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On Grant Balfour, Hall-of-Famer, True Ray

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Why the story of the most successful Australian baseball player ever matters.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Forget the blown saves. Forget the boos. In 30 years, when nomo.red.evil is writing an offbeat trivia article about offbeat halls-of-fame, no one will remember them.

Grant Balfour will be the punchline in that article, as on Saturday, he'll become the first Rays player inducted into the Australian Baseball Hall of Fame, and with apologies to Wade Boggs, the first True Ray inducted into any hall of fame.

When our grandchildren read nomo's flowing proseas surely they willthey will ask us if we remember the Mad Aussie, and we will say that we do. While others may have produced more WAR or retired more batters, you simply cannot tell the story of the Rays' turnaround without him. Because it's not 2010, 2009, or even the magical 2008 that writes Grant Balfour into Rays history. For him, it's all about 2007.

The Rays were bad. There wasn't anything new about it. They had been bad consistently for a decade. But 2007 was different, because they were bad in a way that promised more.

  • Maybe Carl Crawford didn't hit home runs or walk like a prototypical left fielder, but but his bat was legitimate, and he ran like the wind.
  • B.J. Upton had transformed from an error machine at shortstop to arguably the best young player in the game. There was nothing he couldn't do: power; patience; average; defense; speed; arm. And he was only 22.
  • Delmon Young was pretty horrible, but was supposed to be better than that, and we all knew it. Edwin Jackson and Dioner Navarro had the pedigree to give the fans hope, also.
  • Carlos Pena: 46 home runs
  • Scott Kazmir: 239 strikeouts
  • James Shields demonstrated that maybe the Rays could develop pitchers after all.
  • Akinori Iwamura was from far away.

All of those were reasons to look at the Rays and imagine them winning games, and yet it was just imagination in 2007. They did not win games. And one of the biggest reasons was a historically bad bullpen.

.........

I remember going to a game with my dad. I think Casey Fossum was pitching, but I can’t quite recall. The Red Sox were in town, and Boston was reality good, not just imagination good. Still, the Rays had a two or three one run lead (thanks to Adam Sanford, our resident baseball historian, for figuring out which game I was at) in the sixth inning when Joe Maddon turned it over to the bullpen.

What I distinctly remember was the brash, loud Red Sox fan in the row behind me telling his friendin a voice meant for the whole section to hearnot to worry, because the Rays bullpen was horrible (he didn't say "hahrrable" because he wasn’t really from Boston or anything; just the usual sort of pink hat).

He was right. A string of relievers couldn't find the strike zone, and when they did, we wished they hadn’t. It might have been Chad Orvella, or Sean Camp, or Gary Glover, or Bryan Stokes who gave it up in the end. It doesn't really matter. They all had their moments that season. By the end of the game, the Rays were behind by three or four six (really, Adam's pretty great, and you can read his stuff here), and our neighbors crowed about it every step of the way.

My dad didn't really follow baseball. He grew up in Chicago, and he still has a soft spot in his heart for the Cubs, but by this point he probably hadn’t watched a game in decades. But as we walked out of the stadium, being taunted by the Red Sox faithful, he totally understood. He said, "This is nasty. I don’t want to go to another Boston game."

A historically bad bullpen will do that to you. Your lead is meaningless. It can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Your house is not your own. You can be laughed out of it by whatever flavor-of-the-month contender comes to town. And all of that promise that was clear to see in the 2007 team? Don’t get your hopes up for it, either. These are the Rays. They're not a real team. Someone will beat them.

The 2007 bullpen could mess with a man’s head.

But before the end of the season, two new faces had arrived in Tampa Bay. You might not have noticed it beneath the last-place record (I definitely didn’t), but the new guys were different.

(Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Dan Wheeler was chosen in the first-ever Rays draft. He failed to develop as a starter and was moved to the bullpen, where he found success with the Houston Astros. The Rays traded Ty Wiggington for Wheeler and brought back the prodigal son.

Wheeler looked odd on the mound. He was not an imposing presence. He hunched. After he got the signs, his eyes went down to the ball in his mitt, which he cradled in front of his chest. Never once would he look at the batter. I imagined that Wheeler believed that if he made eye contact, the bubble would burst and everyone would wake up and realize that his straight, low-90s fastball couldn’t possibly be a major-league pitch.

That’s not what Wheeler was doing, though. Dan Wheeler knew a secret. He knew that the next pitch was not about the history of losing. It wasn’t about the stadium full of jeering bandwagoners, or even about the roided-up slugger standing in the batter’s box. The only thing that mattered was Dan Wheeler, his catcher, and the spot he was trying to hit. More often than not, Wheeler did hit his spot.

Grant Balfour did not resemble Wheeler. He's was taller and he stood up straight, with his legs set wide apart. He paced and he spat. But he knew the same secret. Balfour may have yelled obscenities on the mound, but they were at himself. He too knew that the batter doesn't matter. His job was not to strike a guy out, it was to throw a fastball.

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

That's why his most famous moment as a Ray, in the 2008 playoffs after the turnaround he helped to key, is so peculiar.

Everyone knows the finger point as Balfour walks toward the dugout; the animated "Sit the fuck down." But that's just the denouement. The real crux of the encounter is the moment when Balfour realizes that Cabrera is yelling at him. He does a double take. He's honestly shocked. He cannot believe that this little fool is trying to insert himself into Grant Balfour's narrative. When he wrests back control with the strikeout and then tells Cabrera to sit down, he doesn't just mean for him to head to his dugout. He means that the White Sox shortstop and the whole White Sox team cannot take destiny out of the Rays' hands. They are the opponent, and they do not matter.

Sometimes it seemed like Balfour forgot that last year. He spent more time nibbling in 2014, and while I don't know if he was consciously thinking this way, he threw breaking ball after breaking ball below the zone—trying to get the batter to chase—when he needed to hit his spot within the zone.

It's tempting to suppose that age has caught up with Balfour and that he can no longer challenge major-league hitters. His fastball has undeniably declined since 2008, and it may have taken another step back last season. But Dan Wheeler would remind us all that you don't need a blazing heater to control your moment. Balfour has been "a pitcher," rather than "a thrower" for years.

And now, as of 2:30 AM Eastern Time, he's a Hall-of-Famer. It may not be the biggest and baddest Hall of Fame out there, but it's Grant Balfour's Hall.

Make it all yours again, Grant.

Update 4/19/15: Yesterday, after giving up three walks, a hit by pitch, and a home run in two thirds of an inning, Grant Balfour was designated for assignment. Nothing he had done to start the season suggested that he could continue as a major-league pitcher.

Careers end, and the end is rarely graceful. Balfour's was not. He will go down as both one of Andrew Friedman's great successes and as one of his chief failures. Both of those make him an important part of Rays history.

For the sake of this season right now, good riddance. But for anyone with the ability to understand something other than the present, that's not right at all. The appropriate response of Rays fans to the likely end of Balfour's career is "Thank you."