OAKLAND, CALIF. – For most of his decade-plus in the big leagues, Grant Balfour has thought about what it would be like to be an All-Star. At 35, in the midst of his best season, he’s finally made it.
And what a long journey it has been for Balfour, the Australian righthander who had stops in Minnesota, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay before signing a free-agent contract with Oakland in 2011 and eventually becoming the team’s closer.
With 25 saves in 25 chances and a 1.63 ERA, Balfour has been a major factor in the A’s getting to the All-Star break 17 games over .500 at 56-39, two games ahead of the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
“I like the fact that he really competes and isn’t scared,” one American League scout said of Balfour, a late addition to the All-Star squad because teammate Bartolo Colon was unavailable after pitching Sunday.
The A’s don’t have an intimidating roster, which is perhaps why they have only two players on the All-Star team, but they do have a fight-to-the-end attitude that is a reflection of their closer.
Before settling on baseball, Balfour participated in rugby, soccer, swimming and track and field.
“I fell in love with the game,” he said. “I like being out there with the game on the line.”
Said another American League scout: “He’s fearless. He seizes the moment and appears to have controlled rage, which develops a tremendous environment for the A’s.”
Balfour comes into games with the Metallica song “One” blaring over the Coliseum sound system, and fans throughout the stadium dance at their seats as he makes his entrance and takes his warm-ups.
The Balfour Rage is on.
Balfour agrees that “rage” is the right word to describe his attitude on the mound.
“That’s not from me; I’m not a self-promoter,” Balfour said. “But I can get a little bit crazy on the mound. I love the support I get from the great fans in Oakland when I come into a game. I know they’re truly behind me. It helps get me in the zone.”
Controlled rage, Balfour said, “suits me.”
Balfour is a competitive athlete, maybe even hypercompetitive, a trait he might have inherited from his father, David Balfour, who spent the early part of his life playing rugby.
Even now, Balfour’s dad is competing, as he tries to beat cancer for the second time. Last week, David Balfour began chemotherapy and radiation after a cancerous tumor was discovered on his neck.
“The doctors say he’s already lasted longer than most everybody who has this form of the disease,” Balfour said. “But he’s fighting it. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t. He expects to beat it.”
It’s that kind of attitude that Balfour takes to the mound. Not the prettiest of pitchers, he doesn’t have a 100 mph fastball. But he’s the only closer in the majors without a blown save this season, so his fastball obviously is plenty good enough.
He has 43 consecutive saves dating to last season.
“The streak speaks for itself,” manager Bob Melvin said. “And it’s not just this year, but last year, too. We feel very comfortable when he takes the mound with the lead. He’s not someone who backs down from a challenge.”
Last October, with the A’s down two games to one in the AL playoffs and facing a two-run deficit in the ninth inning of Game 4, Balfour made an impassioned plea to his teammates to believe in themselves.
“I said, ‘Believe it. Believe it. See yourself run on that field. Every one of you, put your mind to it and believe it and see yourself run on the field with a walk-off victory. Just see it and believe it,’ ” Balfour recalled.
The A’s rallied to beat Detroit and square the series at 2-2 before losing Game 5. It wasn’t for a lack of fight.
If he pitches in the All-Star Game on Tuesday, Balfour expects to bring the same attitude with him as if he were pitching in Oakland.
“I’ll bring that intensity with me,” he said. “That’s who I am. That’s how I pitch. I’m not going to go out there and do cartwheels, but I’ll pitch how I pitch.”
It works for the A’s.