Balboni hopes Class AAA can be his ticket to season in Japan

August 18, 1991|By Tracy Ringolsby | Tracy Ringolsby,Dallas Morning News

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 1985 world championship ring from Steve Balboni's days with the Kansas City Royals was left behind at his Lee's Summit, Mo., home. Too flashy for daily wear, said Balboni, and too dear to be hidden away in the Oklahoma City hotel room that has become his home for the summer. It is a part of the past.

The present has taken an unpleasant turn down memory lane for Balboni, whose big-league resume shows 181 home runs, including a Royals record 36 in that championship season.

After seven full big-league seasons, he is back in the minor leagues. Balboni is the regular DH for the Oklahoma City 89ers, the Texas Rangers' Class AAA minor-league affiliate. He is still hitting mammoth home runs -- like the signboard-clearing grand slam he delivered to rally the 89ers to an 11-7 victory against Iowa last Saturday night. But the big-time ambition that filled Balboni a decade ago has diminished at 34.

"In 1983," Balboni said of his most recent exposure to the minor leagues before this summer, "it was a lot different. I was on my way up, not on my way down. Every day was exciting and a challenge. I was trying to make it."

The excitement has waned. An early arrival at the ballpark throughout his career, Balboni now arrives in time to get dressed and take part in the pre-game workouts. The challenge has turned to one of survival. The hopes dim daily as the minor-league season nears completion.

"I've pretty much given up any hope of getting back to the big leagues," Balboni said. "I've thought about going home a couple times, but it doesn't look good to quit. If you start something, you should finish it. Besides, I wouldn't want to walk out on these guys. They gave me a chance, and I appreciate it."

The dream has taken on a foreign dimension. Several Japanese teams have expressed an interest in signing Balboni for the 1992 season. For five years, he put them on hold. This summer, he encouraged the conversations. Balboni sees Japan as a chance for another big payday before calling it quits, and then there is that remote hope of expansion. The National League will add two teams in 1993. Maybe one of them will want an experienced power hitter. It is a hope.

Reality is that despite having done a solid job at Oklahoma City, there is no interest at the big-league level right now. In the 47 games, Balboni is hitting .294 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI. He also maintained a solid approach to the game, an intangible manager Tommy Thompson says can help the prospects on the Oklahoma City roster.

"What he's trying to do is show people he can still swing the bat, and he has done that," Thompson said. "More than that, though, he loves the game and loves to compete. When you get that competing in your blood, it is tough to get out."

The competitor in Balboni refused to allow him to call it quits when the New York Yankees released him April 1. He was going to collect his $1.1 million salary from New York even if he never put a uniform on again. But somehow Balboni didn't feel right sitting at home.

He hit .192 for the Yankees last year, but he only had 266 at-bats. He did, however, hit 17 home runs. Besides, 49 of his plate appearances came as a pinch hitter, second in the American League to Texas' Jack Daugherty (52). And when he pinch hit, Balboni knew, the Yankees weren't looking for him to flip a base hit into right field.

"They sent me up to hit home runs, and I went up swinging for home runs," said Balboni, whose career .228 average is second-lowest in history to Gorman Thomas' (.225) for players with 150 career home runs. "And it seemed like every time I went up to pinch-hit, the other team would bring a right-handed pitcher into the game."

Balboni knew his days were numbered during the off-season when the Yankees tried to sell his contract to the Nipon Ham Fighters of Japan. He balked, feeling the contract guarantee would assure him one more season in Yankee pinstripes.

Balboni, however, found himself trapped by a reversal in Yankees philosophy. A decade ago, as a Yankee prospect, it took a trade to the Royals after the 1983 season for Balboni to get a legitimate opportunity in the majors. Those Yankees were a veteran-oriented team with little patience for youngsters. The new Yankees, though, dumped Balboni because of a youth movement they adopted.

"I've seen that organization go about a complete change in direction," Balboni said.

And it has left Balboni headed back in the direction from which he came -- to the minors. Not the best of times, admitted Balboni, but it could be worse.

"I've run into a lot of guys on my way down who I saw on my way up," Balboni said.

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