PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The amiable Grant Balfour was standing at his locker in the Tampa Bay Rays' home clubhouse, his right arm wrapped in a heat pack following an early-morning workout, when a visitor tried to make a joke.
"Is that what worried the Orioles?" the wise guy asked.
The suddenly stone-faced Balfour was clearly not amused.
Balfour will talk at length and with great vigor about just about any subject, including his return to the Rays as their closer after spending the last three seasons with the Oakland Athletics, how signing with the Rays as a free agent makes life easier for his family and how he believes Tampa Bay is a strong contender to win it all.
However, Balfour would rather not spend a lot of time rehashing his dealing with the Orioles over the offseason. The sides agreed on a two-year, $15 milion contract in December, but the Orioles declined to finalize the deal because they were concerned by the condition of Balfour's shoulder following a physical examination.
More than two months later, Balfour is still rankled by the Orioles' decision. Balfour wound up settling for $3 million less, signing a two-year, $12 million contract with the Rays. It's difficult to determine if the failed physical scared off other teams that had interest in Balfour, but he suspects it did.
"My initial reaction was disappointment, but then I got upset," Balfour said. "I couldn't understand it. There was nothing wrong with me. Nothing. I couldn't have had the type of season I had last year if I were injured. They made me out to be damaged goods. I'm not damaged goods."
Balfour did not look like he was hurting last year as he was selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his 10-year career. He had 38 saves and a 2.59 ERA in 65 games while striking out 72 in 62 2/3 innings.
While Oakland decided not to re-sign Balfour and instead traded for Orioles closer Jim Johnson -- which created the vacancy in Baltimore -- the 35-year-old thought he was set up for a big payday after making $4.5 million last season, the highest salary of his career.
"I thought I had put up good numbers over the years, worked hard, developed a good reputation in the game and had set myself pretty well heading into free agency," Balfour said. "When I got that call that the Orioles were backing out, a lot of things went through my mind -- all the years I've spent in baseball, the surgeries I've come back from, all the times standing there waiting for the bus in the minor leagues.
"You start to think about all those things and how the payoff finally had come and then it's pulled away from you. It was really difficult to accept."
However, Balfour's free agency foray wound up having a fairly happy ending. The Rays were looking for a closer after Fernando Rodney left through free agency, and owner Stuart Sternberg gave president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman permission to add payroll by signing Balfour, who had pitched for Tampa Bay from 2007-10.
"You see that he signed with the Orioles and you start letting loose with some of the expletive deleted," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You're thinking about how it's not going to be fun to have to be facing him in the American League East all season long.
"But then he falls into our laps and we couldn't be happier. He fits right into what we're doing and allows us to put the other relievers into the roles we think best fit them. He really helps strengthen that backside."
The Rays should indeed have a formidable late-inning trio with Balfour closing and right-handers Heath Bell and Joel Peralta setting him up.
Balfour's ERA has been 2.59 or lower in five of the last six seasons. He also broke Dennis Eckersley's team record of 40 consecutive saves for the Athletics, a streak that was spread over the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
"Grant's confidence is even higher than it was when he was here before," Maddon said. "He's been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in baseball. We feel he's going to do a great job for us as the closer."
Bell had at least 42 saves for the San Diego Padres from 2009-11, but had a 4.11 ERA and allowed 12 home runs in 65 2/3 innings last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rays are convinced Bell is poised for a bounce-back season as he moves from the good hitting environment of Chase Field to the good pitching environment of Tropicana Field.
Peralta has pitched to a 3.32 ERA in 206 innings with the Rays over the last three seasons. He led the AL with 80 games pitched last season.
A strong bullpen is just one of the reasons why many observers believe the Rays have the best team in their 16-year history, including the iterations that claimed postseason berths in four of the last six seasons. That provides solace for Balfour, along with the fact that he makes his home in Clearwater, Fla., with his wife and two young daughters.
"There are a lot of reason to be excited about the way it worked out," Balfour said. "I'm very familiar with the organization, the coaching staff is the same as when I left, some of my old teammates are still here and we have a team that is good enough beat anybody. I'm happy to be with the Rays and I'm looking forward to it."
Balfour, who is as intense as any reliever in the game when he takes the mound, admits he can't completely look forward. The failed physical still bothers him. "It's all going to be taken care of soon," Balfour said of his dealings with the Orioles.
Balfour, though, would not give any hints of how he might settle the score with the Orioles. Did he file a grievance? Will he drill the first Orioles hitter he faces this season with a fastball in the rear end?
The Rays and Orioles play 19 times this year, with the first meeting coming on April 14 in Baltimore. Stay tuned.
* * *
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.