The man steps in, uniform tugging at the wrong contours of his body. He’s ready to hit and as the pitch heads towards home plate, he flails at it, missing for strike one. The pitcher winds again and delivers another pitch and again, this mustachioed slugger swings and misses.
On his third swing, however, he drives the ball up into a majestic arc that clears the fence – a home run!
In 1985, as part of a World Series winning team, Steve Balboni hit 36 blasts to set a Royals team record in a memorable season.
That record stands to this day.
It’s a source of shame in some regards, as the 36 home run mark is the lowest number for any current team’s record. In 1969, the Royals were added to the major leagues along with the Seattle Pilots (later the Milwaukee Brewers), the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals). Since, those other three teams have had a slugger surpass the 36 mark in setting their respective team’s record for homers in a season.
Later, the Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, and Arizona Diamondbacks have been introduced to the league, even as recently as 1998. Each of those expansion teams has a team record for homers greater than Balboni’s 36.
Balboni’s 36 homers in that championship season rates as the 463rd highest single-season home run total in baseball history. That’s not to say that the 36 home run mark isn’t impressive – it certainly is – but it lacks a certain punch to it (ironically) when the mark has been reached by such slugging legends as Morgan Ensberg and Ed Sprague. Shoot, even Bret Boone and Rich Aurilia managed 37 homers at least once in their careers.
The Royals have been close to surpassing the record.
In 1987, Danny Tartabull finished the year with 34 homers, including five hit from September 25 until the end of the season. It was too little too late, and he fell just shy of Balboni’s tally. Bo Jackson hit 32 in 1989, but only played in 135 games that season. Perhaps with just 15 more, he’d have found a way to hit five more homers.
Since Balboni’s record-setting season, the player to come closest to reaching his mark was Gary Gaetti. Amazing, but true. Gaetti hit 35 homers in 1995 as a Royal after being picked up off the scrap heap in 1993. The 35 homers were a career high for Gaetti. He opened September with 29 homers and hit his 34th homer on the 17th. He didn’t hit his 35th until the last day of the season on October 1. Dean Palmer hit 34 in 1998.
The best shot in recent history came in 2000. Jermaine Dye opened the season with 11 homers in April. His first half was enough to get him elected as a starter in the All Star Game. Elected. Not chosen by the manager, not an injury fill in. Fans not only noticed his hitting and voted him into the game. That hadn’t happened since Bo Jackson in 1989 and, obviously, hasn’t happened since.
Dye wasn’t able to keep up his torrid pace. Even as early as May, he only hit three homers. He opened June with homers on four consecutive days, but added just two more in the month. At the All Star break, he had 19. Still, to start the month of September, he had 31 homers. The record was within reach and Dye added his 32nd homer on the first day of the month. He hit just one more homer on September 17 to finish with 33 on the year.
The Royals haven’t had a 30 homer season since. In 2002, Carlos Beltran hit 29, but since then, the Royals have been led by Mark Teahen, John Buck and Yuniesky Betancourt. Murderer’s Row, they are not.
So what gives?
Kauffman Stadium has traditionally been a pitcher’s park, depressing home run numbers. In the 1980s, the fences were deep to accentuate the Royals great team speed in the outfield and on the bases. Just look at how many triples the team hit before exchanging turf for grass in 1995 and moving the fences in a bit. Still, it’s a big park and if you’re looking for homers, they aren’t as common as in other stadiums.
That’s one strike against a respectable record. A second knock against the Royals can be found by looking at the talent in place for some of the years. As mentioned above, Mark Teahen, John Buck and Yuniesky Betancourt have led the team in homers. In 1992 and 1993, Mike Macfarlane led the team – with 17 and 20 homers respectively. Combine those two seasons and he has the record, so that counts right?
The Royals simply haven’t had home run hitters in place to break the record – or come close.
But times they are a-changin’ and with Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers leading every Royals prospect list, a new wave of hitting talent lurks ready to take a run at Balboni. Billy Butler has as much pop in his bat as anybody in the league, but his approach leads to more gap to gap hits and ground balls. If he changed that to swing for the fences more often, he could be a contender for the Royals home run throne. Kila Ka’aihue knocked out 37 homers across two levels of the minors in 2008 and hit 32 between Omaha and Kansas City last season. Even Wilson Betemit hit 18 homers in 2006 in 373 at bats. Maybe a full season of regular at bats could get him to 36 and beyond.
That’s not to say that surpassing 36 homers is supposed to be easy. In the last three years, there have only been nine 40-homer seasons in the majors. Even when the ball (and allegedly many players) was juiced, there were just 12 such home run outputs in 2001. In the last ten seasons, the 40 homer mark has been reached 73 times. It happens, but it’s still a feat when it does.
You were safe in 2010, Balboni, but I have a feeling you’re going to be sweating it out over the next few years. That record was made to be broken.
A list of Royals single-season home run leaders since 1985
Topics: AL Central, Baseball, Billy Butler, Bo Jackson, Carlos Beltran, Danny Tartabull, Eric Hosmer, Gary Gaetti, Kansas City Royals, KC, Kila Kaaihue, Mike Moustakas, MLB, Royals, Steve Balboni, Wil Myers, Wilson Betemit