Simply Baseball Notebook straight from the source May 2003

Rocco Baldelli: A Ray of Hope

rocco.jpg
photo by Sebastian Vannavong

Pressure?  Already compared to Joe DiMaggio and pegged as the Devil Rays' savior, Rocco Baldelli would seem to be under plenty of it.  The 21 year old, however, seems to be oblivious to all of it.

"I don't consider myself in those terms," the rookie explained. "I've only been in the big leagues for five weeks, I can't even think about that stuff."

That's what you'd expect a rookie to say when compared to Joe DiMaggio; what makes Baldelli different is that he actually seems sincere.  "It's kind of my personality, I don't think about and analyze stats, winning accolades -- stuff like that doesn't concern me," he said.  "I just worry about having fun and playing hard, thats what I base things on.  I don't like all of that extra stuff."

The comparisons to the Yankee Clipper have as much to do with his Italian heritage as they do with his ability, but the fact that he wears number 5 like Joltin' Joe is just a coincidence.

"I wore number 5 in 'A' ball and when I was young," the Rhode Island native commented.  "Normally in the minor leagues, the shorter guys get the smaller numbers, so I couldnt wear it.  In the big leagues, they make your jersey for you, so you get whatever number you want."

While Baldelli downplays the media-generated hype, his performance on the field keeps feeding the beast.  On April 30 in Minnesota, he set the rookie record for hits through the end of April with 40.  Not that he paid much attention to that.

"I knew I was close the last couple days, but it wasn't something I was worried about," the prodigy said.  "I read the newspaper, that's basically the only way I know.  It's not like I know all the major league records in my head - I wouldn't know that kind of stuff."

What Baldelli did know, however, is that the record hit was his first career homerun.  "It was a fastball, actually (Twins pitcher Brad Radke) doubled up on the fastball - I fouled the first one off my leg."  You don't know it's coming, but I'd already seen one, and he came back with pretty much the same pitch," he explained.  "I don't hit enough home runs to know when they go out.  I knew I hit it solidly."

The crowning moment almost became a disaster, as Baldelli nearly passed teammate Carl Crawford rounding first base. "I almost ran past C.C.," he said.  "(First-base coach Billy) Hatcher was yelling at me.  Every time I hit the ball I try to run...so I almost caught him and I got yelled at for that."

As result of Baldelli's exploits, the Hall of Fame came calling.  Following in the game, his jersey, bats, and batting gloves were carefully packaged by a MLB representative for possible inclusion into Cooperstown.

"That was a surprise," Baldelli commented.  "They just kind of let me know (earlier) today. I was hoping I wasn't jinxing it before the game."

Amazingly, Baldelli's career nearly never happened.  As a freshman in high school he shattered his tibia playing basketball, an injury so serious that it confined him to a wheelchair for four months. He didn't even play baseball until his junior year.

Despite his inexperience, the Devil Rays made him the 6th overall selection in the 2000 draft.  Success, however, didn't come immediately.  "My first year I hit .210 in rookie ball -- I didn't know what the hell I was doing," Baldelli said.  "I was just running around like a chicken with his head cut off.  The more and more games I play, the easier it seems to get."

In 2002, everything came together for the naturally gifted centerfielder.  Playing in 157 games in four leagues (including the Arizona Fall League), Baldelli hit .323 with 20 home runs and 36 stolen bases.  During the regular season, he hit safely in 96 out of 118 games.

As a reward for his outstanding season, Baldelli took home Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year Award.  A banquet was held in his honor at the winter meetings in Nashville.
 
The one blemish on Baldelli's resume has been his inability to draw walks.  But, the easygoing rookie isn't worried. "I've never drawn a lot of walks," he explained.  "I'm sure the more I see these guys and the more at bats I get, the easier it will be."

Baseball seems to come easy to Rocco Baldelli; he began his career with a 13 game hitting streak and hasn't looked back.  If he keeps hitting, the hype and pressure will keep building, but don't expect him to notice.

"I think I've played pretty well my first month," he said nonchalantly. "I've felt confident...if I'm feeling confident out there when I am playing - that's all I can really ask for."

-David Zingler

Baldelli's page @ Baseball-Almanac.com

*FEEDBACK*

Simply Baseball Notebook