I really liked him. He was one of my favourite non-Blue Jay and I made sure that I got him on my team in 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007 back when I played fantasy baseball. His rookie year was incredible and I thought that the sky (not just the Tropicana dome) was the limit for this guy.
Then he got sick. Not an injury like what we expect of our pro athletes to get from now and then--we fantasy baseball players grumble about having to stash our high draft pick in a DL slot all year (and I did when Baldelli tore his ACL, then had Tommy John in 2005)--but an actual illness, one that robbed him of the energy needed to play a professional sport. Baldelli fought back after missing all of 2005 and half of 2006 and had probably his best season. It's relatively easy to get better from an injury of the knee or the elbow, but what can one do when the injury attacks every cell in one's body?
Baldelli was eventually diagnosed with a channelopathy disorder--I'm a chemist not a human biologist, but I think that is when a problem happens in protein channels, which are extremely important in regulating chemicals entering and leaving cells.
But he did it. He fought back against every malfunctioning channel in every cell of his body and managed to return to the Majors in late 2008, joining a newly renamed Rays team on their first playoff run. He explored free agency after that season and the Rhode Island favourite son signed with the Red Sox, New England's home team. Unfortunately, his tenure with the Red Sox was cut short with the return of the symptoms of his channelopathy disease.
I thought he was done with baseball, being an unsigned free agent after the 2009 season, when he re-joined the Rays as a spring training coach. But Rocco surprised us all when he signed a minor league deal with the Rays in the middle of the summer before being purchased and called up to help the team make their September push last year. He even made it onto the Rays' playoff roster and started in Game 1 against Cliff Lee and the Rangers. Then he had to be pulled from the lineup and the roster because of cramping. That just broke my heart when I was watching that game.
But do I feel sorry for him? Maybe a little because a potentially great career has been cut short, but I think he accomplished a lot in his short time in the big leagues. He fought back after tearing his ACL then getting Tommy John, he saw the laughing stock of the AL East become a surprising division winner, he fought back against his illness twice to come back to the majors, and in his final games, helped to deliver the Rays to their second playoff berth and division title. And on the way he picked up the Tony Conigliaro award for his perseverance through difficulties. And he got to come back that one last time for the Rays and got to play in the playoffs that one more time--albeit for just a few innings. He retired happy.
He still can contribute to his team and the game. So may I wish Rocco the best of luck in the Rays' front office and in this new chapter of his life. This is not the time to feel sorry for the guy or to project what he might have been. Let's look back and reflect on what kind of player--what type of man--he was (and still is for the man part), and think what a baseball builder he will be in the future.