Baldelli Considering a Ray’s Bitter Rival
In a move not anticipated this early in the free agent signing period, the Tampa Bay Rays might be losing one of its most popular players to put on a Rays uniform to a American League East rival, the Boston Red Sox. Baldelli, who had his 2009 club option declined by the Rays is hitting the free agent market for the first time in his career. The team ended up paying Baldelli about $ 4 million dollars to opt out of his long-term contract, which made him a free agent this offseason.
At the end of Spring Training in 2008, the Rays had to begin discussing the future of the Rhode Island star. They had to make a firm and financial decision on his 2009 option on April 1st, and if he fit into the team’s future plans with his large salary kicking in during 2009. Baldelii had signed a 6-year $ 32 million dollar contract in 2005 that rivaled teammate Carl Crawford’s deal to solidify the Rays outfield until 2012.
According to professional baseball scouts, Baldelli shared many similarities to Hall of Famer and former Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio ever since his days as a prep star. This can be attributed to Baldelli’s athletic ability, their shared position (center field), wearing the same uniform number (5), and their Italian-American heritage. Al LaMacchia, a professional scout for over 50 years, went so far as to call Rocco “Joe’s twin”
But because of medical complications after that season, the progress of Baldelli in the field for the Rays was dwarfed by the off the field situation with him. Baldelli was viewed as one of the keys to the Rays bright future. But things did not come up roses for Baldelli.
Baldelli started the 2005 season on the disabled list because he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while playing baseball with his brother in the offseason. He was initially expected to be back by the All-Star break, but while rehabilitating he injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss the entire 2005 season.
After missing almost a full season and a half, Baldelli returned to the Rays lineup against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 7, 2006. Baldelli played frequently for the rest of the 2006 campaign and hit .302 with 16 home runs, 57 runs batted in, 57 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in only 364 at bats.
In Spring Training before the 2007 season, however, Rocco pulled his hamstring. This injury would linger. After appearing in only 35 games early in the season, Baldelli was placed on the DL again. He reaggravated the injury while on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues and remained inactive for the remainder of the baseball season.
In the following offseason, Baldelli underwent extensive medical testing to determine the reasons for his muscle problems and extreme fatigue after even brief workouts. Doctors discovered some “metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities” but were unable to provide an exact diagnosis.
Baldelli attempted to return to game action during spring training in 2008 but was unable to do so. On March 12, he held an emotional press conference in which he announced that he would be once again placed on the disabled list in an attempt to overcome his mysterious medical issues. Though he did not retire, the future of his baseball career was in doubt.
After more medical consultations, Baldelli began taking a combination of medications and nutritional supplements that seemed to improve his condition. On May 29, 2008, he began playing in extended spring training games, and in mid-June was sent to play in the Rays’ minor league system for further rehabilitation and conditioning in the hope that he might return to the majors during the 2008 season.
Finally, on August 10th, 2008, Rocco was activated and started in right field for the Rays in a game against the Seattle Mariners. Baldelli had been growing a beard for months as a “symbol of his rehabilitation” and shaved it off before playing. In the contest, he had an RBI single as well as a diving catch before coming out of the game after the 5th inning.
Baldelli ended up appearing in 28 games for the Rays in 2008, mainly as a DH and pinch hitter but occasionally playing in right or left field. He hit .263 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI, and was deemed valuable enough to be included in the Rays’ postseason roster as they made the playoffs for the first time.
Baldelli negotiated terms of his huge extension contract without help from an agent, meeting several times with executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman to get the contract done. He had agent Casey Close review the language being signing. Baldelli said he wasn’t as interested in maximizing his earning potential as he was remaining in Tampa Bay.
Unknown to most fans is the true origins of their former centerfielder. Many do not know that Baldelli attended the PEGASUS Gifted and Talented middle-school program at Lasalle Academy in Providence before switching to Bishop Hendricken in Warwick, Rhode Island, for high school. There he posted a 4.25 grade point average and often tutored other students in physics.
He was also a three sport star, excelling at baseball, basketball, and volleyball and was selected in the first round of the 2000 amateur draft. He has said that if he had not signed with Tampa Bay, he would have attended Wake Forest University, rather than Princeton. Baldelli made his Major League debut on March 31, 2003
Now in the aftermath of the Rays first trip into the postseason, ending in a short World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Boston Red Sox are doing due diligence on free agent Rocco Baldelli, who could be in the mix as a fourth outfielder after the team dealt Coco Crisp to the Kansas City Royals last week for reliever Ramon Ramírez. According to major league sources, Baldelli, from Cumberland, R.I., met with the Red Sox at Fenway late last week to discuss his future and the effects of the mitochondrial disorder that limited him to 80 at-bats with the Rays last season.
Baldelli, who has toured the country visiting doctors trying to learn the cause of his premature muscle fatigue, hit .263 for Tampa Bay but never played back-to-back games in the field during the regular season. He appeared in 22 games as DH, five in right field, and one in left field. In the postseason, Baldelli batted .200 over eight games.
Baldelli said during the World Series that he didn’t want to talk about his future because he was trying to soak in the moment with the Rays, the team he’d struggled with for so long, playing in just 155 games the past three years because of various ailments. Tampa Bay elected not to pick up the $6 million option on his contract for 2009 and bought him out for $4 million.
If Baldelli does sign with the division rivals, it would be a shame to lose the guy who was an inspiration to kids and fans alike for some many years for his determination to overcome all obstacles. But because Baldelli is from the Northeast, there has to be a regional pride to go along with playing with the team that was his favorite for years growing up in Rhode Island.
If Baldelli does sign with the Red Sox, do we cheer or yeer at him now like the Toronto Blue Jays do for Eric Hinske. Do we look at him as a traitor because the team declined his option and made him a free agent, or do we celebrate the time he was a Ray?
This of course, is a personal decision to be made on a one-to-one basis with what you think about the former Ray. I call him a former Ray right now becuase since he is not under contract we can not call him one of our own right now. Things could change in the next few weeks either for or against the Rays in trying to discuss and sign him to a smaller contract.
But we all know that Rocco will not think lightly about the deal if the Rays do offer anything to him. The team has sttod by him through all of the medical situations and consider him a clubhouse leader for his inspiration and devotion to getting back to the majors. I think no matter what Baldelli decides for 2009, it will be a year where he will be striving to finally prove that the years have given him the experience and the drive to compete at whatever level is permissible for him.
In regards to the past, I thank you Rocco for all the memories you have given us as a Ray. Hopefully it is not over for you in that number 5 jersey just yet. But the lure of Fenway Park and playing in front of friends and family 81 times a year might be too strong. And for that I understand and will still stand and clap for you to do good, whatever uniform you are wearing….