The Tampa Bay Rays, who for years were an absolute abomination of God within the confines of Major League Baseball, just won the American League pennant, surviving a blown 7-run lead in Game 5 (7 outs away from winning the whole shebang) and a bases loaded situation in the 8th in Game 7. While there are some very likable guys on the team, such as Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, and Cliff Floyd, as well as extremely talented young guys like Longoria, BJ Upton (who OPSed a Bondsian 1.192 in the ALCS), Crawford, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstine, 2008 ALCS MVP Matt Garza, and David Price, my favorite story of this Rays team is Rocco Baldelli.
Rocco Baldelli was born and raised in the town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island
and was a 3-sport star at a Catholic high school in nearby Warwick.
A star pupil as well, Baldelli caught the eye of scout Al LaMacchia, who noted Baldelli’s ability, number (5), and Italian American heritage and called him “Joe [DiMaggio]’s twin.” Although Baldelli struggled some at the plate his rookie and 2nd years, he showed enough power to be considered one of the rising stars in the majors, and he was considered by many to be the best defensive centerfielder in the game (his range factor
of 3.03 in 2004 led the Majors). Baldelli was clearly the bright spot for an absolutely dismal franchise. Then while playing baseball with his younger brother during the offseason, Baldelli tore his ACL in his knee. Baldelli rehabbed hard to get back on the field by the All-Star Break, but hurt his arm and had to have Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the 2005 season. Baldelli came back in 2006, and although he didn’t start until June 7 in Anaheim, he did end up hitting 16 homers, raising his OPS from the two previous years, and seemed to be on his way back. Meanwhile, the Rays were still horrible, but thanks to the development of players like Carl Crawford and BJ Upton, the Rays seemed to be on the right track. The 2007 season, however, saw disappointment for both the Rays and Baldelli. The Rays finished 66-96, the worst in the Majors…again. Baldelli, meanwhile, injured his hamstring early in the year, then re-aggravated it while on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues. He had become a punchline to baseball people: yeah, he was good…when he was healthy. And that seemed to be never. When Baldelli struggled during the early part of Spring Training, everyone assumed one of Baldelli’s nagging injuries was coming back. Heck, at first there were some rumors going on that his problems were possibly due to steroid abuse.
This time, however, it was more serious than that. Baldelli called a press conference on March 12, telling reporters that he would go on the DL and that he wasn’t sure if he would ever play again. The doctors had not figured out what exactly it was that was causing his problems, but the mitochondria (the “powerhouse” of cells) in his leg muscles were not working, which caused him extreme fatigue and pain in his legs. The doctors weren’t sure if he’d ever be able to put the strain on his legs that playing outfield or even running the bases would bring. Baldelli vowed to try and come back, but the Rays, weary of his injury history and the possibility that he could never come back and play, decided to decline his 2009 option, making him a free agent after the season. Many people (including former Ray and current Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo) were saddened for him, and wished him well in his comeback attempt. One who did not, however, was Fox Sports’ Kevin Hench. Hench, a Bostonian and one of Bill Simmons’ closest friends
, blasted Baldelli in an article posted two days after Baldelli’s press conference. While FoxSports.com took the story down (probably recently, I know it was up as recently as August 4
), the article contained such classics as
His latest DL-inducing “injury” is exhaustion.
Who does he think he is, Mariah Carey?
And what is he exhausted from, the off-season?
The guys at FireJoeMorgan.com
blasted Hench, saying he owed him an apology, for at BEST being a lazy writer and not knowing that Baldelli had his condition. While FoxSports.com has apparently taken it down, there has not, as far as I can tell, been an apology forthcoming from Hench. Baldelli did, however, make an effort to come back, starting out in Vera Beach, moving up to Montgomery (where, on a July 28 game in Huntsville, he went 1-2 with a solid single and made a couple of nice plays in center behind eventual ALCS hero David Price) and Durham before finally rejoining the team in August after an injury to Crawford.
Baldelli ended up playing 28 games for the Rays, hitting 4 homers, driving in 13, and OPSing .819 down the stretch to help the Rays stave off the Red Sox and win the American League East.
After struggling in the ALDS against Chicago, Baldelli was benched until Game 3 of the ALCS against Boston. He went 1 for 3 in the game, the one hit being a titanic 3-run homer over the Green Monster at Fenway Park to give the Rays an 8-1 lead and ice it away. He also went 1-3 in Game 7 of the ALCS. The hit he got in this game was just a tad bigger than the one he got in Game 3, if not as long
In a story, that in my opinion isn’t getting enough play in the awesomeness that was Game 7, Rocco Baldelli, got the biggest hit of the game in the biggest game in Tampa Bay Rays history. The same Rocco who almost everyone thought was done in March. The same Rocco who was crucified in a mean-spirited article by a Red Sox “fan” writing for a national audience for a large sports website. Somehow, in this unlikeliest of years for the Rays (seriously, the ’91 Braves are the only other team in the history of the Big 4 professional sports to go from worst record in a league to playing for the championship in the next season), it just seems appropriate.