WOONSOCKET — If anything, the announcement that Rocco Baldelli is retiring after a seven-year pro career and eight months shy of his 30th birthday should be viewed as an outpouring of relief for the Woonsocket native.
What was Baldelli? A good player, who showed flashes of talent that bordered on the greatness, the modern day answer to Napoleon Lajoie and Gabby Hartnett, two Hall of Famers with firm ties to the Blackstone Valley.
What could have Baldelli been? So much more had his body not been sapped by a rare and debilitating disease, along with a litany of other injuries that resulted in him spending more than half of his service time on the disabled list, including missing 235 straight games between the 2005-06 seasons.
“You could have had a great high school college career and got injured, you never knew what could have been,” said Dan “Rocky” Baldelli, Rocco’s father. “You always wonder, but you can’t live in the past. You can’t be dwelling on it too much.”
There’s a collage of photos and newspaper clippings hanging up on a wall in the elder Baldelli’s check-cashing service and pawnshop, located on Bernon Street. The display exuded promise and possibility, centering exclusively on Rocco’s early years in the big leagues. As time went on, those images of youthful exuberance gave way to the realization that this rare muscle condition, most closely related to mitochondrial myopathy, was not going away, or become treatable to the point that he could function in a regular capacity.
The last thing Baldelli wanted, however, was for those to feel sorry for him. No doubt he was frustrated with the unexpected turn his career took, but asking for pity was not his forte. Instead he chose to persevere, this despite probably wondering if pushing his body to extreme limits was in his best interest.
Those concerns, as strenuous as they must have seemed at times, are no longer daily hassles. There will be no repeat of 2010, which started with Baldelli taking a non-playing job with the Rays – which gave him additional time to strengthen a shoulder injury – and ended with him in the majors.
“I’m sure it’s a relief for him, wondering if he was going to rehab for 3-4 months or trying to play a few times a week,” Rocky said. “What kind of job or life is that for anyone?”
The baseball chapter of his life is now closed, those close to Baldelli saying that his mind was made up long before word filtered out Wednesday, perhaps as far back as last October when he was removed from Tampa Bay’s playoff roster after a hamstring injury flared up during Game 1 of the Division Series against Texas. There are no regrets on his part, just simply the realization that the wait-and-see burden that has defined Baldelli in recent years has been lifted.
“I’m sure (retiring) hurts, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t give this a lot a thought before doing this,” Rocky said a few hours before his son staged a farewell press conference in Tampa. “I knew he was looking at his health being the issue.”
“I’m pretty sure he was hoping this day wouldn’t have to come for a very long time, as we all do,” said fellow Rhode Islander and relief pitcher Dan Wheeler, a teammate of Baldelli’s in 2007, ’08, and last year. “To watch him go through what he had to go through, I know the one thing about him that I saw was how hard he worked to beat whatever obstacle it was. I know there was no stone left unturned in trying to figure out and get him to the point where he could come back.”
The time has come for this former No. 1 draft pick out of Bishop Hendricken to embark on the next phase of his life, which for starters, will entail working in the scouting and player development circle for Tampa Bay, the franchise that took Baldelli with the sixth overall pick in the 2000 MLB Draft.
“He’s going to move on to a different part of baseball. If he uses what talents he does have, he should be OK,” said Rocky Baldelli. “He still has a lot of years ahead of him to do different things. It’s all going to be his choices now. He can come and go as he pleases and do what he wants.
“I’m sure he’ll miss the competition and the camaraderie, the guys he hung out with,” Rocky went on. “It (his newfound responsibilities) will be different, but it’s like anyone who’s left a job.”
Chris Carter, a former Red Sox farmhand who befriended Baldelli during their time together with Boston in 2009, believes Baldelli will have no problems adjusting to his new capacity. Since Tampa Bay owns three first-round picks in this year’s draft, two of which are the result of the departures of outfielder Carl Crawford (to the Red Sox) and Rafael Soriano (to the Yankees), and three more selections in the supplemental round, Baldelli could very well be spending the coming months on the road and on the lookout for the next Tampa phenom.
“He understands the intricacies of Major League Baseball well enough as to explain it to anyone,” said Carter, who signed a minor-league deal with Tampa earlier this month, via text message. “He was always very professional, but easy going at the same time. It was a pleasure to be his teammate.”
To some, Baldelli’s decision to call it a career is an unfulfilling end to the baseball story of a native son who might have turned into one of the all-time greats. To Rocky Baldelli, the images of his son performing on the diamond – from his first hit off Pedro Martinez to homering in the 2008 World Series – will be cherished and not soon forgotten.
“They’re memories, which are all you’ve in life. Even if he had a full career, when it ends, it ends and then it’s memories,” said Rocky, choosing to wax nostalgic. “When you open up the scrapbook and you look and read, watch old tape or whatever … he’s got something to show.
“Let’s face it, he went from being a little kid at 18, which to me is still a kid, to being 29 before you knew it,” he added. “Now he’s sitting back, knowing that his life isn’t too far gone. He should be fine.”
Added Wheeler, “I’m sure he’s at peace with the decision he made. Whatever he chooses to do know is something he’ll be able to accomplish because of his work ethic.”