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Baldelli plays the right game

After heeding his father's advice, outfielder is poised to make the major leagues.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- There was something there, something Dan Baldelli just couldn't let go. He'd been coaching his son, Rocco, since he was 3, swinging the big, red, plastic bat in the yard, and on through each youth-league level, often on bigger fields and against older children. When it came right down to it, Dan just couldn't stand to see the talent wasted.

It wasn't that Rocco hated baseball, just that he didn't really have any use for it. He was 15, and basketball was his thing. Having recovered from a horrifically broken leg, he hadn't even picked up a bat or thrown a baseball in years, and had no further interest in doing so.

So when Dan first asked him about going to the tryout for the Cumberland, R.I., American Legion Post 14 team, it wasn't a surprise that Rocco said no. But Dan persisted, and pleaded. "I asked him to try it, and he said no," Dan Baldelli said. "I said, 'Just try it for me,' and he said no. I said, 'Please try, and if you don't make the team, I'll never ask you again.' "

"I was like, 'This is not what I want to do,' " Rocco said. "I don't want to go and make a fool out of myself after not touching a bat or ball for two years. He basically told me I was going. We went to a basketball tournament in New Jersey, played three games and drove home, and he made me go."

Rocco feared it was going to be bad.

He was wrong.

It was worse.

"He was horrible," Dan said. "I was far away, sitting in a chair by my truck thinking, 'What did I do to my son? Why did I do that?' I felt so bad."

"Just terrible," Rocco said. "I was awful. I couldn't catch a fly ball, I couldn't really hit. I just made a fool out of myself."

Fortunately, the Baldellis weren't the only judges of talent at the field that day. The coach, Steve Reynolds, saw through the rustiness, saw the raw skills, the athleticism and, maybe more than anything, the speed, and picked him anyway. Dan's persistence had paid off, and Rocco was back in the game, eventually playing his way from first base to centerfield.

"I think (my father) just thought I had more to offer, that there was more than I was showing," Rocco said. "I kind of gave up on baseball a little bit. It wasn't a real conscious decision, that 'I don't want to play baseball.' It wasn't like that. It was just something that, time had passed and I didn't happen to play."

If he hadn't come back when he did, he wouldn't have gone on to play three years of varsity ball at Bishop Hendricken High in nearby Warwick, R.I., wouldn't have attracted the flock of scouts who found their way to the batting cage in the basement of Dan's combination Hava Java Coffee House/Mr. Pawn/ABEL Check Cashing shop in Woonsocket, wouldn't have gotten the $2.25-million bonus for being the sixth pick of the 2000 draft, wouldn't have raced through the minor leagues last season collecting a handful of awards, including Baseball America's prestigious player of the year honor.

And he wouldn't be here as one of the most intriguing stories in Devil Rays spring training camp, a 21-year-old everyone loves trying to make a quantum leap to the major leagues.

"He's unique," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "The first thing you say is that he's a tremendous athlete, but usually when you use that term on a young man you're talking about someone who needs to learn how to play the game. It's just the opposite with him. He has as good instincts on the baseball field as you want to see. You don't find the combination of athleticism and feel for the game, and the makeup to use both. He has a chance, if he keeps his head screwed on straight and keeps doing the things he's doing, to be a very special player."

Devil Rays officials won't decide for weeks whether Baldelli is going to make it. They admit they're not even sure if it would be a good idea, given his lack of experience in the high minor leagues and need for greater plate discipline.

The Rays will weigh several factors, starting with the benefit of having his speed and defense in the lineup versus the potential of damaging his development by pushing him too fast and dousing his confidence.

"Ultimately the decision will be, 'Are we hurting his future by putting him in the major leagues right now?' " LaMar said. "Obviously part of it is what Lou Piniella thinks he needs to win baseball games, but we cannot put Rocco over his head. If we feel like he'll hold his own, and I don't mean tear it up, but hold his own, learn from the struggles, learn from the experience, that comes into play. But he has a chance to be a guy to help carry this club in the future, and we can't jeopardize that over short-term needs."

Baldelli, who went from Class A to Double A to Triple A in a blur of a 2002 season, says he's ready. "I'd like to think so," he said. "I think I put myself in pretty good shape to do it this offseason by working really hard."

He says this softly, with no hint of arrogance or attitude. If it turns out he's really not ready, or team officials just decide against it for now, he says he'll be okay with that too. Pressure? He laughs. From who? From where? He doesn't even see how this is a topic of discussion.

"It's not something to worry about," he said. "It sounds real simple, and you guys probably get tired of hearing this, but if you just work your tail off every day and leave it on the field you shouldn't have anything to worry about. If it's going to work out, it's going to work out."

If that sounds like a lot of maturity and humility from a youngster who'd otherwise be a college junior on spring break this week, well, that's part of the Baldelli story too.

He is polite, considerate, intelligent and conversational, just like he has always been. He was such an athlete in high school that he helped Bishop Hendricken to state titles in baseball, volleyball, basketball and won a state 55-meter sprint championship, and still managed to get straight A's. (One sacrifice -- he didn't have time to take driver's education, so he couldn't get his license until he was 18.) He had college offers from Yale, Princeton, Wake Forest and North Carolina.

Still, today, he's just as comfortable talking with an 8-year-old as an 80-year-old and, thus far, seems to make time for everyone. With Dan's help, he started a Web site-based foundation (roccobadelli.com) to raise money for scholarships by selling autographed memorabilia. He's a tremendous older brother to Nick, the 18-year-old who is playing at Trinity College, and 5-year-old Dante, who has the unfortunate affliction of a peanut allergy so severe the Baldellis usually can't risk taking him to the ballpark.

"He's just got great character," Dan Baldelli said. "He's humble, and he always remembers where he came from. That's Rocco. He just wants to be a regular person, wants to be one of the guys."

"You see a lot of guys with his kind of talent and they kind of know they've got it," said pitcher Doug Waechter, a minor-league teamamate. "If you met Rocco on the street, you'd have no idea he played pro baseball. You'd have no idea he has any kind of talent. He's one of the most down-to-earth, laid-back guys you'll ever meet. He's the kind of guy who'd do anything for you if you ask him to."

Because of the long minor-league season and assignment to the Arizona Fall League, Rocco was home in Rhode Island for only about six weeks during the offseason.

He spent most of his days working out in a gym and taking swings in the dungeonlike batting cage, hung out with his best friend from high school, Minh Pham, and made an occasional trip to satisfy a newfound love of sushi. Most nights? "He'd be home watching the Discovery Channel, watching some animals or something," Dan said. "I'd say, 'What are you doing? He'd say, 'I'm relaxing.' "

There isn't much Rocco has done that has disappointed his parents. But then there was the day he showed Dan and Michelle the tattoo he got just above his left ankle.

A bunch of guys from the instructional league camp were going to a shop in downtown St. Petersburg one September 2000 evening, and Rocco mustered the courage to go along. He didn't know what he wanted and, for what he says was lack of a better idea, he picked something only slightly colorful but definitely unique: the Major League Baseball logo.

Dan was calm, but stern.

"You're not there yet," he told his son. "People that are there can put it on their ankle. Now you better get there, or you've got a problem."

For Rocco Baseball, there's no problem.


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