Baldelli's injury renews doubts

Rocco Baldelli is that high-performance sports car that spends too much time in the shop. At some point, you require a little more dependability.

Published May 18, 2007

It isn't so much the pain, although there is some of that.

It isn't just the disappointment, although that is there, too.

As a baseball player limps toward his future, however, the underlying sadness is in the familiarity of it all.

Rocco Baldelli has walked this way before. Too many times he has hobbled away from centerfield toward the general direction of the disabled list. He has felt the same discomfort. The uncertainty is nothing new. The doubts are a recurring situation.

Rocco is hurt. Again.

Time to shut it down. Again.

The ache that will not go away has returned. This time, you can blame it on bad luck or on bad genes, and the news can tug at your heartstrings or at your hamstrings. Either way, the Rays have to go about their business without him. Again.

Stop me if you have heard this before, but this is a shame (again) because Baldelli is a great guy who works hard and who is passionate about the game. None of this is his fault. And if you want to know the truth, he's a lot more weary of the prone nature of his injuries than you are.

That said, there is a point where you wonder if this is to be the story of Baldelli's career, one bad ham after another. Will he ever be healthy? Will his body ever allow him to be more than a part-time employee?

Look, durability is a skill, too, the same as hitting a ball or throwing one. There are some athletes who seem to be made of elastic, who never seem bothered by the undue strain that professional sports can put on a man's body. Then there are others who seem to have tendons made out of rubber bands and bones made of peanut brittle.

By now, we have seen enough of Baldelli to know he can run and he can throw and, despite the awful start to this season, he can hit.

What we do not know is if he can hold up.

It was this time last year, when Baldelli was preparing to return to baseball after 612 days and 221 games away, he acknowledged as much. After a simulated game at the Ray Naimoli complex, Baldelli talked of his endless rehab and of concerns that were pretty much the same as everyone else's.

"What I have to prove to myself (is this), " he said then. "Can I go out there and play every day? Can my body handle it?"

A year later, that is still the money question. At this point, there should be only one word on the back of Baldelli's baseball card. "Ouch, " it should read.

In a human sense, you cannot help but feel for Baldelli, who seems to have suffered enough. Already, he has blown out a knee and ripped up an elbow, and for a 25-year-old man, he seems to have been saddled with 75-year-old hamstrings. Despite that, he battled back to hit .302 with 16 home runs in 92 games last year.

In a business sense, however, you have to wonder if things will ever be different. Baldelli is that high-performance sports car that spends too much time in the shop. At some point, you require a little more dependability.

What can the Rays do? They can wait. They can convene hamstring experts from across the globe. They can discuss whether moving Baldelli to first base would relieve any pressure from his legs. It comes down to this: The more Baldelli can play, the more he is worth to the Rays. And to everyone else.

For a long time now, it has been obvious the Rays eventually are going to have to trade away an outfielder. Because Carl Crawford is too good and Delmon Young is too young, much of the conversation has focused on Baldelli.

On the other hand, if there are doubts about Baldelli's ability to stay healthy, it lowers his market value dramatically. If you were the general manager of another baseball team, what would you give up for Baldelli? Answer: Less than you would have in the offseason, which was less than the Rays would accept.

If he had been able to stay healthy, things might have been different. If he had been able to stay healthy, opposing teams might have fallen all over themselves for a chance to trade for Baldelli. If he had been able to stay healthy, the Rays might have had zero interest in dealing him.

After all, Baldelli looked like a kid on his way to excellence after his first seasons. He hit .289 his first year, .280 his second (with more power). There was a grace to the way he played center.

Who knows how long he will be gone this time? In the past, Baldelli has had hamstring problems that have kept him out two weeks and those that have kept him out two months. The worst thing that can happen with a bad hamstring is to hurry things.

Frankly, this isn't the time to hope for Baldelli to return fast.

This is the time to hope his return lasts.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.

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