PORT CHARLOTTE — Grant Balfour’s first car was a Holden Astra, a practical ride given to him by his grandparents when he was 16.
“It had a few thousand miles on it,” Balfour said. “I drove the wheels off it.”
At the time, Balfour was an emerging pro prospect in his native Australia, three years away from signing a minor-league contract with the Minnesota Twins. He was a catcher then. He didn’t give a moment’s thought to becoming a big-league closer.
Heck, it was only two years earlier that he learned baseball wasn’t an Australian sport, that it was actually played in other parts of the world.
“I didn’t see it on TV,” Balfour said. “I was never aware it was played in America. I thought it was only played in Australia. I didn’t know.”
Last Wednesday, Balfour put a charge into the Rays’ camp when he drove his latest ride into the players’ parking lot at Charlotte Sports Park — a midnight-black Freightliner P4XL.
The semi-truck cab set on a sport chassis frame has a 50-foot TV in the back and sells for roughly $250,000. Balfour used his Ferrari as a trade-in.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said.
When last seen in a Rays uniform, Balfour was a capable set-up man yearning for the chance to close games. He helped pitch the Rays to the 2008 World Series and another division title in 2010, then was part of the exodus after that season. He landed in Oakland in 2011, where he took over the ninth-inning duties in 2012 and helped the A’s to a pair of division titles while saving a combined 62 games the past two years.
“He had that killer instinct that a closer has to have,” Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist recalled. “I think he was just developing it while he was here, coming into his own a little bit, but still not there yet. Once he went to Oakland he found himself as a full-time closer.”
Balfour never wanted to leave Tampa Bay. He and his wife, Angie, and their daughters Raegan, 2, and Rielyn, 1, live in Clearwater in a house Balfour had built during his first go-round with the Rays (By the way, Raegan loves it when her dad picks her up at school in the Freightliner. The other kids run to the fence and stare in amazement.)
But like many of his 2010 teammates, Balfour hit free agency, and the A’s made an offer the Rays couldn’t match, paying him $12.6 million over the past three seasons.
A free agent again this season, Balfour had a two-year, $14 million deal nixed with Baltimore after the Orioles decided he failed their physical.
The Rays swooped in with a two-year, $12 million deal. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon quickly anointed Balfour the closer, and the 36-year-old right-hander is back where he always wanted to be pitching in a role he always wanted.
Balfour did save eight games for the Rays, four each during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
“Do I wish I could have continued to do it? Yeah, I did,” he said. “I always wanted to be in that role. I like that intensity. The late-inning roles are fun. Everybody wants to be in that situation, to be able to succeed at this level in those roles. I was given the opportunity (in Oakland) and it all just came together.”
Balfour is the rare member of the Rays who didn’t dream of being a big-leaguer when he was a kid. Growing up in New South Wales, Australia, his idols played rugby, cricket and soccer. His favorite team was the Balmain Tigers of the New South Wales Rugby League. Balfour’s father, David, played for the Tigers. Balfour’s father also started a T-ball baseball league so his son could play the American sport.
David Balfour later became the general manager of Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League. Grant was a bat boy for the team and met a handful of players who joined the Blue Sox on loan from the Toronto Blue Jays for what amounted to winter ball.
“I always loved the game of baseball, but I didn’t know where it was taking me,” Balfour said. “It wasn’t a childhood dream of a 6-year-old kid, 7, 8, seeing the stars playing in the states. I was looking at cricket players and football players, growing up watching them play.”
Turns out the sport has taken Balfour for quite a ride, to the World Series, an All-Star game and the back of the Rays bullpen.
“I took what I could get and made the most of it,” Balfour said. “That’s what I told myself, ‘You got the opportunity now, let’s run with it,’ and it’s worked out. Now I want to hold on to it as long as I can.”