Grant Balfour, the A's raging paradox?

30 A's in 30 Days: Grant Balfour

Grant Balfour, the A's raging paradox?
August 1, 2013, 6:30 am
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It's called "Balfour Rage" and while the A's have made a cottage industry of it, he has ridden it to a franchise record. (AP)


Grant Balfour's 44-straight saves rank sixth in baseball history and every one came with his trademarked rage. (AP)


R.A. Dickey credits Grant Balfour with saving his life in 2007. (AP)

OAKLAND -- Depending upon your allegiance, it's the most entertaining show in baseball…or the most irritating.

With Metallica's beat-driven "One" still echoing throughout the concrete jungle that is the O.co Coliseum, Grant Balfour stomps around the mound, muttering to himself here, tugging on his jersey there, idiosyncrasies everywhere. F-bombs fly freely from his mouth as he curses no one in particular. And then, the A's All-Star closer unleashes a mid-90s heater.

And the whole, twisted ordeal begins anew. With each pitch.

"You have to go to a different place to be a closer," said bullpen mate Sean Doolittle. "And to be at the top of his game, to be effective, he's got to find a way to get there."

It's called "Balfour Rage" and while the A's have made a cottage industry of it -- Rage Gnome, anyone? -- he has ridden it to a franchise record.

"I seen it when he was with the Rays, against us, and I was like, 'Man is this guy serious?'" offered left-handed specialist Jerry Blevins. "It's one of this things where it's not fake; he does what he has to do to get ready to battle."

In the midst of it, it's hard to tell what comes faster -- the ball from his hand to home plate, or the expletives from his lips.

"I'm on the same team and I'm kind of intimidated," Doolittle said with a laugh. "But it's gotten to the point where I enjoy watching it…you can feel the energy he brings to the mound. He's got that Aussie Rules Football mentality. He just wants to hit somebody.

[RELATED: Grant Balfour career stats | 2013 game logs]

"I can see how it could either be really intimidating for guys, or you'd just like like, 'What's this guy doing?'"

He's doing his job. Well. That franchise record? Before giving up three runs in the ninth inning at Houston on July 23, Balfour was the only perfect closer in baseball this season, converting all 26 of his chances at the time and running his streak to 44, dating back to April 29, 2012.

The 44 straight saves rank sixth in baseball history and each and every one came with his personal drama of rage on the mound.

"It's just the way I am," Balfour said, shaking his head. "I'm fiery and competitive. Everyone's different."

***

Indeed, Balfour is not what he appears to be on the field. Sure, he's got the crazy eyes of countryman Mel Gibson (the kinder, gentler Mel of 'Lethal Weapon' days, not what you see in his police booking photos of recent vintage). But Balfour is a walking contradiction.

He insists he does not want attention, yet his in-game act screams for it.

It's a dichotomy that makes Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey slap his thigh in laughter.

"I think he always downplays it," Dickey said this week during the Blue Jays' series in Oakland, and he was not talking about Balfour's on-field histrionics.

"He was the only guy that ran with me down the river shore line."

Dickey credits Balfour for saving his life on June 9, 2007, when they were teammates with Milwaukee's triple-A affiliate in Nashville. It was on a roadie in Omaha, that Dickey decided to take bets that he could swim across the Missouri River near the team hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He estimates now that it was about a 250-yard swim from bank to bank. But the current was too strong and as Dickey tried to turn back to shore, he was instead swept away.

At this memory, Balfour blanches.

"I had a similar experience back home in Australia," he said, recalling a riptide on a Sydney beach taking him out to sea when he was 19.

So yeah, Balfour had a sense of what Dickey was up against. After Dickey maneuvered himself close to the shore, Balfour stuck out his arm and pulled his teammate to safety. Yes, call it a save.

"With Milwaukee, he was spinning his wheels, looking for an opportunity," Dickey said. "Now, he's made it. Nothing pleases me more than to see him doing what he's doing."

The same goes for Balfour's father, Dave, still home in Australia, going through his third round of radiation and chemotherapy treatments with a tumor in his neck after his pancreatic cancer was in remission for two years.

The elder Balfour turned 60 this year and was big into rugby, playing in the Rugby League with the Balmain Tigers in the 1970s, and their favorite team is Wests Tigers. But it was by chance that father and son discovered baseball, and both fell in love with it.

In Australia, the pecking order of team sports goes cricket, rugby, Australian Rules Football and then baseball, said Balfour, who also played soccer growing up. During media day prior to the All-Star Game at CitiField, an Australian journalist placed a used red cricket ball in front of him, and Balfour was briefly transported back home.

[REWIND: Balfour rages, then relaxes at Midsummer Classic]

"He lives through me playing," the son said of the father. "I definitely try to do whatever I can to uplift him the best that I can."

Sensing a serendipitous trend here yet?

Balfour met his wife on the operating table, so to speak. The future Angie Balfour and mother of his two daughters was the orthopedic surgeon's assistant when Balfour had his shoulder worked on to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in 2005. So yeah, she literally knew what he was all about before he even knew who she was.

"I guess she was impressed, right?" he said with a sheepish grin.

***

Balfour is a free agent at the end of this season and while holding court with a gaggle of reporters at his locker he broached the topic of the A's history of not paying players and letting them walk after they reached a certain level.

Having become the first Australian-born pitcher to appear in the All-Star Game -- he threw an inning of scoreless relief in Gotham on July 16, walking one batter -- and gaining more national notoriety with his infield act that made broadcaster Tim McCarver think there was something physically wrong with him and success -- entering Wednesday his 28 saves ranked fourth in the American League -- he is sure to deserve a raise from the $4.5-million club option Oakland picked up this offseason.

Except, there's that whole history of the A's letting their accomplished players walk when they get too expensive, as noted by Balfour.

So he'll continue to snarl and, some say, taunt the opposition as the A's attempt to reach the postseason for the second straight season. Yes, his antics caught the attention of Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols recently as he seemed to bark something at Balfour from the batter's box.

[REWIND: Balfour replaces Colon on All-Star roster]

"He did?" Balfour said. "Maybe. I don't care. That's fine. If he wants to yell something at me, I wasn't yelling at him anyways. I mean, hey, I'm out there competing. I'm trying to win. That's the way it is.

"If I was on his team and I'm his teammate, I've said it before, I'll do the same for him."

It's nothing personal, mate, just business. As it is whenever second-year catcher Derek Norris feels the need for a mound visit. There's a specific reason.

"Being focused isn't really something that we have to keep on task," Norris said. "I think sometimes (it's) trying to manage the adrenaline and the excitement that he gets when he get the chance to close out a ballgame."

Norris said it's when Balfour is too amped that his ball moves up in the zone, the result being either A) he gets hit and/or B) he walks guys.

"When he pounds the ball down in the zone and works down," Norris said, "he's very effective."

Which begs the question: how receptive was the ultra-intense Balfour, who of course dabbles in mixed martial arts workouts back in Clearwater, Fla., in the offseason, to a youngster approaching him?

"You know what, it took a little while," Norris said with a smile, "to gain trust.

"Coming in here and seeing him for the first couple of weeks, I'm like, 'I don't really know how I'm ever going to get this guy under my wing.' But he's a lot different off the field than on the field. He's very personable and he talks to guys and he's a good role model for a lot of these relievers."

So the guy who encourages headbanging anarchy when he enters a game with his act and choice of entrance music is actually mellow. Like his previous song, "Down Under," by his compatriots Men at Work.

"Too laid back," he said. "I had to change it up a little bit."

And now, thousands of A's fans rock out to his anthem, rotating their arms in a frenzy that gives the crowd, especially the right-field bleachers, a roiling look.

"I've always been the underdog," Balfour said. "You've got believe in yourself for everyone else to."

In line image of Grant Balfour and Derek Norris provided by USA TODAY IMAGES

 

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