Woonsocket Rocket Heads into the Sunset
I remember it like it was yesterday, the Ted Williams Museum was holding a silent auction just beyond the sun-drenched grandstand of Progress Energy Field during the final Spring Training game ever at the facility and I was down underneath the stands bidding furiously for number 10 of 20 produced lithograph portraits by renown sports artist James Fiorentino of one of the Rays budding star.
I did everything in my power to possess that mesmerizing portrait, not for its collectible value or even its future fiscal nature, but because on that canvas was one of the most exciting players in Rays baseball to me. He was one of the first true Rays produced stars to emerge from the Rays farm system and provide instant relief to the Rays Republic.
But there was another admirer standing close to me that day who kept the bidding fast and hectic and if not for the pure grace of me being left-handed, and quick with the stroke of a pen, this authentic piece of Rays history would have slipped from my grasp.
I had successfully won the auction, plus an additional Ted Williams Museum authenticated second photo of this same Rays athlete. I had gone 2-for-2 that day and left happy with a portrait under either arm…It was a great day.
This portrait was of the same Rays athlete who made his Major League Debut just over four years earlier on Opening Day, March 31, 2003 and his inspired outfield and hitting prowess impressed not only the Tampa Bay locals, but the national media also showed him a bit of love as he ended the 2003 season with a third place finish in the 2003 Rookie of the Year Award. Only 3 years after being selected in the First Round of the 2000 MLB Draft, he had made Tampa Bay fall in love with his hustle, determination and charisma.
This same series of 20 Fiorentino inspired portraits were commissioned just after that stellar rookie season. A lot has happened to this athlete since this photo was done and the time I put it firmly on my home wall. He has been to the World Series, been in many magazine articles and photos including a great cover shot from above during the 2008 World Series.
Most people might not know of his artistic side with practical jokes and molding Styrofoam cups into portrait works of art while sitting in the Rays dugout. Or of his ever changing facial motif that has gone from clean shaven, to a bushy moustache, to a full grown “Grizzly Adams” beard.
Things beyond his immediate control began to dictate his career since 2005 when he endured an ACL tear, Tommy John’s surgery and an aliment that would take down an adult elephant. On March 12, 2008, I was huddled underneath those same Progress Energy grandstands when he addressed the baseball world and took a hesitant step back from the game he so loved.
The defining quality I have always remembered and admired about this athlete was his determination and strength to push beyond the boundaries of normalcy. His decision to fight this aliment, helped him progress to actually get a chance to celebrate his franchise’s first post season bid with a lot of the same players that went through the Rays farm system with him.
His ultimate tenacity was rewarded in April 2009 with the pre-game presentation of a glistening diamond encrusted ring to commemorate his part in the Rays 2008 American League pennant. This amazing career might have only lasted 8 MLB seasons, but this is the same athlete who began 2010 as a Rays special roving instructor before signing a MLB contract late in 2010 and again help his teammates celebrate another postseason berth.
He has endured pain and suffering that would have most players packing their gear and going home forever. Instead of giving into utter temptation, this player sought out medical answers and was not going to let this aliment define him. Even in that 2003 Fiorentino portrait, you can see the confidence, the swagger, that innate desire to not give in to the norm and fight until exhausted.
In 2008 when he took a step back from the game, it was not with the intentions to retire and fade into the background. From the moment he first set foot on the turf at Tropicana Field, to his recent retirement announcement at the tender age of 29, this athlete envisioned the “Rays Way” of playing the game even before Rays current Manager Joe Maddon’s even entered the Rays clubhouse for the first time.
I am going to miss Rocco Baldelli. He is the only Rays player I have ever forgiven for going to play for a division rival because he was fulfilling a life long baseball dream.. Baldelli will not wander far from the Rays light as he will take a position within the Rays front office as a Special Assistant possibly working wit the next great Rays athlete.
That 2003 rookie season portrait will still stay hung above my baseball collection. Because when I think of early Rays baseball, Baldelli is the first name that pops into my mind. Somewhere I think even DiMaggio would be smiling about the way the “Woonsocket Rocket” played the game.