They call it “Balfour Rage.”
Major League Baseball’s most famous Australian made headlines and generated tons of hits on YouTube after his near-dustup at the end of a playoff game on Monday. As it turned out, nothing really happened, but everybody got to hear Grant Balfour dropping F-bombs in an Aussie accent.
Balfour, the Oakland Athletics’ closer, was facing the Detroit Tigers’ Victor Martinez when the verbal spat broke out. Though neither is an American (Martinez is from Venezuela), they understood each other perfectly. After the benches cleared and both teams were warned, Balfour retired Martinez on a fly ball and closed out the A’s 6-3 victory with a save.
For a team that’s a frequent postseason visitor but hasn’t tasted the ultimate success in 24 years, Balfour’s lack of anger management might just be what the A’s need.
The son of a professional rugby player, Balfour grew up in Sydney but as a kid took up the foreign sport of baseball instead. Signed by the Minnesota Twins in 1997 after he just turned 19, he toiled in the minors for four years before making his major league debut in 2001.
He’s bounced around with five organizations in his career and didn’t really find a fixed role until he joined Tampa Bay in 2007. He became the setup man in the Rays’ patchwork bullpen that played a key role in winning the 2008 American League pennant.
Being sent down to the minors in the beginning of the 2008 season was the catalyst for Balfour Rage. He developed a motivational technique where he would ceaselessly talk to himself, liberally sprinkling his self-dialogues with curse words. His proclivity with expletives became so well known by his peers that he was voted “the worst potty mouth in baseball” in an informal poll by ESPN the Magazine.
"It gets me fired up and locked in," he told ESPN matter-of-factly after receiving the dubious honor. "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?"
Most players by now are familiar with Balfour’s mostly harmless antics, though he did get into a heated exchange with Orlando Cabrera in the 2008 playoffs (video). But by working himself into a lather, Balfour has also emerged as one of the best relief pitchers in baseball.
This season he saved 38 games for the A’s as they won their second consecutive AL West title. Balfour also became the first Aussie to pitch in an All-Star Game this summer, at the age of 35. And he’s quite popular in Oakland, home to a devoted section of Balfour fans in the right-field bleachers. Last month, the team even handed out “Grant Balfour Ragin’ Gnome” as a promotion for a game.
The intensity that Balfour brings with him may actually serve the A’s very well. The team is full of young and easygoing ballplayers who are not exactly battle-tested in the postseason. Oakland’s payroll of $68 million this season is once again among the lowest in baseball – contrast that with the $149 million for the Tigers or the $229 million of the New York Yankees who didn’t even make the playoffs.
Balfour came to Oakland with not just the foul-mouthed swagger, but also experience, having been on the Rays’ division-winning 2008 and 2010 squads. He provides the anchor for a bullpen that hasn’t had one since the team shipped off former closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox in 2012.
Entering Thursday night’s winner-take-all Game 5 in Oakland, it’s the seventh time the A’s have made the playoffs since 2000, yet they’ve advanced past the divisional round just once. They were eliminated by the Tigers in both of their last two postseason appearances (in 2006 and 2012), and are the brink of a third. With Balfour already earning a win and a save in their two victories, the A’s hope they’ll finally get over the hump.
His teammates certainly don’t mind his fiery personality. In fact, they embrace it.
"It's just Balfour being Balfour," said A's catcher Stephen Vogt after Monday’s kerfuffle. "He's crazy and we love him for it."
They’d like nothing better than for Balfour to close out one more game against the Tigers and carry that rage all the way to Boston for a shot at the American League pennant.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.