By Gregg Balin, Jersey Shore MSBL League President
Editor’s note: This is an amazing story of someone who has accomplished the near impossible…162 games played in a single season, replicating a major league strain! Gregg Balin is a passionate person who has capsulized his baseball career for us in an attempt to bring us along to better understand why he did what he did. Though lengthy in content, this story remains exclusively Gregg’s so we left it untouched without condensing it. Congratulations, Gregg, on your amazing accomplishment!
My baseball life began when I was brought home from the hospital with a Yankees cap on during Spring Training in 1952. My father was born in the Bronx and had grown up sneaking into Yankee Stadium to watch Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio play. He later moved to South Jersey (Phillies Country) to Bridgeton, New Jersey, so I grew up where the Yankees were a hated team. This was before cable TV, so most days we’d listen to the games on AM radio while Mickey Mantle smoked home runs and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford would hook up for the W.
In September 1961, I was awoken early and told I was missing school to go to Yankee Stadium. Mantle and Maris were locked in a duel to break Babe Ruth’s home run record. Yogi hit a home run to win the game that day. I remember it like it happened yesterday.
1961 was also my first try out to be on a Little League team at nine years old where you were either drafted or cut. Back then the nine year-old’s played with 10, 11 and 12 year old’s, some turning 13. My grandfather, Nathan, promised me a dollar for every hit that season. In game one I hit an ‘oppo’ line drive over third base for my first dollar. I sure wish I had saved and framed that dollar but I blew it on important stuff like candy and baseball cards. My team was Pepsi Cola and we won our championship just like the Yankees. I was convinced I’d be a champion my entire life and never lose. Well that lasted all of one year.
Like most kids in the 60’s we played sandlot baseball and a friend’s dad built us a real field in their massive back yard with a back stop and bases and a mound. He also added a football field. We invented travel baseball. We’d invite teams from other schools and nearby towns to play us. A friend’s older brother umpired. I was the one player the older teams allowed to play so I always was in a game.
In high school we were playing against local college baseball players and against men who were in their 20’s and 30’s from very tough parts of town. It wasn’t unusual to see a player with his wife and children arrive and place his .38 revolver on the hood of car as they walked on the field.
As time passed, I had to grow up and work and start a family and baseball became a spectator sport. My father owned a wholesale tobacco, cigarette, cigar, candy and paper supply company and I went to work. One of our employee’s had been a pro player with the Phillies in the 1930’s. Goose Goslin (HOF) owned a marina and was a weekly customer along with Harold Gould who played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues. The stories they shared kept my passion alive for the game and I picked up a few tips along the way.
After some years of family business I decided to strike out on my own. In 1988, I was on an airplane traveling for business when perusing an in-flight magazine and saw an advertisement for the ‘Mickey Mantle – Whitey Ford Baseball Camp’. The story ignited a feeling in me that maybe I could play baseball again. I was overweight, in horrible physical shape from endless hours of building a business and tending family needs and had a lower back problem from years of heavy lifting equipment in my business. I had two weeks to shake off 15 plus years of rust.
My daughter Heather was a skilled soft ball player so we grabbed some of her guy friends and went to a local field to hit. I went on to my new adventure and to meet my boyhood idols, Mickey, Whitey, Yogi and many others who ran the camp. My game came back pretty quickly and in the final game between the pro’s and camper’s I was the starting pitcher and appointed team captain by our managers Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer.
The camp and baseball changed my life. I’ve played on the field with the Yankee greats and I played in Yankee Stadium in 1996, and since then several other Major League Stadium’s and a week in Cuba against Cuban National teams.
I have had the great privilege of playing in two Father Son tournaments (that we won) with my grandson Kyle Leiser. We’ve won eight straight games and he led the tournament in batting average at age 14 in 2019. Baseball has become a way of life for my family.
After many years of building several businesses I decided to retire at age 52 and enjoy my life splitting time between my homes in New Jersey and Florida. While playing at a 2011 MSBL event in Florida I was asked to try a wood bat from a company somebody was trying to sell. The salesman joined me for dinner at my home and after a few days of conversation I discovered the company was broke and would not meet the MLB requirements for a 2012 licensing or to be able to buy inventory. The idea of being in a business that involved baseball intrigued me so I started a new company from scratch, providing the salesman and one of the production people who brought me the idea would join me in a new venture.
This is how Victus Sports was born and within a few years we skyrocketed from obscurity to become number two in pro sales, surpassing Louisville Slugger and rated the highest quality bat maker in the business. Hundreds of pro players jumped on the brand due it’s very high-quality customer service, very fast turn-around time, high quality of the hardest wood and hard finishes and great social media marketing. After four years, a much needed and costly expansion required from me for a new plant made me decide to retire again. The company was sold and is now owned by Marucci Sports the number one volume pro bat maker in the world.
Here is a map outlining my road to 162 in 2019:
In 2017 I spent the winter in Florida and played a lot of tournaments. I might have played 100 plus games but didn’t keep close track. My buddy Jeff kept telling me how many games he played so in 2018, so I kept track and we made it a fun competition. I ended up playing 131 games, some with and some against my pal Jeff, but he beat me out at 133. The magic number of 162 was brought up. Could we play a complete MLB season? So that became my goal for 2019.
Game one in 2019 began in the winter league in Ft. Myer’s, Florida, on New Year’s Day. I played 32 more games in a local tournament in January and February along with another 20 games in the winter league until heading back to New Jersey for my Spring, Summer and Fall leagues.
I played on two 35 age teams in New Jersey (Wednesday night and Sunday) and a Saturday age 55 team. I added more and more tournaments, including Memorial Day Weekend, eight more games at Cooperstown at Doubleday Field, Father – Son with my grandson Kyle Leiser and four games in one day non-stop at the Mets Cyclone Park in Brooklyn.
In October I was ready to play four straight weeks of baseball in Florida. Game 162 was going to happen if we went deep into the playoff’s the final week but we fell short. That’s baseball.
Game 162 happened on Sunday, December 1 in a league game. My pal Jeff pitched and I played first base. Between us we had six hits and a bunch of RBI and we won. I still have several games left to play in 2019 but achieving the goal and the magic number of 162 and staying healthy (thanks to a few cortisone shots, a lot of ice, my hot tub and massages) I feel great.