Balfour's Rage: Father, past motivate All-Star closer
Australian righty finds home at back end of bullpen in Oakland, where fans love him
OAKLAND -- Grant Balfour shouldn't have been pitching. His mind was far from baseball. The intensity A's fans adore from their Australian closer, the fuel for his mid-90s fastballs, was missing.
A phone call the day earlier, June 28, 2012, had informed him that his dad was sick. David Balfour's pancreatic cancer, a terror already beaten after its first arrival in 2010, had returned and spread through his bloodstream to other areas of the body. He had a tumor on his neck and perhaps just 12 months to live.
Balfour is usually a spastic display of intensity while on the mound. He fidgets, spits and swears, both at the opponent and to himself.
Not now. The eighth inning of a Friday night game in Arlington seemed trivial in relation to the news of his father's misfortune. Balfour would take a step off the mound and think of nothing but him.
The Rangers shelled Balfour for four runs in the game, a 4-3 A's loss, which prompted another phone call: an apology from his father, who felt responsible for his son's poor play. Of all the causes for concern, one bad outing had David Balfour feeling guilty.
"Dad, don't apologize," Grant said. "It won't happen again."
Balfour kept his word. One win and six holds after the phone call, Balfour returned to closing games, continuing an A's-record streak of 44 consecutive saves that extended well into this season, passing Dennis Eckersley's previous club best of 40 and placing Balfour sixth all time in the Major Leagues.
The streak started on April 29, 2012, stayed dormant while Balfour did not pitch the ninth in June and July, and finally ended on July 23 this season against the Astros. And it earned Balfour, 35, his first All-Star appearance in his 10th season in the big leagues and third with Oakland, where he is embraced for his eccentricities. A "Balfour Rage" dance from fans at O.co Coliseum is scored to Metallica's "One," and features arm whirling and delightfully barbaric lunacy.
Balfour's constant fidgeting on the mound began while with Tampa Bay in 2008, when he set career highs in wins (six), ERA (1.54) and strikeouts (82).
When Balfour does something that seems to bring success, his wife, Angie, says he has to mimic it every single time. In some convoluted order, he bends his knees, wipes his hand on his thigh, tugs his cap with his right hand and wipes his forehead with his left forearm. Angie sends him good-luck texts an hour before every game, and if all goes well, it will lead to the frustration of opposing hitters.
"I think his antics tend to get underneath people's skin," A's catcher Derek Norris said. "The cussing, the yelling, the constant playing with his hat, the dirt -- it takes people out of their game mentally, and I think that plays into his hands just as much as anything else. There's nothing about him that's routine. It's random, it's unorthodox and it works for him."
Balfour threw up and in to Albert Pujols last Friday, angering the Angels' designated hitter. Pujols later lined the ball down the left-field line for a two-run single to put the Angels within two. "Pitch!" Pujols barked at Balfour while running down the first-base line, except maybe he didn't say "pitch."
"Yeah, maybe," Balfour said. "I don't care. That's fine. If he wants to yell at me, I'm yelling at him anyway. I want to compete at the highest level I can compete. I feel like I didn't do that when I first came up, and I made a promise to myself that the next time I would."
David Balfour loves the way his son plays. Watching his son on TV inspires him to beat the cancer and provides relief during days filled with grueling treatments.
"When I watch him, I want to live," he said. "The way he goes about it: the strength, shouting things out of his mind, that type of thing. If he can do it, I can do it. I can take the pain."
|"There's nothing about him that's routine. It's random, it's unorthodox and it works for him."|
|-- A's catcher Derek Norris|
David, 60, has continued his job as the general manager of the Sydney Blue Sox, which has also helped him remain positive and focus his mind on things other than chemotherapy.
"When you're a long ways away, we can't see them in the flesh all the time," he said, "but they're with you every day when you get to see him perform, especially at that level. My arm's all paralyzed, my nerves are crushed in my arm where the tumor's crushing on it, and he's got to pitch every day. Every day. And he's tough all those miles away. That's how he deals with pressure."
Along with aggressive medical treatments, David believes the joy he gets watching his son has given him a chance, no matter how small, to defy the odds that with his particular disease are firmly against him.
"I've held on," he said. "I'm having a rough point at the minute. But they believe that some miraculous thing might be able to happen, and I'll be able to hang on a lot longer and possibly be cured, so I'm hanging on to that for the moment every day."
When he was only 19 years old, Grant was the one hanging on. Body surfing along the Northern Beaches of New South Wales, Balfour nearly drowned after getting caught in a rip that dragged him away from safety. He was suspended in the ocean for nearly an hour. Every time he tried to swim across the current, he would get dragged further out to sea. Waves crashed relentlessly, submerging him again and again.
Balfour remembers a couple waving back at him from atop an overhanging cliff, as if he were flailing arms in an exchange of pleasantries. Thoughts of death began to creep in. This is how it would end.
Finally, Balfour spotted a rock pile and lunged for it, riding a wave into the jagged wall. With the last of his energy, he climbed over the edge and lay there, his heavy breaths droning out the crashing rapids below.
Balfour has always been a swimmer, even when playing baseball. There have been many opportunities to drown over the course of his career: the surgeries, the slights from past teams, the distractions of everyday life.
He was not close to the top tier of amateurs Twins scout Howard Norsetter sought in Alice Springs, a city in the middle of the Outback, at an under-16 tournament that included the likes of Glenn Williams, who would sign a then-record $825,000 international bonus with the Braves in 1993.
|"If you're talking about a team that has a backbone in the bullpen, then why wouldn't you keep them around?"|
|-- A's closer Grant Balfour|
A young age 15, Balfour stood out to Norsetter as a skinny, but athletic, string-bean catcher with a strong work ethic and solid arm action. Balfour signed a contract with the Twins when he was 19.
His fastball gained speed as he journeyed through the Minor Leagues and eventually made the Majors, but surgeries, including Tommy John and operations to repair a labrum and torn rotator cuff within five months of each other, prolonged his development.
Balfour entered a journeyman role before joining the Rays in 2007. In 3 1/2 seasons, though, Tampa Bay never fully entrusted him with the closer's role. Oakland did, and he signed with the team in January '11.
The theories regarding a closer's importance are as follows:
1. Closing demands a special mental makeup that is not found in all relievers. The last three outs are the three toughest of the game to record, and not everyone can perform when the pressure is at its highest.
2. The ninth is just another inning, and the mentality many associate with closers is required in all back-end relievers. If a setup man does not do his job in the eighth, the closer is rendered obsolete, so the pressure, assuming it exists, is the same.
The dynamic is magnified within an Oakland franchise notorious for valuing closers differently than other organizations. The A's have often opted to find a new closer rather than allocate a large salary to the position, a la Jason Isringhausen, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey, though Balfour's two-year, $8.1 million contract disputes that logic.
"If you're talking about a team that has a backbone in the bullpen, then why wouldn't you keep them around?" Balfour said. "Why wouldn't you take care of them? That's what I think. anyway. If that's blunt, then that's just the way it is. That's just the way I am sometimes."
The closer, who now serves as a force of nature for the A's, launching velocity past the opposition as Oakland begins its push for a second straight American League West title, makes no apologies.
There is a fire within Balfour. It is the first thing his teammates say about him. His intensity. His mantra. His rage.
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.