By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Teenage ears absorbed a new, powerful, exciting big-league sound. A skinny kid from Rhode Island, freshly frocked in a Devil Rays uniform, propelled Sunday morning batting practice baseballs into Tropicana Field's leftfield seats.
"I didn't look, I just listened," said Rocco Baldelli, a spindly just-drafted phenom. "It was a nice noise, hearing baseballs bouncing off bleachers. Being in a major-league stadium is such a difference from small, beat-up ballparks back home."
Two hours before Tampa Bay's game against the Texas Rangers, in a still-empty Trop that overflowed with hope, Rays coach Leon Roberts delivered middleweight pitches and Baldelli took heavyweight cuts.
Cute little cameo.
D-Rays boss Vince Naimoli was gazing. Larry Rothschild, the manager, studied Rocco. Hoping he might become another Rocco Colavito. Scouts, media, agents, and Baldelli kin observed. When the prized youngster whiffed a pitch, he flushed with a little smile of embarrassment.
This story is pure America.
Rooted in New England. Involving the red, white and blue sport of Ruth, Rose and Ryan. A local hero, having dominated Little League and ripped sandlot pitching and smothered high school competition, becomes a neophyte pro with whopper expectations.
Rocco works at realism.
"There's nothing I do well enough to be a major-league player," Baldelli said. "This is great, coming to St. Petersburg, getting a little taste of baseball at its highest level, but I am excited about getting on to the Rookie League where I can learn."
Rocco's raw skills are captivating. He's 6 feet 4, weighs a lithe 180; blessed with a frame that should someday carry a mature 220. His speed blisters. Baldelli has clocked 4.3 in a 40-yard sprint.
Rocco was offered a volleyball scholarship to UCLA. For baseball, there is defensive grace, a good arm, loads of power, a bright mind and seemingly uncluttered attitude.
"What a thrill," said Dan Baldelli, dad of the prospect. "I cannot imagine a better Father's Day gift." Rocco's pop has an eclectic array of Woonsocket small businesses: pawn shop, doughnut store and check-cashing establishment. Dan would throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Rays-Rangers game. Rocco caught it.
Another son, 16-year-old Nicholas, was alongside. Rocco's mother, Michelle, was giving chase to a speedy 21/2-year-old son, Dante. Even though the Baldellis brought along a 15-year-old babysitter named Ali.
The Trop ... their theme park.
MLB drafts are a crapshoot, but Rocco Daniel Baldelli, son of Daniel Rocco Baldelli, is a new shaver with rake-the-table possibilities. Labeled as the best athlete among baseball pups of 2000. So far, the most outrageous of critics has said Rocco has Joe DiMaggio talent.
But now, Baldelli becomes a big rook from Little Rhody on his way to Princeton; not the famous New Jersey university but a backwoods West Virginia town where the Devil Rays send youths of hope. Rocco, who as a high school student produced predominantly A's, made a little Ivy League joke: "I always wanted to go to Princeton."
Whatever, it is for schooling.
"He looks like a good athlete," Rothschild said of Rocco. "I can see what everybody was talking about. He looks very sound. He does things with ease. He's fundamentally correct. For a kid that tall, he has good balance and power in his swing. I was impressed."
Growing up in Rhode Island, being sandwiched by Boston and New York, it is near mandatory for a young jock to declare support for either the Red Sox or Yankees. Baldelli never made the choice.
"Most of my friends are Yankee fans," he said, "but I never embraced any one team. I admired individual players because of their talents." His current favorite is Andruw Jones, a gifted Atlanta centerfielder barely five years older than Rocco.
After his Sunday swings, Baldelli talked about the moment. "I'm going to Princeton with no goals other than to become pleased about my progress," he said, perspiring freely in his No. 22 black jersey. "I'm eager to learn and grow."
I grabbed Rocco's left bicep, asking if the arms might ever become as muscular as those of Rays slugger Jose Canseco. Baldelli laughed. "I'm going to get a lot bigger," he said, "but his arms (of Jose) are probably beyond my possibilities. I did shake hands (with Canseco). He squeezed so hard I thought I would pass out."
Go ahead, Rocco, be a Princeton man. Evolving from Rhode Island wonder boy. Expanding skills. Growing into an imposing pro. Rothschild, Naimoli and many baseball-attached citizens of Tampa Bay offer a single word of encouragement: "Hurry!"