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Rocco Baldelli's Outrageous Fortune

Gifted in many ways, flawed in one prominent way, but lucky enough to be doing what he enjoys.

Too bad they aren't the "Tampa Bay Buccaneers." This is a good pirate squint.
Too bad they aren't the "Tampa Bay Buccaneers." This is a good pirate squint.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As Evan Longoria batted the other night, I tried to remember that other Rays star with the European-sounding name. Who was it? Oh, duh, Baldelli. What happened to him?

Turns out he was standing right there at first base.

A multi-sport high-school athlete (sound familiar?), Baldelli hadn't even planned on a college scholarship. He was just hoping to find a school where he could play baseball & basketball. Then he saw an ad in the paper for tryouts some scouts were attending; almost immediately, he became a hot prospect.

Baldelli was the 6th overall draft pick in 2000. He'd rocket up the minors and make the Devil Rays' roster on opening Day only three years later (Mauer was drafted in 2001 and debuted in 2004.) He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting (having a higher bWAR than the players ahead.) His second season was solid, while he displayed some good defensive skills.

Then it all kind of went to hell.

A torn ACL cost Baldelli all of 2005. After a successful return for the second half of 2006, here's how many games he'd play the next four years: 35. 28. 62. 10. The usual label, "injury prone," was applied.

(Here's a Rays fansite blogpost from 2006. Mostly fair, it can't help but add some snark: "What's next? He gets a concussion watching a bad movie and then six months later he needs shoulder surgery because he overcompensated for his head injury?" Or this Rays fan singing about Baldelli's "bad bones.")

Turns out he had something very similar to mitochondrial disease. (The exact form is still unclear, although Baldelli's doctors say he is in no danger.) Mitochondrial disease is . . . well, it has do do with cells and DNA and "glycogen depletion" and . . . fine, we'll just call 'em those things that make Jedis, OK?

Baldelli was forced to retire in 2011, at age 29. Yet he seemed oddly content about it. "I love to play, and I really didn't get a chance to do it as much as I wanted to," Baldelli said in a Tampa paper. "And you know what. The only time I feel like it's good to retire is when you're happy to retire. And I'm happy."

Baldelli had already talked with Rays officials about working in the front office. And they gave him a shot, where he learned the basics of things like filing scouting reports (plus figuring out which chain hotels to stay in.)

Four years later, Baldelli became the youngest coach in MLB when Tampa Bay named him to the first-base spot. Rays president Matt Silverman noted how Baldelli is "very, very curious about all aspects of the operation."

No doubt!

At the time, D Rays Bay posted quite the interview with Baldelli. What I found interesting about it weren't any inside secrets (none are shared), simply how thorough an understanding Baldelli appears to have. Many people who are rewarded at an early age for physical attributes (athletics, looks) don't develop other sides of their personality. Clearly, Baldelli is not one of them. (Or he fakes it really, really well.)

If you haven't inferred it yet, I'm saying something here about sports injuries.

So much of what makes an athlete successful is just genetic luck of the draw. Most NBA centers who weigh eight zillion pounds won't have the knee health Shaquille O'Neal had. A rare Randy Johnson can throw both super-fast sliders and insanely-fast fastballs without tearing his arm to shreds (Francisco Liriano wasn't so fortunate.)

People made fun of Baldelli's being "injury prone." They did it with affection, as most fans will, yet still there's an underlying subtext some imply of "they aren't tough enough" or "won't rehab diligently enough." We've all heard/read it.

The notion is preposterous. No athlete competes at a high level without the kind of drive schoolbooks attribute to polar explorers. It's why so many are obsessive in other hobbies as well. These are people who enjoy putting everything into their efforts. Not all, perhaps (#delmonyoung). But I'd wager it's true of the vast majority, from the highest-salaried to the purest amateurs.

Baldelli's commitment to learning everything about the Rays' organization doesn't shock me. What's a delightful surprise is how good at it he is. If he got a little screwed on genetics that made him talented but unable to sustain a pro career . . . well, he's also got the kind of brain which can process a lot of new information all at once. Good for him (lucky bastard! 'Cuz brains that work well at specific challenges are something of a genetic draw, too.)

Heck, if you don't root for the guy because of anything else, watch here as he instructs some lucky kid fan. That kid is in wobbly-legged heaven.