Balboni waits at Triple-A for expansion and a return to majors

May 24, 1992|By Gil LeBreton | Gil LeBreton,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Down on the Texas Rangers farm, a provocative statistic reports that Steve Balboni of the Oklahoma City 89ers hits one home run per 11.07 at-bats.

For the other 10.07 at-bats, Balboni just waits.

He waits for some big-league savior to telephone and say that he'd be delighted to have a balding, 35-year-old, right-handed, home-run hitter. He waits for a rainbow named expansion. He waits to rewrite the final chapter on a 10-year major-league career.

Let's snuff one possibility at the onset. Even with the Rangers bats clogged in a monthlong funk, Balboni probably won't be called up to Arlington. The Rangers already have a right-handed designated hitter in Brian Downing, who fills the job quite capably.

"Basically," said Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, "we're giving Steve a forum to showcase his talent. He's free to go to another major-league team at any time.

"The door is not closed for him to ever come here. But right now, with us having Brian Downing, who duplicates some of the same things that Steve would do, there's just not a spot."

Balboni is, in essence, a seven-day-per-week free agent, free to pack up and leave at the jingle of a phone call.

"No," Balboni said Thursday from his hotel room in Denver, "I haven't heard anything. And I'm not expecting anything.

"I expect to play here all season. What I'm hoping is that next year some jobs may open up through expansion."

Balboni's resume is written in plain English. He hits home runs. He's not a leadoff guy, like Downing. He's never been a nifty fielder, like a Don Mattingly. His career batting average is .228. And through his lengthy big-league career, he has stolen one base. He hits home runs.

Got it?

Balboni broke into the majors with the New York Yankees briefly in 1981. He played three seasons off and on in New York, appearing in only 69 games and homering seven times, enough to earn an indelible nickname -- "Bye-Bye" Balboni.

His curse was to arrive in New York at a time when young players were seen as itinerants, bags of beans to be bartered for another pennant cow. At the end of the 1983 season, Balboni was swapped to Kansas City.

Over the next five seasons, he hit 140 homers and became an integral pillar on the Royals team that won the World Series in 1985. He returned to New York in 1989, hit 34 home runs in two part-time seasons but batted only .216. The Yankees released him in spring training of 1991. The irony and the empty feeling haven't faded since.

"When I was coming up, they were a veteran-oriented team," he said, able to chuckle. "Then in my last years, I rejoin the Yankees, and they're a youth-oriented team."

Balboni said it was a bitter pill to sit home after his release and hear from no other big-league clubs, especially since the Yankees were committed to paying his salary.

Oklahoma City, Balboni figures, is the way out, one way or another.

"I didn't like the way it ended," he said. "I knew I could still play, still help a team."

With National League expansion on the horizon, Balboni knew that playing somewhere, anywhere, was his only chance. He joined the 89ers in June of last year and promptly hit 20 home runs, becoming one of the franchise's most popular players. But JTC it was humbling news when not a single major-league team would invite Balboni to 1992 spring training to try out.

"And that's why I'm not worried," Balboni said, yearning for the best but sounding ready to handle the worst.

"If nothing happens, then I'll know it's over."

Meanwhile, he waits. And he hits home runs.

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