- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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This won't be easy. What you're about to read is an attempt to convey the visceral experience of standing in the batter's box and staring out -- ears wide open -- at A's closer Grant Balfour. The idea is for you to acquaint yourself with the words you're likely to hear and decide how you -- and he -- might react in their aftermath.
Those words, unfortunately, are a significant obstacle in our medium of choice. Balfour's language is the beating heart of this story, and his language is something you're going to have to intuit rather than read. The trick is to write about Balfour's language without using a significant portion of Balfour's actual language. It's all very meta.
Balfour is an Australian, the son of a former professional rugby player, and he plays baseball as if it's a contact sport. He storms in from the bullpen like a Marine taking a hill who doesn't care if the other guy knows he's coming. Balfour starts screaming about the time he throws his last warm-up pitch and stops about the time he gets in his car to drive home.
"I like to get myself pumped up and get to that state of mind," he says. "There are times when I'm out of control."
Balfour is an intense guy. His close-set eyes and MMA fighter's build intensify the intensity. He starts every game with a shot of Extra Strength 5-Hour Energy chased with a cup of strong coffee. He stalks the clubhouse for the first four innings -- showering, dressing, watching some of the game -- before heading to the bullpen, hoping his team stays ahead and the game stays close so he can pitch a meaningful inning, yell as much as he wants and burn off all that caffeine.
"It gets me fired up and locked in," he says. "Some guys don't like to show it on the outside, but I know they're fiery on the inside. I let it out, you know?"
By now, most everyone knows. You get the feeling Balfour was one of those kids who always had to be reminded to use his inside voice. After his first spring training appearance as an Athletic in 2011 -- apparently a noisy, expletive-filled affair -- Balfour walked into the clubhouse and perceived a slightly quizzical look on the face of Oakland media relations man Bob Rose.
"Don't worry, Bobby," Balfour said. "That's just the way I am."
What does he yell? Well, his monologues are spicy enough to have earned him the top spot in the Potty Mouth Division of ESPN The Magazine's confidential poll of big leaguers. (The question was this: Which player has the worst potty mouth in baseball? Balfour finished ahead of A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis.) And since there is a bleeping rich and storied bleeping tradition of swearing in bleeping Major League Baseball, it takes some serious bleeping work to reach the top of the profession.
Of course, words are what you make of them. Say a word often enough (hint: even the one word that is universally accepted as the worst word) and it becomes less shocking. Use it in as many parts of speech as possible and it just might disappear into a haze of confusion, devoid of its original meaning.
These words -- and all those forms of that word -- flow out of Balfour's mouth so easily that eventually they don't seem nasty, vulgar or particularly offensive. Balfour's melodic Australian accent can make even that word -- including a certain 12-letter mega-version of that word -- sound poetic.
All of which skirts the issue: What's the man saying out there?
"You gonna write it word for word?" Balfour asks.
"Give me an example and I'll give it a shot," I tell him.
He narrows his eyes, stares out as if he's about to face Albert Pujols, opens his mouth and unspools an 18-word stream of invective
and I am here to tell you that I have a better chance of jumping into the Pacific Ocean and swimming to Japan by noon Friday than those 18 words have of finding their way past my editors.
And those 18 words -- phrased in the form of a question and including two variations of that word and a reference to a body part -- were an example of words he uses on himself. They're part of the personal motivational formula Balfour employs just to make sure he doesn't forget who he is and suddenly decide to come to the stretch position, smile at the hitter and ask him where he'd like the pitch to be thrown.
Like all good motivational techniques, Balfour's was born in anger. He was sent down by the Rays at the beginning of 2008, at which point he showed the first signs of Balfour Rage, a phenomenon popular enough in Oakland to have its own Twitter feed. (Sample: "Just shotgunned a grande quad Americano. Stay the [bleep] out of my way!") When he was called back up, he was like a colicky infant: fussy, loud and more than a little pissed off. He decided the big league world would just have to deal with it.
"I told myself I wanted to be one of the best relievers in the game," says Balfour, who saved 24 games last year after compiling 10 in parts of nine years before 2012. "That meant you've got to give it all you've got every minute. I asked myself, 'You want to [bleeping] excel?' So that's the route I took. I was a little pissed off too. I had a little fire in me. I had a little chip on my shoulder."
Lucky for Balfour, his on-mound monologues are generally directed at the man delivering them, for personal motivation. They are rarely thrown, like verbal Molotovs, at the hitter.
"Listen, I'm not going to lie to you," he says, cringing a bit. "A couple of times, they have been."
There was a memorable mid-April encounter with the Angels' Mark Trumbo, who made the mistake of taking a pitch Balfour didn't think he could hit and turning it into a single. What followed was an ear-searing, 90-foot verbal assault. Balfour created a cuss-word contrail behind the poor guy's entire trip to first base. Or, in an effort to walk perilously close to Balfour territory, the 12-letter verb-form-of-that-worded Trumbo all the way to the bag.
"I got too carried away," Balfour says. "Probably took it too far that time. I was pissed at myself, and I took it out on the [bleeping] hitter. I don't know what it is. I just snap sometimes."
Trumbo rounded first and barked a few words back at Balfour.
"I didn't hear it, though," Balfour says. "I kind of felt bad."
The idea of an apology is floated. Did he apologize? Might he apologize at some later date?
The look on Balfour's face suggests that this idea has not occurred to him. Nor will it ever again.
"I respect the game, and I respect the guys," he says. "But if you hit a double and you're standing at second base doing [bleeping] cartwheels and slamming basketballs and whatever else they do these days, I figure: Screw it. You're not going to bitch when I'm out there doing my thing."
He shrugs. A smile begins creeping in from the corners.
"Things happen every once in a while, yeah?"
Cover your sensitive ears when the A's Grant Balfour is on the mound. His is not a mouth for the faint of heart.