TORONTO, 30 July - In true Aussie form, Grant Balfour is quietly representing all that is good in Australian baseball this season with the Oakland Athletics.
On Wednesday night after the A’s game against the Blue Jays, he waited by his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Rogers Centre, knowing that one lone reporter was hoping to speak with him after talking to his Australian teammate, Travis Blackley.
The locker room was quickly emptying and the team’s bus was ready to leave, but Balfour made sure he had time to answer at least a couple of questions. It’s true Aussie form.
“We’ll have to be quick then,” he said after being told that the bus was heading out at that very moment.
As three of his fellow countrymen walked through Oakland’s doors this season, the right-hander laid out the red carpet one-by-one for Rich Thompson, Luke Hughes and Blackley, welcoming them and making them feel at home, in true Aussie form.
Balfour knew that he had a unique opportunity back in April, with three Australian players on the same big-league team together for the first time in the game’s history. He ensured that they were put on display and covered by the media adequately enough so that baseball back home would receive some deserved attention, and that their patriotism would not go unnoticed overseas. In true Aussie form.
“We wanted to make sure that something was done over there,” Hughes said in May, while he was still playing with Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate. “So people actually knew that we actually did have three Aussies. It didn’t last long, but it was cool while it lasted.
“And Balfy was great. He’s been over there [with the Athletics] for two years now and he helped us out in selling it. He took care of us, as all Aussies do. When someone comes into a new team, they take care of him and show him the ropes and stuff...Australians just stick together, that’s just the way we are.”
Thompson’s welcome from Balfour was just as warm as the reliever’s greeting for Hughes shortly thereafter. Though the trio of players from down under were only together for a brief time, Thompson was proud to be a part of something special, even though it was short-lived.
“It was great for the two days it happened,” Thompson said in May, with the Sacramento River Cats. “Obviously being with Balf, who I’ve looked up to for a long time, being a little older and doing exactly what I do, he’s someone you can take a leaf out of his book to just keep working hard and hopefully it will pay off.
“And then obviously Hughesy, we’re the same age and we’ve played against each other and played with each other on youth Australian teams. Throughout our playing careers we’ve been against each other and playing with each other. So it was such a great thing to have a guy that you’ve basically grown up with on a team and being teammates.”
When Blackley arrived in Oakland, Hughes and Thompson had already been moved elsewhere in the organisation. Balfour was a familiar face for the southpaw, and a little taste of home.
“I’ve known him since I was 17,” Blackley said. “I hadn’t seen him for a while but he’s the same guy. That’s always been one of Balf’s things. He’s the same dude whether he’s in the big leagues or in Triple-A or [anywhere].
“I think a lot of Aussies try to do that. You’re no better than anyone else of a person, you just happen to be playing at a different level. That’s what it is. When I go home, I try to be the same guy I am from before; shouldn’t be any different.”
Balfour has so far pieced together a very successful season with the Athletics. The 34-year-old is 2-2 with a 2.89 ERA out of the bullpen in 47 appearances, recording seven saves, striking out 37 batters, and holding opponents to a .183 average.
Along with consistently working on his game throughout the season, he always manages to find time to spread the word about America’s favourite pastime down under, or to talk about his Aussie teammates, in an attempt to help grow the game back home.
“The media are obviously going to fuel the sport and get us on the map,” Balfour said. “It’s been a thing of the past where it’s been tough to get that kind of media and exposure in Australia, because it’s not a big sport over there.
“But having more guys over here playing and getting a little more exposure and being on TV, I guess they’re starting to get SportsCenter over there and on the paid TV, the games are being played more over there. People are starting to notice it a lot more.”
Blackley can vouch for that.
“I’ve had friends telling me how many A’s hats they’ve seen rolling around Melbourne right now,” the 29-year-old said. “Another fan actually that’s on my Twitter, tweeted to me that he was in Australia and he was walking down the street in an A’s shirt and hat and someone actually stopped him and said, ‘Hey man, do you know this guy?’, naming me.
“This guy didn’t even play baseball. He just happened to watch SportsCenter. So that’s pretty cool to hear that. I had no idea. Hopefully, a couple years from now, it’s an everyday thing.”