboni was going home.

    “I loved Seattle,” he said. “It was the first small park I played in. Normally I didn’t like playing in domes but once I got there and got used to being inside, it was nice to know that if you hit the ball well it was a home run. All the other parks I played in you had to hit it really well. They were a younger team and I was a little older so it was a nice fit for me.

    “They [the Mariners] traded Ken Phelps to the Yankees [in July of ‘88] and I thought I was going to be the everyday DH. But they weren’t going to give me a raise and we ended up going to arbitration. I won and I think that upset them. So they went out and got Jeffrey Leonard to DH so when I was traded I was happy to go because the fit in Seattle wasn’t there anymore. Playing every day in Seattle would have been great, but I was happy going back to New York.”

    Balboni knew that Mattingly’s back had been getting worse and that this time around he would get more playing time in New York. While he saw considerably more action than in his first go-round with the Yanks, the homecoming only lasted two seasons.

    He hit 17 homers and drove in 59 while hitting .237 in 300 at-bats in 1989. Balboni added 17 more homers the following year but drove in only 34 and his batting average slipped to .192. The Yankees released him on April 1, 1991. Balboni signed as a free agent with Texas two months later, but wouldn’t appear in a Major League game again until 1993 when he had three at-bats for the Rangers, marking the end of his Major League career.

    Balboni did, however, spend the better part of three seasons with Oklahoma of the Triple-A American Association, for whom he won home run titles in 1992 [30] and 1993 [36]. He is one of 20 players in minor league history to have at least a 14-year gap between his first and last HR title. He is the only player on that list to join it after 1955. Yam Yaryan holds the record of 18 years between first and last HR crown – 1919 Western League and 1937 Alabama-Florida League.

    “I have some records in the minor leagues but those kind of records means that you were there too long,” Balboni said. “But it also means you did well while you were there. I have mixed feelings about it. You have to be proud that you did well where they put you, but the bad side is that you needed to do better. What could you have done better to move up and do that at the Major League level?

    “Normally I wouldn’t have gone to Oklahoma City. A Japanese team had tried to buy my contract from the Yankees in 1991 but I said no; I wasn’t going to go to Japan if I didn’t have to. I felt as if I could still play and contribute to the Yankees but they had different plans and they released me. Oklahoma City contacted my agent, though, and it was actually a great setup. They said come and play here and you can talk to other teams and if someone wants you, you can leave. They gave me free reign.”

    Balboni has remained in baseball after his career ended.

    Expansion was on the horizon in the Major Leagues and Balboni figured he still had some options in that regard in the states so he returned to Oklahoma City for a third season [1993].  While he led the league in homers and drove in 108 to make the All-Star team, he decided it was time to call it a career at the age of 36.

    “I kind of felt after 1993 that I wasn’t going anywhere,” Balboni said. “I didn’t see anything in the future. No one was contacting me and I couldn’t do another year of the minors, with the buses and everything. Physically my back was fine and I could play; it was just more work for me to get into shape and I just didn’t want to play minor league ball anymore. I was playing for a reason but that reason was gone.”

    The Royals called Balboni after he retired and invited him to Spring Training in 1994. It was close race between him and Hubie Brooks but McRae, who was by then the manager, chose Brooks. Balboni said the decision was hard on McRae and that the Royals offered to send him to Triple-A Omaha but he declined.

    “I was either going to make the team or not,” Balboni said.

    POST-PLAYING DAYS

    Balboni took some time away from the game after retiring but returned to the Royals in 1998 as the hitting coach for their short-season affiliate in Spokane. He also coached in Delaware and then worked for several teams before calling the Giants and former Eckerd teammate Brian Sabean, who by that time was San Francisco’s general manager. The pair were from neighboring towns in New Hampshire, played against each other as kids and then together in college.

    “He got me into scouting,” Balboni said. “I didn’t know what I was doing but the next year they needed an advance scout. Joe LeFebvre [another Eckerd alumni] was doing advance scouting and they asked me if I wanted to do that with Joe. It was great. I was with them for 11 years.”

    It proved to be a nice post-script to the four-act story that was his playing career.

    Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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