Baltimore Orioles’ fans saluted pitcher Jeff Ballard as one of their 50 all-time favorite players in 2004 — and the personable Billings native is still beaming years later.
“I have a really cool picture of the players that could be there,” he said of joining the legendary Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, teammate Cal Ripken Jr., and others on the field during a special ceremony at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
“That was one of the neatest honors, and something I will be proud to tell my son and daughter about.”
Looking back, Ballard worked his way into that iconic photograph — now hanging in his family room — and endeared himself with Orioles’ fans forever by being part of so many big moments in 1989 on what is now one of the most memorable teams in Baltimore history.
Twenty-five years ago, this summer, he emerged as the American League’s winningest lefthander in helping the Orioles, who were given little chance of competing, make one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the history of Major League Baseball.
“The fans were incredibly thankful and invigorated by that team,” Ballard said. “It was known as the ‘Why Not’ team. Why not us? Why can’t we win? Why not?
“I still think to this day, for the diehard Oriole fans, this is one of the more remarkable seasons — even competing with their World Series championships.”
It was an extraordinary story — attracting national attention — about a Baltimore team that went from 54 wins and 107 losses the year before — including an 0-21 start — to 87 wins, spending many weeks in first place and taking a shot at the postseason.
“It was just a group of guys coming together, playing out of their heads and just getting on a roll,” Ballard said. “It just shows you what momentum can do in sports.”
Comeback stories, unlikely victories and “tons of support” from Billings fans and well-wishers, who would show up at ballparks across the country, are all part of the splendid memories he has of the Orioles’ magical summer.
Along the way, Ballard developed into one of Baltimore’s leading players, going from being the Orioles’ fifth starter to the team’s ace in winning 18 games and finishing sixth in the voting for the Cy Young Award, which recognizes pitching excellence.
“Should have won 20,” he said of his career year. “I had lots of opportunities to win games where I pitched exceedingly well, but we just didn’t score runs. Otherwise, I got my share of wins.”
The fact that all that heart, hard work and 33 come-from-behind victories by the Orioles happened a quarter century ago “makes it seem more surreal than anything,” the former Billings West, Billings Scarlets and Stanford University standout said in a recent interview.
“It almost seems funny that I played,” added Ballard, 51, who pitched for Baltimore from 1987-91 and has been out of baseball since 1995. “It is really nice, though, to look back and have a year like that to experience what it was like to be on top of the league.”
He is now a senior vice president for Ballard Petroleum Holdings LLC, a Billings business started by his father, Bill. He is also chairman of the board for the Billings American Legion baseball program, and has come close to winning state amateur golf championships.
Back in 1989, Ballard became an instant fan favorite in Baltimore by becoming the first O’s pitcher to go 5-0 in April, beginning with an 8-1 victory at Minnesota, in which he pitched a complete game.
Wins over Boston, Kansas City, California and Seattle followed, and Ballard, in displaying excellent control, was honored as the American League’s pitcher of the month for April, receiving a crystal baseball and framed photograph — which he still treasures.
“It wasn’t just about me, though,” he said. “We were having so much fun as a team.”
For the most part, with the exception of Ripken, a future Hall of Famer, the Orioles were a bunch of homegrown prospects, rookies, castoffs and players acquired in trades, with the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Ballard, whose fastball only reached around 85 mph, fitting right in.
“I didn’t throw hard enough to strike out many guys, but I had good enough movement and good enough breaking balls that I could miss the barrel (of the bat),” he said.
Ballard started out 8-1 and had a 10-4 record in early July, but wasn’t chosen for the All-Star Game, one of the few disappointments of the summer.
“I thought I deserved it,” he said. “I had been one of the top pitchers in the American League all year. I didn’t strike out many batters. I wasn’t much of a crowd pleaser, so I don’t think (All-Star manager Tony LaRussa) had a lot of respect for my ability to pitch.”
In shrugging off the snub, Ballard, who pitched in 2151/3 innings that season with a 3.43 ERA, put together another stretch where he won seven of nine outings from late August through September.
There was the unusual game at home against Milwaukee on Aug. 21, where he won 5-0 and became the first Oriole pitcher to ever throw a complete game without having walked or struck out a batter.
It wouldn’t be done in the majors again for 25 years, and has only been accomplished nine times in the last 62 years.
During his next outing on Aug. 25 at Yankee Stadium, he became the first major-league pitcher to strike out Don Mattingly three times in a single game.
“I think he viewed me as being not that good,” Ballard said of the Yankees star. “For him to strike out three times against someone like me just really upset him.”
Another unforgettable experience for Ballard was pitching in the opening game of a critical series in Toronto in late September.
The Orioles were trailing the Blue Jays in the AL East by one game, with three to play and the postseason on the line when he stepped on the SkyDome mound.
“The vibration of the noise (from the screaming crowd) was so loud and so dramatic that I literally couldn’t feel the baseball,” Ballard said. “I really remember distinctly taking my windup for my first pitch and thinking ‘I hope I don’t throw this into the stands.’ Muscle memory, thank God, took over and I threw a strike.”
He pitched a shutout into the eighth inning and left with a 1-0 lead, but the Orioles eventually lost 2-1 and wound up finishing second to the Blue Jays and missing out on the postseason.
“I know what it would be like to pitch in the playoffs,” said Ballard, who finished with an 18-8 record. “That was a playoff atmosphere. I don’t think a World Series game would have any more drama, at least from my perspective.”
Before the 1990 season, Ballard underwent two surgeries on his left elbow to remove bone spurs. He was also elected as the Orioles’ player representative, attending time-consuming bargaining sessions in New York as a lockout unfolded.
“I should have been worried about my elbow,” he said. “I should have been rehabbing my arm, getting ready to go.”
Instead, struggles ensued for Ballard, who won just two games in 1990, and was 8-23 for Baltimore over his final two seasons there.
He made it back to the majors with Pittsburgh in 1993, but after being seriously injured in an auto accident in Idaho in January 1995, Ballard’s baseball career was over.
While recovering from a broken neck at his parents’ home and wondering about his future, he said his father offered him a job at Ballard Petroleum.
“He said, ‘It would make me proud to have both my sons working with me,’” said Ballard, who has a geophysics degree from Stanford. “It was one of those life-changing father-son moments. I’ll never forget it.”
He officially joined his dad and brother, Dave, at the family business in January 1996 — and a lot has happened since then.
In 2008, Ballard married Kristen Callison, and they have a son, Kyren, 5, and a daughter, Kennley, 2.
Now out of the big leagues for much longer than he played, Ballard said his role as a husband and father is “incredibly fulfilling. It’s been the greatest blessing in my life.
“Every year is a 1989 from that perspective, for sure.”