KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's a familiar winter ritual--the veteran baseball player going through rigorous off-season workouts, aiming to be in the best shape of his life by the time spring training rolls around.
So it is with Steve Balboni, who has averaged 29 home runs the past four seasons. Balboni is making regular trips to the batting cage, and a regimen of running and lifting weights every day since the holidays has brought his weight down by about 20 pounds to 230.
But for the soft-spoken slugger, it's a case of all slimmed down and no place to go.
The Kansas City Royals, who balked at bringing him back a year ago because of concerns about a back injury, now flatly say he doesn't figure in their plans. He was not offered a contract in December, and among the 12 other teams he's contacted only the Detroit Tigers, who just lost Kirk Gibson to the Dodgers, have shown any interest.
"I'm preparing myself as if I'm going to spring training with someone," said Balboni, 31. "But the surprising thing to me is that there has been no interest. I mean, we haven't even discussed money, which seems to be a problem with most players."
The Royals, General Manager John Schuerholz said, no longer have use for Balboni. They plan to run a lot this season and want Jim Eisenreich, not Balboni, to be their full-time designated hitter.
"He isn't even in our plans anymore," Schuerholz said. "We may reconsider later, but the way we're putting the club together, he doesn't fit in."
During a road trip in September 1986, Balboni's ailing back was examined by Dr. Robert Kerlan, medical director of the California Angels, who diagnosed two herniated spinal disks and said surgery was necessary.
Later, it was discovered that the disks were bulging, but not herniated, and although Balboni didn't need surgery, the Royals still had doubts about his condition and wouldn't offer him a contract last year.
Then, just before spring training, they reached agreement on a deal giving him a $100,000 base salary with the chance to bring it to $525,000 through incentives if he stayed healthy.
Right before the start of the season, Balboni found out through a reporter that he would be the designated hitter, with rookie Kevin Seitzer taking over at first base.
"That was really crummy," Balboni said. "It was like they were testing me all spring, almost like they were hoping I'd hurt my back by playing at first every day. And then I have to hear it from a reporter that I was going to be a DH."
He got off to a slow start, hitting .188 in the first two months of the season, and was benched two weeks before the All-Star break. But he rebounded in August and finished with 24 homers and 60 runs batted in.
"I quit being upset, and that's why things changed after the first half," Balboni said. "If I had had a good first half, I would have been the DH all year. Maybe I'd still be here."