CASSILO: Road not always easy for Rays hero

David Cassilo

When you are a bad team for a decade, you have plenty of opportunities to select good, young talent early in the draft. The Tampa Bay Rays had plenty of those opportunities, and while there was the occasional Dewon Brazelton here and there, the organization usually made smart decisions while trying to build its team from the ground up. There are four of their first-round picks on the current roster. Three of which – Evan Longoria, David Price and B.J. Upton – have become household names over this past month. The fourth has gone through more in his career than some people go through in their lives. It is time for the fourth to become a household name. His name is Rocco Baldelli.

If ever there were a person that parents looked to and said, “I want my boy to be just like him,” it was Baldelli. The Rhode Island native brought everything to the table. He was a three-sport star in high school, excelling in baseball, basketball and volleyball. Meanwhile, Baldelli worked equally as hard in the classroom, as he posted a 4.25 GPA and considered going to Princeton. However, as bright as Baldelli was, his baseball talent assured that he would not step foot in any classroom past high school.

After his senior season, the Rays selected Baldelli with the sixth pick of the 2000 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Scouts looked at him and saw the next Joe DiMaggio because of his Italian-American background and incredible ability in center field. Baldelli was so honored by the comparison that he wore the number five. Soon, he began to play as well as the man he honored. After a promising start to his minor league career, Baldelli was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball following a season in which he hit .371 in AA baseball.

His minor league days did not last long, and at the age of 21 in 2003, Baldelli made his major league debut for Tampa Bay. The Rays could see they had a special ballplayer on their hands from day one as he hit .289 with 78 RBI and 89 runs scored in his first big league season. In his following season, Baldelli put up almost identical numbers while also being statistically the best center fielder in all of baseball. Baldelli was living up to the hype and only getting better. He had 27 home runs and 152 RBI before age 24. Tampa Bay had found its guy to build the franchise around.

It is now 2008, and Baldelli is a reserve outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays. Since his second season, he has hit just 23 home runs and 73 RBI. What happened to the next DiMaggio? Where have you gone Rocco Baldelli?

Prior to the ’05 season, Baldelli injured his knee playing baseball with his brother. While rehabbing he injured his elbow and was forced to have Tommy John surgery that kept him out all of 2005 and some of 2006. When Baldelli did return in 2006, he reached career-highs in both batting average (.302) and home runs (16) despite playing just over half a season. His strong numbers suggested Baldelli was still one of the best players in the game despite missing almost a year and a half.

However, Baldelli had little chance to show his talents in 2007 as he once again became injured, this time with a pulled hamstring. Unlike most players his age with this injury, Baldelli could not sufficiently heal and managed to play only 35 games all season.

The offseason was spent looking for answers. Baldelli experienced chronic muscle problems and constant fatigue. After many tests, it was discovered that Badelli was suffering from a mitochondrial disorder. Essentially, his body does not make enough ATP to allow his muscles to recover on a daily basis. In addition to this, he runs at only 70-80 percent of his maximum capability. It is a condition that is rare and almost impossible to deal with for a professional athlete. The diagnosis effectively ended Baldelli’s career as an everyday player in the major leagues.

When Baldelli learned of the diagnosis, he was basically given two options. He could retire at the age of 26 or he could try to work his way back, knowing that he could never be more than a bench player. Baldelli chose the latter, and rather than join his teammates on the upstart Rays’ ball club, he headed down to the minors to prove that he could play through his condition.

Through dedication and determination, Baldelli finally made it back to the major leagues on Aug. 10, and had an RBI single and a diving catch in his first game back. There was not perhaps a bigger symbol for the change the entire Tampa Bay franchise had undergone than its former first-round pick Baldelli. He was seen as some one without a chance to suceed with the struggling Rays.

In Game Seven of the ALCS, No. 5 walked up to the plate in the fifth inning with the score tied at one and runners on first and second with nobody out. On an 0-2 fastball from Red Sox starter Jon Lester, Baldelli knocked an RBI single to left field that would prove to be the hit that gave the Rays their first trip to the World Series. As he reached first base and let the roar of the crowd sink in, Baldelli cracked a smile. Despite all of the obstacles and injuries he had endured, Baldelli had done what he had set out to do – lead his team to the World Series. For that moment, all of the hype was finally true. He was Joe DiMaggio.


David Cassilo is a junior communication major from Chatham, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]