Rex Hudler on Steve Balboni: 'He looked like Paul Bunyan'
As Roger Maris of the New York Yankees chased the legendary Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record in 1961, his hair began falling out in clumps from the stress of pursuing the iconic mark held by a beloved figure.
Much of that was related one way or another to the asterisk looming over the difference between the 154-game season Ruth played and the 162-game season of Maris’ time (and since), a fact that further fueled derision of Maris in the media.
During the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 (which later became a disgrace), Mark McGwire of the Cardinals was frequently irritable — whether because of the scrutiny or the steroids or a combination of both. In the moment, the Maris family battled mixed emotions about it.
As family members watched McGwire hit No. 61 that September, Kevin Maris felt “shock waves” surge through him, Rich Maris said his body went numb and Roger Jr. felt “giant tears” tumble down his face, they told those of us covering it in St. Louis.
“I truly believe (Maris) is with me,” McGwire said after the game.
Then there’s, ahem, Mike Moustakas’ pursuit of the Royals’ puny, dubious team home-run record of 36 set in 1985 by Steve Balboni.
Intriguing and exhilarating as this chase is for Moustakas and Royals fans, and, really, it is a pretty cool thing, it’s also on a different sort of scale than those events that riveted the nation — and of much less emotional intensity for the man on the verge of being passed.
Not only is this taking no evident toll on Moustakas, Balboni is spending zero time following Moustakas’ tally in his quest for the record, which was at 34 entering the Royals game Tuesday at Oakland.
“Honestly, not at all,” Balboni said Tuesday with a laugh by telephone from his home in New Jersey.
It’s not indifference, exactly.
“I’d be crazy to say it didn’t mean something,” said Balboni, who does not know Moustakas.
But it also falls short of fascination for Balboni, who is plenty busy with his work as an advance scout for the San Francisco Giants.
“I hardly even have time to follow (the Giants) sometimes,” said Balboni, who already was speaking of the record in the past tense. “It was nice to have.”
Not that the apparently inevitable new threshold (assuming Moustakas doesn’t get injured) isn’t without broader meaning.
Just breaking a 32-year-old record in itself would help the Royals look less like the 98-pound weakling of Major League Baseball, in which no other team record-holder has hit fewer than 40.
That’s not like suddenly morphing into Charles Atlas, but it’s a start, and maybe in the process it breaks any vague psychological barrier about hitting home runs at Kauffman Stadium.
Moreover, like the 2014 and 2015 World Series appearances, it would make for a modern incarnation of a meaningful record and at least another symbolic statement that the Royals aren’t stranded in those highlights of a generation ago.
Never mind that baseballs are leaving parks at an overall record pace this year, a phenomenon that has yet to be reliably explained and that Balboni acknowledges when asked about but doesn’t linger on.
The only surprise about this to Balboni is that it hasn’t happened sooner.
In fact, he thought he’d break it himself in 1986, when he hit his 28th home run on Aug. 26 only to be impaired by back problems most of the rest of the way and finish with 29.
As one of seven times a Royal has hit more than 30 since Balboni, Gary Gaetti came closest in 1995, hitting 35.
Balboni usually is aware of those events only because, well, “I would get these calls” from the media.
As he thinks back about establishing the record in 1985 in a park he hadn’t thought of as that big until he played regularly in it, Balboni couldn’t clearly recall who had held it before.
But he guessed correctly that it was John Mayberry (34 in 1975).
Much as he might prefer to hold on to the record, losing it will do nothing to diminish his fondest memories of being a Royal.
Balboni had been drafted by the Yankees in 1978, and his prodigious power made him the subject of a Sports Illustrated story in 1980 … when he was still in the minor leagues.
So he initially lamented being traded to the Royals in 1984.
“But I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I changed my mind really quickly.”
Never, before or after, had he been on a team that was so close.
It was a culture in which they not only just all got along but would invite everyone to everything … and they’d all come.
When that manifested itself in winning the 1985 World Series, that was one of the pinnacles of his career, a moment commemorated in his home with a painting of the celebration.
“There’s nothing like it,” said Balboni, who hit 181 home runs in 11 big-league seasons.
That’s what he played for, not the inauspicious record he has held for so long and will miss having but knew was meant to be broken.
“It will be different (to lose it),” he said. “But it’s not like I’m sweating over it.”