Rocco Baldelli, A Hero Worth Rooting For

August 24, 2008 at 2:07 am | Posted in My Cards, Rays | 7 Comments

If you were a casual baseball fan who never followed the Devil Rays or the Rays closely (which includes about 99% of the readers of this blog), you probably wouldn’t have much of a reaction to Rocco Baldelli’s home run yesterday, which led a comeback victory against the White Sox (not to be confused with today’s comeback victory against the White Sox). As a Rays fan, I can tell you that Baldelli’s home run, his first since May 2007, is a very big deal. I have a huge amount of respect for Rocco Baldelli. In fact, if I had a son, Rocco is the one player on the team who I would want him to look up to as a role model. I’d like to share with you why the comeback story of Rocco Baldelli is so inspirational.

Let’s go back to 2000. Rocco Baldelli was the 6th pick in the first round of the MLB draft, out of a high school in Rhode Island. He joined the team’s 1999 first and second round picks, Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford, in the Devil Rays’ dream outfield of the future. Baldelli broke out in the 2002 season when he made a meteoric rise from Single-A to Triple-A in one year. After leading the Durham Bulls to their first Governor’s Cup (as champions of the International League) and being named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, the hype surrounding Rocco surpassed the hype of Hamilton and Crawford. This led the Rays to make the very unusual decision to trade their All Star center fielder, Randy Winn, to Seattle in exchange for the rights to negotiate with their manager, Lou Piniella.

Trading Winn created a vacant spot in center field for Baldelli. In spring training of 2003, Lou Piniella decided that the 21-year old was ready for the Majors and named him the Opening Day center fielder. The media made comparisons to another young rookie who was once given a chance to start by Piniella, Alex Rodriguez.

The hype only intensified from there. Rocco started his career with a 13-game hitting streak, which ended when he faced Pedro Martinez. After that game, he went on to get a hit in 10 more consecutive games! Through the first two months of the season, the rookie center fielder was hitting .340. At this time, it was common to hear Rocco compared to the legendary Joe DiMaggio because they were both center fielders, both wore uniform #5, both were Italian-Americans, and of course, they were both prolific hitters.

These were my early days as a Rays fan. I quickly decided that Rocco Baldelli was my favorite player. I remember attending a Rays vs. Orioles game at Camden Yards that spring and telling my dad that he was watching a future Hall of Famer when Rocco came to the plate. He laughed and reminded me that I had once made bold proclamations like that about Kevin Maas and Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens. The road to the Hall of Fame would not be an easy one for Rocco…

Baldelli eventually cooled off, but he finished with some very impressive stats for 2003. He hit .289 with 11 home runs, 78 RBI, and 27 stolen bases. He finished third in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting behind Angel Berroa (remember him?) and Hideki Matsui. Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford were now the faces of the franchise and they were expected to lead the team to a winning future.

Rocco was steady in 2004, posting very similar numbers to 2003: .280 batting average, 16 home runs, 74 RBI, and 17 steals. He was also one of the top defensive center fielders in the American League.

And then a constant stream of misfortune befell Rocco Baldelli.

  • In the fall of 2004, Rocco tore his the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee while playing baseball in his parents’ backyard with his kid brother, Dante. He was expected to return to the Rays around midseason 2005.
  • When preparing to return to the team on a minor league rehab assignment, Rocco injured his elbow while making a throw from the outfield. He needed Tommy John surgery, a rarity for a position player, and missed the rest of the season. He never played a Major League game in 2005.
  • Rays fans thought that at least they’d be getting a fresh Rocco Baldelli for 2006. But that was not to be. Rocco suffered a hamstring injury in spring training that caused him to be out until June.
  • After finally returning, Rocco proved himself to be one of the top hitters in the American League. In only 92 games, he hit .302 with a .872 OPS. He hit 16 home runs and had 57 RBI. He did miss several blocks of games as his hamstring injury recurred.
  • The pesky hamstring injury continued to plague Rocco in 2007. He played in only 35 games before going on the D.L. for the rest of the season.
  • After the 2007 season the Rays traded Delmon Young to the Twins, and Baldelli was counted on to help fill Young’s slot in the outfield and replace his strong bat. However, he suffered more misfortune in 2008 spring training. He felt fatigued after any physical exertion, and he was diagnosed with a rare mitochondrial disease. It was believed that Rocco’s career could be over.

When the Rays began to emerge as a legitimate contender for the first time ever this year, Rocco Baldelli, the one-time centerpiece of the franchise was a forgotten man. The front office even declined the remaining option years on his contract, meaning that he’ll be a free agent after this season.

Rocco admitted to the media on several occasions how difficult it was to have to watch the Rays’ success from the sidelines, unable to play a direct role in it. But even when the team seemed to have given up on him, Rocco persisted in his rehab and was able to find medical treatment that limited the effects of his mitochondrial disease. He quietly began a minor league rehab assignment at Single-A Vero Beach earlier this summer, but he only managed to hit .216 there and he could only play the outfield for a few innings at a time. He moved up to Double-A Montgomery at the All Star break, and showed signs of improvement, hitting .345 with a 1.079 OPS there. He began to play more innings in the outfield.

The 2008 trading deadline came and went, and the Rays were unable to add a right-handed power-hitting outfielder through a trade. Instead, they turned to an old friend. Rocco Baldelli was activated on August 10 in Seattle when Carl Crawford was placed on the D.L. In his first Major League game in a year and half, he had an RBI single and made a great diving catch in right field, showing glimpses of his former greatness. Since then he’s played mostly against left-handed starting pitchers. Last night, August 22, his 8th inning home run was pivotal in the Rays’ comeback win against Chicago.

It remains to be seen whether Rocco Baldelli can finally fulfill the vast potential that we saw in 2003, 2004, and the second half of 2006. He’s still only 26 years old and if he is able to permanently limit the effects of the mitochondrial disease, the sky could be the limit for him. I am definitely one of his biggest fans right now. It’s amazing to see someone come back from as much adversity as he has had to face. It is thrilling to see Rocco finally being able to play on a winning Rays team and making plays to help them keep winning. I can’t wait to see him shine in the postseason!

I want to share two Rocco Baldelli cards from my collection with you. The first is one that I bought in 2003 when there was just as much hype about Rocco as a rookie as there is about Jay Bruce and Evan Longoria this year. I tried to find the most valuable non-autographed Rocco Baldelli rookie card and I ended up buying his 2000 Bowman Chrome card, graded PSA 9. Believe it or not, I paid about $70 for the card. In 2008, I could buy the same card for only a few bucks.

The second card is the only autographed Rocco Baldelli card that I own. In early 2008, I began to stock up on autographed cards of Rays players. I only bought one Baldelli autographed card because I didn’t know if he’d ever be able to play again. Now that he’s healthy, I’ll be on the lookout for more. Here it is, from 2004 SPx:

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7 Comments »

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  1. Even though that home run really hurt to watch, it’s hard not to root for a guy like Baldelli. I think that’s a better “feel good” story than Josh Hamilton’s. Hamilton’s is good too. I’m just sick of hearing about it.

    The last time I had the same feelings as I do watching Rocco now, was when I saw Dave Dravecky try to come back.

  2. Yeah, I was thinking about comparing Baldelli’s comeback to Hamilton’s. Hamilton’s problems were self-inflicted, while Baldelli’s were not, which makes Baldelli much more admirable in my eyes.

    Dave Dravecky was a great comeback story too.

    Sorry about this series so far, Steve!

  3. I love the title but I think I would have went with “Rocco’s Modern Life”. You only get so many opportunities in life to reference obscure 90’s era Nickelodeon shows…lol…

    Great story! I honestly didn’t know much about Rocco Baldelli until this post. I would have to agree with the statements about his story compared to Josh Hamilton’s.

    I have employed upwards of 300 people from a local drug rehab “house” at my restaurant over the years. I’ve seen the effects that this lifestyle has on people and I can’t even begin to imagine how Josh Hamilton worked his way back to where he is today.

    But, you’re right, Dave. Hamilton’s issues were self inflicted and definitely less admirable than Rocco’s.

    Great Read!!

  4. His kind of drive, which unfolds slowly and with determination, is one of the elements that often makes baseball players great. Also, how can we not love someone named Rocco?

  5. Hey give me my PSA 9 back. Oh wait, mine’s right here. I agree it’s good to see him on the rebound

  6. I agree with JV, we need Rocco’s modern life.

  7. I have a 2001 Topps Fusion Rocco Auto that I’d trade you. Check my want list to see what I could use. http://sruchris.net


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