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Catching up with Orioles pitcher Jeff Ballard

The picture hangs on the wall of his family room in Billings, Mont., proof of the affection that fans still have for pitcher Jeff Ballard. It’s a photo of the most popular Orioles of all time — and there, standing on the field at Camden Yards among guys named Brooks and Cal and Brady and Boog, is an unassuming player with an ordinary fastball who lost more games than he won.

So why would fans, in 2004, vote Ballard among their 50 best-loved Birds?

“I wasn’t flashy, but I worked hard and got the job done,” the 47-year-old lefthander said. “I was a nice guy who signed a lot of autographs and, even when things got bad, I never carried an attitude.

“I’m honored that fans think that highly of me. Though I played my last two years in Pittsburgh, I never stopped calling myself an Oriole. Baltimore was home to my highs — and my lows.”

What a wild ride it was. Two years out of Stanford, Ballard reached the big leagues. By 30, he was out of baseball. In between, he served as the Orioles’ poster boy for both ups and downs during his time with the team (1987-91).

At one point, Ballard lost eight games in a row — a club record. Another time, he won five straight decisions in April, the first Oriole pitcher ever to accomplish that feat. His career was peppered with contradictions like that.

What won the hearts of the fans was Ballard’s gutsy role on the 1989 team that shrugged off the horrors of the previous year (remember the 0-21 start?), muscled into the pennant race and, by September, had an entire city asking, “Why Not?”

Alas, the Orioles finished second in 1989. Ballard, who began the season as the staff’s fifth starter, went 18-8 and defeated some of the game’s best, including Boston’s Roger Clemens and two 20-game winners, Kansas City’s Bret Saberhagen and Oakland’s Dave Stewart.

That was a career year for Ballard who, in his first full season, emerged as the American League’s winningest lefty despite a middling (85 mph) fastball. Control and cunning were his thing. In August, Ballard became the first Oriole ever to pitch a shutout without having walked or whiffed a batter.

“I didn’t throw hard — the sinker was my bread-and-butter pitch — but the stars lined up real well that year,” he said. “I was always a reflection of my team, and that team never doubted itself. The youthful energy of outfielders like (Steve) Finley, Brady (Anderson) and (Mike) Devereaux carried us through a lot of stuff. We were a bunch of no-name pitchers, but when the ball is getting caught, it’s easier to pitch.”

One game, especially, sticks with Ballard: an August victory over New York in which he struck out Yankees’ star Don Mattingly three times.

“I was amused, because I knew how mad it made him. I could see it on his face,” Ballard said. “It tickled me to think, Here’s a guy who thinks my pitches can’t break glass, and he can’t believe I struck him out three times.

“I didn’t own Mattingly, career-wise. I just owned him that day.”

Success was short-lived. Two off-season elbow surgeries hampered Ballard, who lost 11 of 13 decisions in 1990, then kicked around the majors until an auto accident ended his comeback for good. In 1995, a head-on crash with a semi on a snowy Idaho highway left Ballard with a broken neck and several busted ribs.

“The wreck changed things quickly,” he said. “I was sitting in my parents’ living room in Billings, recovering, with one of those collars around my neck, when my dad walked in. He owns a petroleum exploration and production company.

“He said, ‘I know you’re trying to figure out the rest of your life, but it would please me no end to have both of my sons working with me.’ “

How could Ballard say no?

“It was an awesome father-son moment,” he said.

Today, he is senior vice-president of the firm, as well as chairman of the Billings American Legion baseball program, the organization that gave both Ballard and another former Orioles’ lefthander, Dave McNally, their starts.

Married for three years (“I was waiting to find someone who would have me”), Ballard has a two-year-old son, who is already hitting Wiffle balls off a tee, and no regrets about having left a big-league career with 41 victories and 53 defeats.

“I had one big year, but I knew I could never dominate at the big-league level,” he said. “I was a ‘tweener,’ a Triple-A-and-a-half guy.

“Now it’s over, and I’ve got a family, and I’m enjoying all that goes with it — the commitment, the sharing and a baby who makes you laugh and, at the same time, pushes all of your buttons. Those emotions have been awesome.”

Photo: Jeff Ballard holds his son Kyren.

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