Last week I wrote about learning to live with high expectations and the potential joy that actually having high expectations brings us fans. The natural follow-up to that is a focus upon the guy who set those expectations, manager Rocco Baldelli.
Spring training doesn’t really get my baseball heart racing anyway. I understand the need for it, but I can’t get bogged down in the details of at-bats, pitches, and day-to-day happenings for games that don’t count. As Allen Iverson once profoundly said “practice, we’re talking about practice.”
That said, writing about the intricacies of spring training has its place and there are writers writing about those things as we ponder how the season will play out. But I’m not that writer, and not today. Instead, I want to try to assess the “bigger picture” of how this year’s Minnesota Twins got to be a team with high expectations and a major part of that is by trying to gain a better understanding of manager Rocco Baldelli.
Since its only his second year managing the Twins, it’s a bit premature to anoint him as one of the Twins great managers. But apparently it may not be too early to anoint him as one of the Twins great people, amid a sea of really great people. It’s difficult to find a negative story or a bad word about Rocco Baldelli, just as it is about Tony Oliva, or Joe Mauer, or the late Harmon Killebrew, or Justin Morneau, or Torii Hunter, and on and on.
Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it somehow seems like “Minnesota Nice” has translated into more than our fair share of genuinely nice Minnesota Twins. Rocco seems well suited to follow in the tradition of nice guys, but hopefully, not in the tradition of nice guys who don’t always finish first.
Rocco is even more interesting to me than he may be to some, as I’m a Minnesota native living in Rhode Island. For those of you who haven’t been to Rhode Island, you should visit, it’s beautiful out here. It’s also, of course, Rocco’s home state. It’s also a place where you are likely to meet guys named Rocco. Having lived the first 21 years of my life in Minnesota, and many more years in the Midwest before moving out to Rhode Island, I can honestly say I’d never met a Rocco until moving here, but now, meeting someone by that name is not all that unusual.
For those reading this who have never been to Rhode Island, which is probably most of you, Rhode Island is geographically about the size of the Twin Cities metro area, including the distant suburbs in each direction. Driving across the entire state of Rhode Island takes about an hour, if you go the long way. It’s the kind of place where you get to know people and a lot of people knew Rocco Baldelli.
Minnesota media has descended upon Woonsocket, Rocco’s hometown, and Bishop Hendricken, his high school, in order to find out the real scoop about the Twins manager. I’ve included links to some of the pieces already done about Rocco [ Link 1 / Link 2 / Link 3,] that fill in many more details than I will here. These links include the story of Rocco’s athletic prowess and his character, as well as the illness that cut short his major league playing career. While these things were largely unknown to Minnesotans, they weren’t unknown to baseball fans in New England.
It would appear that to know Rocco is to like Rocco. Forget about finding skeletons in his closet, there’s not a bone for a small dog to chew upon in Rocco’s closet. Rocco is, in sum, a really good guy. Don’t take my word for it, everybody says so. Literally, everybody.
Perhaps in these rather interesting times, it should make all of us reflect upon his decency, humility, and character and give us even further cause to celebrate that he is our manager. While jerks can probably win baseball games just as genuinely nice guys can, it’s nice to know that nice guys might finish first too. It somehow seems easier to root for a genuinely nice guy.
Living in New England, I assure you that Patriots fans have little difficulty rooting for Bill Belichek, who treats media and many others with a level of disdain that would make us cringe (or get us fired) if we tried it in our workplaces. Our own Tom Kelly, back in the day, wasn’t necessarily known for his warmth with the media or his upbeat and cheerful demeanor (though, in fairness, I met Tom Kelly once and he couldn’t have been nicer.)
Baldelli, in contrast to so many involved in professional sports, seems genuinely respectful and decent and kind, and even tolerant of the many truly inane questions he often gets and the constant demands on his time and attention. From a fan perspective, isn’t it easier to root for the good guys we find around us, and isn’t life too short to be rooting for the bad guys anyway? (Promised not to mention the Astros here.)
Why did Falvey and Levine take such a chance? Rocco, after all, was a Rays bench and first base coach for only a short time before Twins management “discovered” him. Rocco had an initially celebrated, and then injury and illness riddled career, but lots of people overcome injuries, and lots of athletes have great careers. What struck me most in the interviews I conducted, was the insistence that I focus upon two Rocco attributes: “humility” and “intelligence.” What better qualities in a manager of people than a willingness to deflect praise toward his “workers” and an ability to handle, with intelligence, any situation that presents itself?
Rocco went to one of the best high schools in Rhode Island, a highly regarded private Catholic school. (If this sounds a bit like our own Joe Mauer, who graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall, a highly regarded Catholic high school in Minnesota, it probably should, as many of the parallels seem worth considering).
Rocco graduated in the top 10% of his class, while excelling in four sports: Baseball, Basketball, Track & Field, and Volleyball. Volleyball, in fact, was described to me by more than one person as the sport in which Rocco was perhaps best at, and he was outstanding at all of them.
Joe Mauer, fans remember, was offered a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State, and he was an outstanding basketball player too. Mauer, also seems to be universally regarded as a genuinely nice guy. Maybe, just maybe, nice guys can potentially finish first. While Mauer didn’t have the talent around him to bring the Twins to the World Series, Baldelli might.
One of the people with whom I spoke was Paul Danesi, the Chief Financial Officer of Bishop Hendricken High School (you can see him in the Paul Schmit piece linked below). Danesi knew Rocco well, and was adamant, in insisting to me that anything that I wrote should focus upon Rocco’s intelligence, and his ability to understand the analytics of baseball (and probably the analytics of life). Whatever I did, whatever I wrote, I shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Rocco was a really smart young man, and that intelligence, more than a baseball career in itself, is what led him ultimately to manage the Twins.
Baldelli has lived through a lot for a 38 year-old man. He’s suffered debilitating sports injuries, including a leg injury so bad his freshman year of high school that playing sports at any decent level after that was somewhat in doubt. He’s torn an ACL, had Tommy John surgery, he’s suffered from Lyme Disease, and Mono…he’s been through a lot, and made his way through all of it.
But back to the hire. During Rocco’s playing career, and short coaching career, he worked for Lou Piniella, Joe Madden, Terry Francona, and Kevin Cash. That’s a lot of star power in a relatively short list of managers. While lots of intelligent people work for other intelligent people, the most intelligent people truly learn from those experiences.
It speaks to the intelligence of Falvey and Levine that they want truly intelligent people working for them, and frankly, despite the many rhetorical beatings that the Pohlad family sometimes takes, it also speaks well of them that they are willing to hire young, somewhat unproven smart people to lead the franchise into the future.
Sometimes being the smartest guy in the room involves not demanding that you be the smartest guy in the room, and Rocco seems to embody that philosophy which should serve Twins fans well long term. It appears that Falvey and Levine understood that Rocco learned from some truly great baseball minds, and they wanted to capitalize on that intelligence in hiring him.
Rocco didn’t just work with and for these managers, it would appear that he actually learned from them, and using his own intelligence, he seems to have been able to use that knowledge (some of it old school, particularly when one thinks of Piniella and Francona) in combination with his own belief in analytics to become a successful major league manager before the age of forty.
I’m not ready to install him in the Hall of Fame. He’s had one managerial year. A really good year. An American League Manager of the Year type of good year. None of which means we won’t criticize his every move. There are moments in individual games when we questioned moves he made, and collectively, we probably questioned lots of moves, and we’ll question plenty more.
But I’m convinced that he was a great hire, and whether he ultimately leads us to the promised land or not, he was a great hire. In today’s major leagues, understanding the egos and personalities involved and giving all credit to those around him, is probably the key to successful managing, and those who know Rocco say that he understands that key as well as anyone in the game.
We often lament the loss of “humility” in our society. In describing Rocco, that word arises constantly. Maybe that single quality might best explain how he’s able to accept that there may be other people from whom he can learn, and use those experiences to improve his time with the Twins. “Intelligence” and “humility” are two descriptions that any person would want attached to them by those who know them, and everyone who knows Rocco keeps using those words over and over again.
When I pressed Paul Danesi about whether Rocco was the best student/athlete he’d ever seen at Bishop Hendricken, Danesi wouldn’t take the bait. To say such a thing, in Danesi’s view, would slight many other outstanding young people with whom he had worked over the years, and so he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Bishop Hendricken’s athletic director, Jamal Gomes, was equally proud of Rocco, and similarly focused upon Baldelli’s intelligence and character even above his athletic accomplishments, and equally unwilling, it seemed, to put Rocco above all others.
Such deflection, in itself, seemed really intelligent to me. I admired Danesi and Gomes in those moments in the way that I have quickly come to admire Rocco Baldelli, as a really smart and humble guy willing to credit others for their own successes. At Bishop Hendricken, those who knew Rocco also seemed to keenly understand that the feelings of other people and the purpose of the larger enterprise is worth considering at all times, and in answering all questions. Not everybody does that. Actually, not very many people do that, and I couldn’t help but feel that Baldelli learned from some really great people along the way.
So, it would appear that Rocco had help to get to where he is. Of course, he’d tell you that himself. But, it’s more than the obvious, nobody could do it on their own kind of thing…maybe what is valuable in a consideration of who Rocco is and where he might take us lies in an understanding that Rocco genuinely wants to surround himself with good and smart people willing to challenge his thinking. The evidence on that front is already in, as in one year working with Baldelli, he’s already lost coaches to other organizations (Derek Shelton to the Pirates, and James Rowson to the Marlins).
Is Rocco Baldelli truly as genuine as he seems to be? It is gratifying to know that even in these cynical times, when we doubt the integrity of almost everyone, Rocco is the genuine article. Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey was quoted last year, regarding Baldelli’s then candidacy for manager of the year, “He cared about every person who walked through that door to help them do their job to the best of their abilities, that’s what I think his leadership style showed to be.”
In the end, what’s there to know about Rocco Baldelli? He’s an excellent manager as he’s already proven, and he’s an excellent human being…everybody says so. What is also true, is that there were a lot of good people in Baldelli’s life, including those with whom I spoke at his old high school. They deflected credit to Rocco and his family, as Rocco would likely deflect credit to them.
Perhaps what we might learn about Rocco isn’t so much about Rocco as it is about the people who influenced him along the way. It’s not a slight to suggest that he had some help along the way, and in fact, it should comfort all Twins fans, that we have a manager who treats people with respect, who wants the best for every player he manages, and who knows and seems willing to acknowledge the fact that he is still learning. That seems pretty smart to me, or as we might say in Rhode Island “wicked smart!” In the end, there’s no “I” in Rocco, and that suggests that Twins fans might be well served for many years to come.