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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.
"After a while, you just run out of adjectives," says Yankee Director of Player Development Bill Livesey.
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.