Woonsocket Rocket Heads into the Sunset

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

10 Comments

What a class act this man has been. I am glad he called it a career in a Rays jersy and even came back to help down the stretch of last season. It’s really a shame that injuries haunted him all the way to the end, however, you can’t help but admire his effort to make it back.
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I am happy that Andrew Friedman found a spot for him in the front office. Everyone in Tampa Bay loves Rocco and it’s only right he’s able to help the team despite his career being cut short. I know he was an assistant before he came back last year, but it’s great it was still there for him.

Charm,
Rocco actually was a minor league roving instructor when I saw him when pitchers and catchers reported last season. He took the gig so he could get Rays rehabilitation while working out and strengthing his shoulder then as we Rays fans know…He rejoined the team and got a second AL East title on his resume’.
He might of only had 8 years in his career, but the guy did things players like Bubba Trammel, Alex Sanchez and Damian Rolls experienced in their careers.
Rocco will always be in my list of favorite Rays players….even without an All-Star nod.

Rays Renegade
http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

I was sorry to hear that Baldelli’s health wouldn’t allow him to continue as an active player, but I’m glad he’ll be working in the Rays’ organization. Best of luck to him.

http://janeheller.mlblogs.com

Art and baseball…. love when they go together. Sorry to hear about Rocco, but he gave it his best effort, so I always gotta commend that.
–Jeff
http://redstatebluestate.mlblogs.com/

Jane,
I used to coach a few High School sports in the past and I always stressed to my players to embrace their talents and strive to gettheirmaximum potential because you never know when a single-celled organism will multiply within you and take that gift away.
It is tragic that a baseball talent like Baldelli was sudden;y hindered, but it is a perfect illustration that even in a time of stress and trouble, this athlete endured, pushed and tried to give whatever he could to a sport that he loved.
I think Rocco has gone above and beyond the norm in terms of trying to conquer and beat his illness. I can only stand and applaud the man…he is a true inspiration of guts and grit.

Rays Renegade
http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

Jeff,
Before I won the auction I had never heard of the work of Jeff Fiorentino, but since that time I have seen more than a few of his lithos of famous sports icons and figures.
The Baldelli print is a special piece of the Rays early history, and one that I truly cherish.
His career might have been cut short, but the things he did to help this team grow in that short span speaks volumes on his committment to this game.

Rays Renegade
http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

It’s a shame that an illness can take away the game from a player. I really thought he was going to take his career to the next level during the ’06 season.
http://wrigleyregular.mlblogs.com/

I always liked Rocco Baldelli – even when he was a RED SOCK. He’s such a good guy. It’s a shame his health took him away from the game so early. Rocco, I know you were special
-Virginia
http://southernbelle.mlblogs.com

Russel,
It is sometimes a shame how things outside our normal control in life can take something like a promising baseball career and crush it like a tin can.
Aliments like what happen to Baldelli unfortunately have plaqued the game for a long time. Sometimes badthings happen to good people in this game.
But Rocco fought like a champion and got to again have some more memories, including watching his team celebrate a post season berth and be part of a World Series.
The script on Baldelli is still being written, but if the past is any indication….He will be around the game for a long time.

Rays Renegade
http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

Virginia,
Since Rocco was a Rhode Island guy, I can not be mad about his Red Sox time. He got to fulfill a lifetime childhood dream of playing in the Boston Red jersey to a full house.
Also, if it wasn’t for the Red Sox medical staff, Rocco would never have found out he was mis-diagnoised and would have stayed with the same regiment of drugs and ill effects for his entire life.
So I will not give them props, but I will also not burn the bridge.

Rays Renegade
http://raysrenegade.mlblogs.com

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