When you’re at the tender age of eight or so, picking your favorite baseball player is serious business. Of course you want a good player, so you may win any playground arguments that come along. It helps if the choice has some sort of noticeable calling card: an odd batting stance, an unusual pitching motion, or a weird walk. That way you can spend hours of your free time learning how to imitate them, most likely to the detriment of your actual baseball playing (how many swings did someone like Stan Musial screw up?), but we all know a bit of hero worship is a necessary component of childhood baseball.
My first year of true Royals fandom was 1983. That was a pretty miserable year by the standards then established by the Kansas City franchise. The team had a losing record, finished 20 games out of first place, and an ugly drug scandal overshadowed all of it. They weren’t very likable, really, and I probably needed a little time to figure out what was going on anyway.
So the 1984 season began with young Darin still trying to pick his favorite player. By now I had played enough baseball to figure out I wasn’t actually good at it. To me, that ruled out George Brett. I was the complete opposite of fast, so Willie Wilson was out. I wasn’t smooth or graceful, so no Frank White for me. Hal McRae, at age 37 on Opening Day of that season, seemed impossibly old. Not being a pitcher ruled out exciting young players like Bret Saberhagen and Danny Jackson, as well as veteran stars like Dan Quisenberry and Paul Splittorff. Not that I didn’t like these players, just that they didn’t seem like a good fit for my situation.
Ah, but the Royals had made an offseason deal for a first baseman. He was a large fellow, perfect for a kid wearing the euphemistically named “husky” jeans. He was no threat to steal a base, perfect for the slowest kid on the team. And he struck out a lot, perfect for a bad hitter. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect fit. Coaches wisely kept me as far from the ball as possible–they probably wouldn’t have put me at first base except as a last resort. When Balboni did make contact, the ball went far, while I was no threat to hit the fence. But home runs were exciting, and Balboni hit 28 of them, easily leading the Royals. And in a vast improvement over 1983, the Royals won the division. I was smitten. Steve Balboni was my first favorite player.
As you all know, the next season Balboni would slam 36 home runs, setting the Royals’ single-season record. I loved every minute of it. Especially when that team captured the World Series title.
Silly me thought things would always be so easy. Sure, even then I knew Royals Stadium wasn’t a home run haven, but John Mayberry had hit 34 homers just 10 years earlier, the year I was born. I never would have dreamed it would take the Royals almost 30 years just to return to the playoffs, and even longer for someone to break Balboni’s record.
At last, here we are on the cusp of that record going down. Mike Moustakas has 35 home runs with 39 games left this season. Barring injury, the record is going bye-bye.
You might think I’m sad to see it go. And you’d be partially correct. Thirty-six has been burned into my consciousness for three decades now, through Bo Jackson, Gary Gaetti, Bob Hamelin, Mike Sweeney, and Carlos Beltran.
Meanwhile, the record itself has gone from oddity to embarrassment to a somewhat perverse point of pride. Balboni didn’t even stick with the Royals through the 1988 season and was basically done as a major league player by 1990. As the steroid era took over baseball and home runs skyrocketed, the Royals had a couple of challengers to the mark, but mainly it was one more fact that showed the Royals’ ineptitude– they couldn’t come up with a single player who could hit 37 home runs, when seemingly every other team had multiple players like that. Then, when the Royals finally got good again, it showed they were bucking the trend, winning without hitting homers.
But time marches along. The record is soon to fall, and it is long past time for it to go. It is entirely possible that Moustakas goes far enough past 36 that this is the last time I see it broken. Or maybe there’s a minor leaguer in the system right now who will break it. Either way, I know there are lots of little kids out there who view Moustakas the way I viewed Balboni. I think it’s pretty cool they get to see their favorite player succeed like this.