CLEVELAND — The New York Yankees were keyed up for the season opener after three weeks of rigorous practice in a lockout-shortened spring training. What was their reward? A night off in Cleveland.
"Pretty exciting, huh?" Rick Cerone said, pouring on the sarcasm, "and the really good thing is the next time we're in here we get to stay an extra day."
As several Yankees discussed the distasteful aspects of playing in such conditions, Steve Balboni listened but offered no opinion. Balboni, a quiet sort, rarely says much anyway, but for now the topic of playing rain or shine does not pertain to him.
Manager Bucky Dent's decision to have Dave Winfield begin the season as the designated hitter has reduced Balboni's role. He was the projected designated hitter against left-handed pitching, so Balboni would not have been in the Opening-Day lineup against right-hander Tom Candiotti. But, when the Indians come back with lefty Bud Black on Thursday in the Yankees' home opener at Yankee Stadium, Balboni again will be on the bench.
There was talk in the organization last year that, when Winfield returned from a year's layoff because of back surgery, he would be a designated hitter, but the Nov. 11 signing of Balboni for $2 million over two years suggested that plan was scrapped. That was before a lockout wiped out 32 days of spring training, precious time for Winfield to prove he could play left field regularly. Dent is skeptical at this point, but Balboni is the actual victim. "I can only be honest with players," Dent said. "I told Bones (Balboni) the truth straight out. I'll try to get him as many at-bats as I can until things fall into place."
Balboni, who batted .237 in '89 but had 17 home runs and 59 RBI in 300 at-bats, has been relegated to pinch-hitting and backing up Don Mattingly at first base.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Balboni said. "I'll just have to wait and see what happens. No one wants to sit on the bench. If I felt I didn't want to play, I might as well not be here. The organization has been good to me, so I'm willing to wait it out."
Balboni's loyalty to the Yankees is genuine. He was eligible for free agency after last season but signed with the Yankees four days before the free-agent filing deadline.
"This was the only organization that wanted me," Balboni said. "Boston and Detroit needed a first baseman, but they had their chance to get me for not much money a few years ago and didn't even talk to me. I figured why bother to talk to them now? The Yankees got me last year when nobody else wanted me. They've always treated me with respect."
Balboni's career was almost over May 27, 1988, when the Kansas City Royals released him. He signed with the Seattle Mariners, who put him on the block immediately after Balboni won an $800,000 salary in arbitration. The Yankees acquired him in spring '89 for pitcher Dana Ridenour.