When the inning started, so did the countdown. Six players to go. Six players, and Rocco gets his shot.
When the rally began, so did the search for his face. There was a chance. Another guy gets on, and Rocco gets his shot.
When his at-bat arrived, so did the renewed hope of a team going nowhere. Never mind the count. Another pitch through the strike zone, and Rocco gets his shot.
Then the ball was flying off his bat, again, shooting toward a hole in the outfield, again, and Rocco Baldelli was a hero, again. Once more, Kid Cool had measured up to a moment. One more time, Baldelli carried the mark of greatness.
Every day, the brilliance of Baldelli grows a bit brighter. We have seen clutch hits, and we have seen impossible catches, and we have seen a player carry himself with the elegance of a star.
This, however, may be the best attribute to Baldelli's greatness. Already, it is his name you want to hear announced at the most crucial of moments.
Now, as for that Rookie of the Year Award?
Do you think Rocco has a shot at that?
The immediate answer is yes, of course he does, and what kind of idiot even asks? The league has not seen a 21-year-old with this kind of grace, with this kind of presence, in years. Baldelli can hit. He can field. He can throw. For heaven's sake, he can make you watch the Rays!
Ah, you say.
But can he avoid being devoured by Godzilla?
There's the rub. According to an absolutely dunderheaded interpretation of the rules, the Yankees' Hideki Matsui is also a rookie and, as such, is Baldelli's fiercest competitor for the award.
It's an asinine situation. Matsui isn't a rookie, he's a mercenary.
Matsui has been MVP of a professional league three times in his life, a man who had a half-dozen teams throwing thousand-dollar bills at his hip. Put it this way: When the Magnificent Seven went to Mexico to save the village, were they rookies because they crossed the border? No, they were hired guns.
Yet, recent history is on Matsui's side. Two years ago, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki was AL Rookie of the Year. Three years ago, it was Seattle's Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Look, we get the message. Japanese stars can play the game. (We assumed that's why they were being paid all that money.)
Tell me this, though. When you think of the term "rookie," what pops into your head? Do you think of a wide-eyed kid who hasn't been anywhere yet? Or a 29-year-old millionaire who is used to stardom?
That's what I thought.
Look, nothing against Matsui, but what he has done this season (11 homers, 74 RBIs, .299 average) is pretty much what was expected. Any less, and George Steinbrenner was going to ask for change.
What was expected of Baldelli? Well, he was supposed to have a pretty good year, but he was supposed to have it in Durham.
Instead, he has hit .307 with nine homers and 56 RBIs. He leads all American League rookies in average, runs, triples, stolen bases and outfield assists.
That's impressive. And what is even more impressive is the kid's age. He's 21. He's a rookie. A real one.
Look at it like this. Matsui makes $20 for every dollar Baldelli gets. Before this season, Matsui had played in 1,268 professional games; Baldelli had played in 290. Matsui is such an established star he is followed by dozens of reporters from his native country; Baldelli has to deal with Marc Topkin and the guy from the Woonsocket Call.
When Matsui signed his first contract as a No.1 draft pick, Baldelli was 10 years old. When Matsui became an All-Star for the first of nine times, Baldelli was 14. When he won his first of three MVPs, Baldelli was 16.
Also, there is this.
Matsui plays for the Yankees. You might have heard of them.
Baldelli plays for the Rays. You might not have heard of them.
For Matsui, this will mean a certain amount of clout. He's throwing up his numbers on a bigger stage.
Baldelli is like a treasure in a small box hidden on a high shelf in an empty closet in an abandoned room in a building no one remembers in a town no one visits. He is a jewel in a gravel pit, a flower in the desert. If a tree falls in the forest, and they whittle a bat out of it, and Baldelli hits a double with no one there to hear, does it make a sound?
If failure and success both are self-perpetuating, however, isn't it more impressive to be a star for the Rays than for the Yankees? Consider the RBI totals, the only real statistical advantage Matsui has over Baldelli. Isn't it easier to drive in runs for the Yankees than the Rays? Especially when you consider this: Baldelli doesn't get to bat against Rays pitching.
As far as the New York platform goes, however, that can be dismissed with a simple question.
Um, did anyone compare Matsui to Joe DiMaggio? I didn't think so.
Dodgers scout Al LaMaccia has used Joe D to describe Baldelli. He went as far as to call Baldelli "Joe's Twin."
Such a comparison left them laughing in Boston, in particular in the office of Bill James, the Red Sox senior baseball operations adviser. After seeing Baldelli, he stopped laughing. "He doesn't have Joe's entire package, but he has more than half of it," James said.
That should be enough for the voters. Baldelli is the best rookie this league has. Anything else is misinterpreting the word.
As for Godzilla? He was a powerful creature, and he was destructive, and he was famous. Hey, he could breathe fire.
But if anyone considered him a rookie, well, that was just blowing smoke.