Like any good motel marquee, the one at the Best Western Airport Inn in Chattanooga read WELCOME AMERICAN LEGION on one side. On the other side was a more unconventional message: BYE-BYE BALBONI. Almost to a man, the Nashville Sounds, who were in town for a game against the Lookouts, got a big kick out of that. The only man who didn't was Steve (Bye-Bye) Balboni himself. It seems that Balboni does not like his nom de plate one tiny bit. And this is a shame because the name is a natural.
Since arriving at Nashville, the New York Yankees' Double A farm team in the Southern League, Balboni, a 23-year-old righthand-hitting first baseman, has been making the baseball go bye-bye. He had 21 home runs in his first 39 games (a 78-homer pace for the full 144-game season) but he was in an 11-game dinger drought until he hit his 22nd last Sunday. Balboni also has a .351 batting average and 57 RBIs.
Balboni's homers are as notable for their distance as their number. Measurements in mere feet don't do them justice; landmarks are a better gauge. There was the ball Balboni hit over the firehouse across the street from the ball park in Columbus, Ga. and the one he hit onto the freeway in Jacksonville. Some of his home runs just disappear into the night, never to be seen or heard from again. They are still going, going, going, long after they're gone.
Feats like these have baseball men gushing. Their praise sounds like the blurbs for major motion pictures and bestsellers.
"Truly awesome," says Sounds Infielder Dan Schmitz.
"There isn't a ball park in America that can hold him," says Nashville Manager Carl (Stump) Merrill.
"After a while, you just run out of adjectives," says Yankee Director of Player Development Bill Livesey.
"I saw one pitcher's knees turn to Jell-O after Steve hit a homer off him," says Nashville Pitcher Dan Led Duke.
Through the years there have been many legendary minor league sluggers, men like Joe Bauman, who hit 72 home runs for Roswell, N. Mex. of the Long-horn League in 1954, and Joe (Unser Choe) Hauser, who had 69 in 1933 for Minneapolis of the American Association and 63 for Baltimore of the International League in 1930. Nashville once had a lefty named Bob Lennon who hit 64, but that was in 1954 when the team played in the old Sulphur Dell ball park, where it was only 262 feet to right. Bob Crues, Dick Stuart, Moose Clabaugh, Ken Guettler, Tony Lazzeri and Frosty Kennedy all hit 60 or more homers in a year in the minors. But all except Stuart and Lazzeri turned out to be Babe Ruse as major league prospects.
The Yankees, however, feel that Balboni (almost sounds like Bambino, doesn't it?) may be the real thing, and they're not rushing him. He's still a diamond in the rough, albeit a very big diamond at 6'3" and 225 pounds. And at 23 his receding hairline is already farther along than Harmon Killebrew's was at the same stage of his career. Like all power hitters, Balboni has struck out a lot—in 30% of his 876 minor league at bats. But as Livesey says, "When you're hitting .350, a few strikeouts can be tolerated." Balboni's defensive work at first is surprisingly good, and he isn't a slow base runner. But the major league pitchers won't have to face him anytime soon. The Yankees, who are doing pretty well without him, plan to let Balboni finish the year in Nashville and move him up to Triple A Columbus next season.
Balboni, who is from Manchester, N.H., first drew Livesey's attention at a tryout camp in New England. Livesey was the coach at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. then, and he persuaded the big, hulking kid to join him there. Not that it took much persuasion. "He was the only one who even bothered to call me when I graduated from high school," says Balboni. At the same time, Livesey recruited another New Hampshire player, Concord's Joe Lefebvre, who is now what is known as a "rookie sensation" for the Yankees. Three years ago he and Balboni led Eckerd to second place in the Division II World Series. By then, Balboni had already acquired the nickname he doesn't like. In those days he was hitting the ball even farther because he was using an aluminum bat. Brian Dayett, an infielder with the Sounds, played against Balboni for St. Leo College in Florida. "We used to go into the orange groves the next day to look for his home runs," says Dayett.
Livesey left Eckerd during Balboni's junior year to take a job in the Yankees' player-development program, and he persuaded the farm director, the late Jack Butterfield, to draft Bye-Bye.
In his first year at Fort Lauderdale in the Class A Florida State League, Balboni hit one—count it, one—home run in 60 games. But last season he set a team record and led the league with 26 homers, a remarkable figure considering the heavy summertime air in Florida. The Yankees half-expected Balboni to get off to a similarly slow start at Nashville this year, but he fooled them by going to a heavier, 36-ounce, 36-inch bat, and by arriving relaxed.
For all the noise he makes with his bat, Balboni is a very quiet man, "as quiet as he is big," says Stump Merrill. "A gentle giant," says Coach Eddie Napoleon. That poses a minor problem. When a runner takes off to steal second, the first baseman is supposed to yell, "He's going!" But Balboni's voice is so soft that he can hardly be heard.
Balboni doesn't like his nickname "because it makes me somebody that I'm not." He's also afraid it will be used against him when he strikes out, although on those frequent occasions the opponents' fans seem to favor "Baloney." Balboni much prefers either the nickname "Bones," which is derived from the second syllable of his surname and definitely not from his physique, or "Rocky," as in Rocky Balboa.
In Nashville, the faithful will call him anything he wants. He has a growing fan section along the first-base line, and General Manager Larry Schmittou reports, "Nobody wants to be caught in line buying a hot dog when Steve comes up."
The last word goes to Snuffy Miller, the team bus driver ("Best bussie in baseball," says Stump Merrill) and a former drummer for Bill Anderson, Dottie West and Conway Twitty, who is part owner of the Sounds. "He can look so bad on one pitch," says Snuffy, "and on the next one, it's bye-bye."