At last, here is Rocco Baldelli at rest: stretched out on the
trainer's table in the clubhouse, arms folded across his chest,
watching whatever daytime dreck is playing on the TV hanging on
the wall (at this moment, a fishing show). In the long, idle
hours before a game it's rare to find the restless 21-year-old
rookie centerfielder of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a state of
static tranquility. To pass the time Baldelli has tried reading
books (among his recent attempts, A Beautiful Mind), but he
hasn't gotten more than halfway through any of the three he has
started since the beginning of the season. Baldelli also has a
habit of starting crossword puzzles and never finishing them, not because he can't but because he doesn't have the patience. "I do
a little bit of everything before games," he says, "but usually
I'm just pacing around to keep busy."
For Baldelli, one of the most impetuous hitters in baseball,
patience is especially hard to come by when he steps to the
plate. Even on those rare occasions when the count reaches 3 and
0 or 3 and 1, he still isn't thinking about a walk. Using the
same approach he had as a boy swatting Wiffle balls in his
Woonsocket, R.I., backyard--"If I like what I see, I'm going to
swing at it"--Baldelli had the third-highest strikeout-to-walk
ratio of any hitter in the majors (6.2 to 1) at week's end. But
here's the contradiction in his stunning American Idol-like rise
to thriving big league hitter: Despite whiffing 37 times,
Baldelli had the second-most hits in the majors (61), including a
rookie-record 40 through April, and the third-best batting
average (.353). How much of an anomaly is Baldelli? Only four
players in major league history have hit .300 in a season in
which they had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.0 or higher. And
keep in mind that at this time a year ago Baldelli was playing
centerfield for the Class A Bakersfield Blaze. Now he looks like
a shoo-in to become the 19th rookie in history to be voted to the
In spring training Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli called Baldelli
a "young DiMaggio," a pronouncement that Baldelli says "you can't
take too seriously." Of course it's preposterous to compare a
player with fewer than 200 career at bats with Joe DiMaggio, but
the skin-deep resemblances are undeniable. Baldelli is a
righthanded-hitting centerfielder, wears number 5 (the number he
wore in the minors), has Italian roots on his father's side and
glides through the outfield with the grace of a skater on ice.
Naimoli, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, even asked
Baldelli to wear number 56, in honor of DiMaggio's 56-game
hitting streak in 1941, during spring training.
Excuse Naimoli's shameless adoration of the kid: For the Devil
Rays, 18-25 through Sunday, Baldelli is a rare Ray of hope for a
franchise that since its inception in 1998 has suffered through
five straight last-place seasons in the American League East with
90 or more losses. The team plays in a dismally sterile, domed
ballpark, Tropicana Field, which even during games has the feel
of an abandoned Home Depot.
May 25, 2003
But Baldelli's popularity, like his game, is on the rise. Whether
he's being asked to do a one-on-one interview or make a public
appearance at a Rotary club or elementary school, the number of
requests for Baldelli far surpasses that of any other Devil Ray.
"Some players have a magnetism that you can't measure or
explain," says general manager Chuck LaMar. "It's something that
fans, teammates, even opponents respect. Rocco has it."
Baldelli fits right in with the young, hacking Devil Rays, who
count just five players 30 or older and were last in the majors
in walks, with 98 at week's end. This season Baldelli didn't take
a ball four until his 61st at bat. In 178 plate appearances at
Double A Orlando and Triple A Durham last year he walked only
five times. "Even when we were kids in Little League," says
childhood friend Minh Pham, "he was this aggressive, swinging all
the time at first pitches." Aggressive--not undisciplined--is the
word that manager Lou Piniella uses to describe Baldelli's
approach to hitting. The strikeouts will drop off and the walks
will rise, the Tampa Bay coaches say, when he has a better feel
for major league pitching.
"I recognize that I may not be the most disciplined hitter who's
going to take strikes and wait for my pitch, but it's tough to
change my approach after 18 years of playing like this," says
Baldelli. "When I take a lot of pitches, I find myself thinking
too much, which gets me into lots of trouble."
Prolonged slumps aren't likely to plague Baldelli, given the
number of infield hits he gets because of his explosive speed out
of the batter's box. (He has been clocked going from home to
first in 3.8 seconds.) Through Sunday he had nine infield hits,
fifth-best in the league. "He gets to first from the right side
as quick as anyone I've ever seen," says Boston Red Sox manager
What has made Baldelli so good so soon? "He has a gifted ability
to remember how pitchers worked against him," says batting coach
Lee Elia. "Most guys write it down. For Rocco it's all in his
Baldelli is the son of a retired firefighter, Dan, who, along
with his wife, Michelle, owns three businesses--a check-cashing
service, a pawnshop and a coffeehouse--under one roof in
Woonsocket, a manufacturing town on the Massachusetts border.
Stairs at the back of the establishment lead down to a basement
batting cage (nicknamed the Dungeon) that Dan built for Rocco and
his younger brothers, Nick and Dante, during Rocco's sophomore
year at Bishop Hendricken High in nearby Warwick. What little
free time Rocco had was spent in the Dungeon perfecting his
swing. He was, however, anything but one-dimensional in his
interests. Rocco was a four-sport star who led the Hawks to state
titles in volleyball, basketball and baseball. Baldelli was also
a straight-A student who was recruited by Princeton and Yale. "I
always spent more time with classwork than baseball," says
Baldelli, who has looked into taking courses at Brown in the
off-season but has not yet been able to work them into his
schedule. "Passing up those opportunities was really hard for
Baldelli accepted a baseball scholarship offer from Wake Forest
but later decided to bypass college and sign with the Devil Rays,
who, enamored with his pure athleticism, snatched him with the
sixth pick in the 2000 draft. Tampa Bay gave its prospect a $2.25
million signing bonus.
As Baldelli becomes more acquainted with major league pitching,
the Devil Rays believe he'll develop into a 25-to 30-home-run
hitter while continuing to hit for a high average. The team is
also impressed with the improvement he has made on defense. At
week's end he was tied for third in the league with five outfield
assists. "The biggest thing for him was adjusting to the pace of
the game," says first base coach Billy Hatcher.
For now his coaches stress the importance of good work habits.
Until he reached the majors Baldelli never had a pregame routine.
Now before each game he hits soft tosses for several minutes,
followed by another 20 minutes of hitting off a tee. Then batting
practice begins. "When I was growing up, I just went out and ran
around, swung the bat as hard as I could," he says. "I was never
taught to play the professional way."
Baldelli is open to new experiences of all kinds. Three years ago
he and a group of other players from an instructional league camp
visited a tattoo parlor in St. Petersburg. While most of the guys
had murals etched on their backsides and biceps, Baldelli opted
for something more understated: a small Major League Baseball
logo branded just above his left ankle.
Upon seeing the tattoo, Dan told his son, "You better get there,
or you've got a problem. Maybe you should have waited." But even
then Baldelli had the same thought that has carried him through
his two months in the big leagues: Why wait?
"Some players have a MAGNETISM," says LaMar, "something that
fans, teammates, even opponents respect. Rocco has it."