Rocco Comes Home
In 2003, Rocco Baldelli was a talented kid from Woonsocket, a major-league rookie compared to Joe DiMaggio. Now he’s made it to his dream team, but this player touched by greatness faces an uncertain future.
“It was last year. We were in his condo in Florida. I asked him, ‘If you were a free agent right now — and we still assumed he’d be a Tampa Bay Ray — if you had to pick one team to play for right now, who would it be?’ And he didn’t answer me. Didn’t say anything for five minutes. Then he says, ‘I know who I’d play for.’ I go, ‘Who?’ He says, ‘Boston.’ I go, ‘Really. Why is that? You always told me it’s not that you didn’t like Boston, but you know there would be a lot of ticket requests, just the whole process of being a hometown kid.’ And he paused and he looked at me. And he goes, ‘Do you know how many lives that would affect by my choosing Boston?’ He goes ‘Do you know how many people would be happy that I’m playing for the Red Sox? Do you know how many smiles from family and friends that I would make?’ ”—Minh Pham, Rocco Baldelli’s best friend from childhood
It had been a summer when it seemed all that people could talk about was the rain that returned every day like a bad dream, but on this Saturday in July, just before the All-Star break, the warm afternoon sun spills onto Fenway Park. The game against the Kansas City Royals is still more than three hours away, but the field is already stirring with the casual rituals of pre-game warm-ups: the jogging across the outfield grass, the tall young players in red jerseys playing catch, the balls cracking into their mitts. Down the right field line a clump of players gather in a circle and stretch. A Red Sox scout stands by the dugout steps chatting about his upcoming scouting trip to the Dominican Republic, and then to the Gulf Coast league where the newest crop of youngsters are fighting to be noticed. A batting practice coach tugs a baseball-loaded basket on wheels up the dugout steps, steering it towards the batting cage. The early fans sprinkle about the stands; those who know somebody who could get them on the field crowd along the first base line, many clutching programs and baseballs, hoping a player will pause after batting practice to sign.
At 4:30 the last Red Sox player finally emerges from the cool, dark clubhouse and makes his way slowly up the steps and then into the sun to take his swings with the first group of reserves. The number on his jersey is 5. Rocco Baldelli. With all that has happened to him, the nearly three full seasons lost to injuries, the two years of excruciating frustration and fear as a mysterious illness robbed him of strength, caused his legs so much pain at times he was unable to even dig his spikes in at home plate — despite all that — his tall lanky frame still holds the eye, the way film directors say a camera loves certain actors. Here, your eyes know, is a ballplayer.
A young woman, her brown hair spilling to her shoulders beneath her baseball cap, BALDELLI emblazoned on the back of her red jersey, calls “Rocco” as he walks to the batting cage. Someone else shouts “Great throw last night.” The night before Rocco had been thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into the game in the fifth inning when centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury had been ejected for arguing with the umpire. Two innings later, Rocco had caught a fly ball by the centerfield wall and fired a strike to second base to catch a runner trying to advance. In a one-to-zero victory it proved a game saving throw. This is his job now, to create moments, bursts of excellence, maybe a pinch hit to win a game; or a homerun against the Phillies that went from his bat to the grandstands so fast David Ortiz told him simply, “That was impressive.” Moments to help his team, moments that let the baseball world know he still has the gifts; moments that come like shooting stars, vanishing before we are sure what we’ve seen.
He takes his bat into the cage. Six pitches, six ground balls to the right side. “I always take the first round and try to hit the other way,” he will say a few minutes later while he rests back in the dugout.
A few other players take their cuts, then he steps back in. Now he swings away. Two balls fly into the outfield bleachers. Three more in the third round, and the crowd stirs and claps its appreciation. Six rounds and then, unless the unexpected happens again, his day is over. Maybe thirty-five swings. He will not run, nor warm up with everyone else. At Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick he’d be so wired with energy before games he’d sprint down the hallways. Now he measures carefully how much he will ask of his body, still learning almost daily what his muscles can do, or cannot.
Because he is polite he will answer a question about his little-known illness, but he has grown to hate those questions as if they are burrs he cannot shake. It would have been easier if he’d only had the injuries that come to so many athletes — the ripping of muscles, the torn ligaments, the broken bones — he’d had those too, but at least then we’d understand. But this. First its name was mitochrondial myopathy, which last December was rediagnosed, the illness now named channelopathy, all having to do with cells and ions and electrical impulses that don’t work the way they should. Most fans don’t want to know any of it, not what it is, or about the cocktail of supplements and medicines that help him fight back. Maybe because it’s too frightening. After all, if Rocco Baldelli, an athlete this extraordinary, can wake up one day and not be able to run or jump, if he can be stopped almost in his tracks with no warning by misfiring cells, then what chance do the rest of us have?
Only six years ago Rocco Baldelli’s future stardom burned so bright it blinded nearly everyone to the fragility of an athlete’s life. Everybody loved Rocco. He was only twenty-one then in the spring of 2003 and already the chatter was this gangly kid from Woonsocket and Cumberland would be baseball’s next superstar. Scouts and baseball experts fell over themselves praising his rare blend of speed, power and baseball savvy, all wrapped inside uncommon humility and courtesy. People said he was so calm, so mature, it was as if he were an old soul, as if he had been here before. It didn’t matter that he never wanted the hoopla. His life was playing baseball, not listening to praise. After all, his father had taught him from as long as he could remember: “There are
no guarantees. Nothing is for certain.”
Dan “Rocky” Baldelli had once been a fireman. He’d seen proud homes burned to ashes. He’d seen Rocco, for all his precocious gifts, suffer a leg broken so severely he’d been wheelchair bound; Rocco had endured so many illnesses and injuries — Lyme Disease, viral meningitis, a pulled abdominal muscle that cost him much of a senior baseball season — it was as though he was punished by a strange fate for being too perfect. You just had to walk into the father’s check-cashing business and pawnshop in Woonsocket to see proof that life gives no guarantees, certainly not on dreams, all that gold and silver, so much of it once precious to someone, lining the shelves. But still. Even in the cold what-have-you-done-for-me-lately baseball world, it seemed so sudden, to go from the hottest of prospects to a damaged spare part, a bargain priced off-season pickup for the Boston Red Sox, someone to pinch hit against lefties, and play the outfield once or twice a week tops, when a lefty would pitch, and when his body would let him.
That is one way to look at Rocco now. But that misses the point about Rocco Baldelli. He doesn’t ask anyone to feel sorry for him. After missing more than four months of last season he came back to play for the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the most improbable story in their improbable season where they rose from perennial last place losers to the World Series. He could only play now and then; sometimes when there was a pitching change, he’d kneel down in the outfield, saving his legs for a time when he might need to run hard. “Every single thing I used to do on a baseball field, I used to do as hard as I could,” he says. “And now I don’t.”
But he still made a difference. “Coming back here is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” he told a reporter. “I didn’t want this to pass me by.”
His fight to come back became a national story, letters poured in to him from parents of children with mitochrondial illnesses, calling him an inspiration. He got what proved to be the game-winning RBI against the Red Sox in game seven of the American League Championship Series. He hit a homerun in the World Series. His story now is not about how far his star has fallen, but about how remarkable it is that he is here at all. And look, he says, at where he is. “It’s different here from anywhere else,” he says, as he gestures to the seats filling with fans. “How can you have a better following than the Boston Red Sox?”
On the way to the dugout he stops and signs autographs. A nattily dressed man in a white shirt that matches his perfect white hair holds his young grandson. The child clutches a shiny new ball. “One Italian to another,” Rico Petrocelli, former Red Sox great from thirty-plus years ago says smiling, as he reaches toward Rocco. Rocco signs the ball then steps down into the dugout. He sits in a corner looking out at the next round of hitters. His face now sports wisps of beard. His voice is quiet, sincere, revealing little. He is trying to put behind him the days when he did not know what was wrong, nor what he could do to get better, if indeed he ever would, days when he reached depths of frustration he could not describe. His way back is to make peace with what he can and cannot do. And that takes hard work. Because even as a child he had to do things better than anyone.
“Growing up, I just tried to do it as good as it could be done,” he says. “How would you describe it when whether it’s easy or difficult, no matter what you have to do, you just get it done and it’s got to be good. Every time. That’s basically what I’m trying to say.”
So now he must teach himself a new discipline. “You can’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t play every day,” he says. “If you get one at bat in a four-day span and if you don’t hit the ball like you wanted to, what are you going to do? It’s not like you have the next day to get it done. You do your best and put whatever you did behind you when it’s over with. And be happy about it.
“I think I know there’s nothing I can really do at this point to be able to get myself out there. If I knew what I could do to get back out there every day, I’d have done it already. So I know that I just have to be grateful and happy for what I’m able to do because even last year I didn’t know if I’d be able to play at all. Going through the things I went through, it kind of depresses you a little bit, yeah it does; those were some tough things. And I don’t know if I’ll ever play every day again. I mean I always have the hope I will. It could have been over; if this wasn’t something I really wanted to do I wouldn’t be doing it. If I didn’t want to be out here playing, if it wasn’t one of the most important things in my life, it would have been really easy to say I don’t know what’s going on with my body, but I can’t play baseball, I’ll pack it up and go home, and that would be the end of it. But I really didn’t think of that as an option. I knew it was something that could happen eventually, but it wasn’t something I was ready for. I knew I wanted to play. I feel like I do things just as well as I’ve always done them but I can’t get out there every day and do it.”
And with that Rocco Baldelli stands up and trots slowly to the outfield, waiting for fly balls he wouldn’t have to run far to catch. Tomorrow he’ll be ready. Tomorrow a lefty will pitch for the Royals. Tomorrow Rocco will send a ball screaming to the centerfield gap, the ball rising above the grass, rising as the fans rise.
At first Rocco would say don’t do this, don’t do that, I have the team doctors. I said fine, if you feel that way, but this is my job. It has nothing to do with baseball at all. It has nothing to do with team doctors, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with being a parent. Do I sit by and let the cards fall where they may, or do I at least try to find something else? It doesn’t mean I’m going to succeed. But if I never knew by not trying, I don’t think I could live with myself. Rocco can’t understand what I do until he’s a dad,
because he’s not a dad yet, he won’t know.”
—Dan “Rocky” Baldelli
The phone call came from Rocco in July 2007. He had been rehabbing with a Tampa Bay minor league team in Vero Beach, trying to figure out why his legs kept cramping. After missing all of the 2005 season and nearly half of 2006, he’d come back better than ever, hitting for more power and for a higher average than ever. The star had come back. But now he had suffered one leg injury after another. He just couldn’t seem to heal. No matter how hard he worked to get stronger, it just seemed to make everything worse.
“His voice was shaking,” Rocky says. He’s sitting at his desk in his Woonsocket office in his newly renamed Gold Advance (“it has a better feeling than saying pawnshop”). Though even when he sits, it seems he is moving. The office is crowded with family photos and baseball gear. In a corner is a framed photo of Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, saying farewell to baseball with his “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.
“My son said ‘There’s something wrong with me,’ ” Rocky says. “He was very upset. He said his legs were burning. Like they would explode. So as a parent, I didn’t know what it meant, and as the person experiencing it, he didn’t know what it means. He’s been to every doctor there is. Everywhere. Toronto, Houston, North Carolina, New York, to Cleveland. He’s been to just about every specialist possible and they can’t pinpoint it. We got hundreds of letters, letters saying why don’t you try this… or that. Can’t absorb it all.
“What did I do? I stayed up all night. You just don’t sleep. It’s one long day that runs into years, and it never seems to end. You go online, trying to put together what his condition was. I’d read doctor’s notes, whatever I could see on his reports, and try to put something together, where I thought maybe is there something else out there? And it’s gone on now for lots of sleepless nights.
“No, I don’t call Rocco; I don’t bother him. I don’t call him for any reason whatsoever because I know what it takes for him to get through a day just playing baseball. The last thing I want is to talk to Rocco about this. The last thing I want to do is call him and say ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ I’m positive, because he’s told me it’s all he ever hears from anybody. But it’s not a question he wants to hear anymore, because he doesn’t want to answer it anymore. We’re going to keep working to find things. We haven’t stopped yet. Today there’s a conference of doctors and specialists in the U.K. who have his muscle slides, who have his muscle biopsy reports, they have all his genetic testing. This place is the principal institute in the world for neurological channelopathy. See, there’s always something else to look at, always something else to find, and as long as I’m alive I’m going to keep looking. If it works, great. I don’t want a pat on the back. I just want to be able to sleep. I want to be able to relax where finally I don’t have to worry about my son’s condition.”
Rocky stands up. He has to collect uniforms for his youngest son Dante’s Little League All–Star team. Rocky, as he has since Dante could walk, just as he did from the time his other sons Rocco and Nick could walk, has been Dante’s coach. The night before had been Rocky’s first all-star practice. “I saw the best practice maybe I ever had,” he says. “Ever. I laid into them from the get go. I yelled out a couple of things they probably never heard before. The bats dropped, the gloves dropped. I told them there’s not going to be one second on this field you’re going to be talking about what happened at school. For two hours it’s baseball. You don’t give me two hours of baseball, I’m replacing you. And then,” and he smiles, “we must have hit 160 balls to them, hard shots, only four made
it to the outfield.”
Rocky leads the way through a few doors and hallways, to where Minh Pham, Rocco’s best friend, has been in charge of the pawnshop side of the business since he left college. They’ve been each other’s constant ears through life’s highs and tragedies — the death of Minh’s mother and his brother, Rocco’s success, his illness. The Baldellis call him their son.
“I’ve always been the one keeping him middle of the road,” Minh says. “I’ve always been that kid who when he goes zero for seven I’ll give him the pat on the back. Or when he’s on a hitting streak, I’ll remind him that he went zero for seven with six strikeouts against Roger Clemens. Just to keep him in the middle of the road. Remind him you can be a superhero one day, and a regular Joe the next. When Rocco got hurt, it was like we got hurt. I watch the games now, just holding my breath. Every run, every sprint takes something out of him. I know how he runs, so if I see him run in a funny way, I have this feeling, ‘He’s hurt.’ I can see he’s not as fast. Not as fluid. To keep speed you need to run. Without the training, the speed goes. And the illness doesn’t allow him to train the way he wants.
“Sure, the last few years have been tough. From the second we woke up in the morning, through dinner, when I was with the family, it was just talking about Rocco. Did we speak to him? How is he feeling? Is he down? Because it’s been a daily process to keep him positive. To motivate him. Peaks and valleys are always the daily life of a baseball player, but it always seemed he’d never get back to the peaks. Last winter, we all knew this was a make-or-break year for Rocco. Teams will only take a chance on someone so many times. His brother and I and another friend, we dragged him out, but he had to want to do it. He was out to prove he could do it and his medications had started working a little better. It was hard but we got him into the gym. We went to my old high school, Warwick Veterans Memorial. We threw, played basketball, ran, just finding out how hard we could push him.
“Now it’s like night and day, no comparison, seeing him from last season to now. Now there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year he hit rock bottom. Not knowing what was happening to his body. That was much bigger than baseball. That was about what kind of life would he have? I can see his morale is quietly improving. I think he’s starting to believe again that he belongs, that’s half the battle. Even if his body is deteriorating, he knows he can still play the game. The day that he doesn’t think so will be the day he doesn’t play anymore.
“Feel sorry for Rocco? I was just telling someone the other day, I feel sorry for the fans in Boston who don’t get to see what he was like in terms of raw ability. What he used to be. They think of Rocco now, they think of injuries, they think of channelopathy. They don’t think of Rocco as this gifted twenty-one-year-old with all the comparisons with Joe DiMaggio. That’s who I feel sorry for.”
In the check cashing office of Rocky Baldelli’s business, a big screen television gets turned on when the Red Sox have a day game. This is Karl Allaire’s domain, where he has worked for twelve years, where for thousands of hours since Rocco was a teenager, he’d go into the basement with Rocco and pitch in the batting cage so that Rocco could hone a swing and develop his timing. He watches Rocco bat whenever he can.
“There are holes in his game,” Karl says, “that come from little repetition. When I watch him, I see someone so anxious to hit. We were watching games where it seemed he swung just to swing. I called him after one game. I said you swung at two inside fastballs. Why? Another time I said watch your front foot. But I think he’s seeing the ball better now. The ball is coming off his bat. He still has the skills. Still has that bat speed. Hopefully there’s some way out of this, maybe there won’t be, but we stay positive. You know what,” Karl says, and he leans forward in his chair. “I wish I could just cut off my legs and give them to him.”
At Sherman Park in Burrillville, it’s maybe 220 feet to center field, where signs advertising local businesses drape the chain link fence. The afternoon sky is blue for the first time in days, and the grass is bright green. The sound of a lawnmower drifts down from a house across the road. It is the start of the Rhode Island District’s eleven and twelve-year-old Little League All-Star Tourney, a double-elimination, round-robin set of games. The winner will play for the state championship, and then New England’s, and the dreams don’t stop until maybe, they keep winning all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
When Rocco was a boy this was his world, these were his dreams — game after game, spring through fall, his dad coaching, his brother Nick coming two years behind, his mother, Michelle, whose own father named her after Mickey Mantle, in the stands cheering, bringing the cooler and snacks, hanging out with all the other parents whose own lives all but stopped while the children played.
“Oh my God, how many games we went to,” she says as she assembles herself with jeans rolled up at the knees in the bleachers next to the third base dugout. Now it is Dante’s time. Dante is eleven years old, five foot two inches, a generous eighty pounds. He plays everywhere, pitcher, shortstop, second base, outfield. “He may not have quite the bat speed of Rocco, maybe not quite as fast a runner,” his father says, “but he’s fluid, he’s smart, he knows the game. He knows what to do with the ball — that’s 90 percent of it.” Minh Pham says simply, “Dante is probably even a better all-around player than Rocco was at his age.”
When Dante’s team, the Cumberland Nationals, arrive at 4:30, their bat bags slung over their shoulders, you can’t miss how much Dante looks like big brother Rocco. BALDELLI is printed in white on his blue jersey and as he walks past the Burrillville team, one boy turns and says to another, “That’s Baldelli.”
“I look at Dante and I see Rocco,” Michelle says. “Yeah, it’s like an echo. The difference is Dante likes to have fun, he’s social. Rocco, well, he didn’t need anybody. He was just always so structured. He just wanted to play.”
Rocky has coached this group of boys since they were seven or eight, and he senses they are special. Nearly all of them are just eleven, playing teams of mostly twelves. They are wiry and small, a head shorter than the Burrillville boys, but quick as dragonflies as they flawlessly scoop up the grounders.
Minh, a former college player, pitched batting practice the day before, throwing so hard his arm burned afterwards. “They won’t be intimidated now by any twelve-year-old,” Minh says.
During the pre-game warm-ups, Rocky, in shorts and a blue coach’s shirt, patrols the outfield shouting encouragement. The family is all here — Nick, who is about to move in with Rocco in his Copley Square apartment while he attends dental school, and Minh — except of course for Rocco, who is in the lineup this night in Baltimore. “As soon as the game is over,” Michelle says, “we’ll stop nearby and watch. But we’ve always had our priorities right, and this is where our attention is. It’s Dante.”
In the third inning, Dante sends a ball over the centerfield fence. Minh immediately texts Rocco: “Dante hit a ball farther than you ever did.” The Nationals are winning when Burrillville rallies. With the game on the line, with the winning run at bat, Rocky calls Dante over from second base and hands him the ball. He needs to get the final out. He does. A few nights later Dante drives in the winning run in an extra inning game. “It was a twelve pitch at bat,” Rocky says, barely concealing his pride. “And he hit it off his cousin. Same as it was for Rocco.”