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Even Keel Helps Baldelli

by Jerry Crasnick
May 17, 2004

BOSTON--The same personality traits that helped Rocco Baldelli break camp as the Devil Rays starting center fielder in 2003 continued to serve him well in April, when the hits weren't coming in bunches and those Joe DiMaggio comparisons seemed tired and passť.

You got a sense things might not go as smoothly for Baldelli in spring training, when the Devil Rays rewarded him for his 184-hit rookie season by renewing his contract for $320,000. "It's a non-issue," Baldelli told reporters. Later that day, Baldelli bruised his left forearm when he was hit by a Doug Waechter pitch in an intra-squad game. The swelling would go down eventually, he assured everyone.

It wouldn't have mattered if Baldelli suffered a touch of sunburn, the showers ran out of hot water or he got stuck behind a blue hair with the right blinker in the terminally "on" position during the drive home. He'd know they would roll out the baseballs again tomorrow and everything would be fine, because it always is.

Nothing fazes this kid. In April he hit a soft .257, and the Devil Rays played as if they were recovering from a trip-to-Tokyo hangover. Manager Lou Piniella, who can rant with the best of them, looked discouraged over the team's slow start and tired beneath a two-day growth. Watching Jose Cruz Jr. go 0-for-37 can sap a man's enthusiasm in a hurry.

But even fiery types like Piniella must learn to handle the excruciating length of a baseball season. Professionalism means stepping to the plate with the same sense of purpose when you're out of sync, the rest of the lineup is scuffling, every curveball hits the black, every count is 1-2, Curt Schilling has his Grade A stuff and sports fans in Tampa barely notice how your team is doing because they're obsessed with the NHL's Lightning.

Baldelli gets his even temperament from his mother, Michelle. His father, Dan, is a little more on the Ö uhh Ö emotional side.

"My dad is probably the stereotypical older Italian guy," Baldelli said. "That's him, but he just wants the best. I try to stay the same everyday, because it's the right way to go. If you start worrying and panicking every time something goes wrong, you're going to be a mess for eight months."

Quick Callup

Baldelli was a gifted enough high school athlete in Rhode Island that he could have played baseball at Wake Forest, basketball at Providence or volleyball for UCLA. But when Piniella and Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar decided Baldelli was ready to play in the big leagues at age 21, they assessed more than his hand-eye coordination and 40-inch vertical leap.

In pushing Baldelli and outfielder Carl Crawford through the system, the Devil Rays gauged what LaMar calls their ability to "compete" and handle setbacks. Big league clubs apply the same test every day in promoting players from Rookie-level to Class A or Triple-A to the majors.

"We base so many moves on statistics," LaMar said. "But no matter how good or bad a player's statistics are, he has to be able to handle adversity at the next level. Rocco is mentally tough enough to handle it. If we were around him when he was 12 years old, I'm sure he showed the same competitiveness."

With 1,116 minor-league at-bats, Baldelli was downright seasoned compared to Alex Rodriguez (645 at-bats) or Ken Griffey Jr. (465). But some nuances can only be discerned first-hand. In the minors, a hitter sees primarily two-seam and four-seam fastballs, changeups and curves. Get to the big leagues, and you see cutters, splitters and sinkers so vicious you can screw yourself into the ground. Even Japanese League veterans like Hideki and Kazuo Matsui need time to adapt.

"Every day when you show up here, you see something special," Baldelli said.

Joe D Redux?

Baldelli also had to learn to deal with the fatigue of playing 162 games. He had to push through physical and emotional walls in June, August and finally September. The difference is that everyone was watching--even in a small, losing market like Tampa.

"When you're in the minor leagues, you can go four or five days and struggle and nobody really takes notice except you and your family," Baldelli said. "Up here you have reporters, and coaches who are here to win. In the minor leagues it's all about getting better, improving and progressing through the system. Here it's about winning games. If you're struggling, everybody's going to know."

Baldelli is accustomed to handling expectations that might be unwieldy for someone with a weaker constitution. Former Devil Rays scouting director Dan Jennings once compared him with Dave Winfield defensively, and owner Vince Naimoli freely tossed around DiMaggio comparisons last year in spring training. It was bound to happen, given that Baldelli is tall, thin, Italian and plays center field.

Tampa Bay's manager and GM would just as soon see the DiMaggio comparisons fade away, like memories of Greg Vaughn's four-year, $34 million contract.

"No comment," said LaMar, when asked about the DiMaggio references.

Piniella simply rolled his eyes.

"Please," he said.

Rhode Island's Pride

Baldelli, the official big league player of Rhode Island, went home to Woonsocket over the winter and coached his little brother Dante's basketball team for fun. He had Lasik surgery to improve his eyesight and packed on some extra muscle by eating loads of pasta. He continues to stay true to his roots by signing memorabilia that goes on sale on www.roccobaldelli.com, with the goal of helping fund scholarships to his alma mater, Bishop Hendricken High.

And he turns 23 in September.

When Piniella won the Rookie of the Year award with the Royals in 1969, he was 25 years old. He returned the next year to find teams were more prepared, more in tune with his weaknesses and intent on exploiting them. He raised his average from .282 to .301, regardless, but he understands what Baldelli is going through.

"When you have success your first year, they go over you in pitchers meetings and say, 'How do we get him out?' " Piniella said. "They start concentrating on you a little more and making better pitches."

In the '60s, it might take a trip or two around the league for pitchers to pinpoint a hitter's weakness. These days, with advances in video equipment and statistical input, it happens within days. Everybody knows, for instance, that Rocco isn't too fond of the base on balls.

But his aggressiveness at the plate shouldn't be construed with a lack of patience in general. Baldelli seems so wise beyond his years, his family members refer to him as an "old soul."

Like a quick step out of the box or a 40-inch vertical leap, it just comes naturally.

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