The Incredible Comeback of Rocco Baldelli, Baseball's Lost Star

A mystery illness ended the promising baseball career of Rocco Baldelli, except that it didn't. He's still out on the field, this time around as a coach.

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May 18 2015, 1:57pm

Shortly after the 2005 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed outfielder Rocco Baldelli to a multi-year contract. This was a baseball decision, and at the time looked like a savvy one. Despite missing the previous season with injuries, Baldelli had just turned 24, had been Baseball America's top minor league player three years earlier, and was already a veteran of two full seasons as an everyday major league centerfielder. Rocco Baldelli was the sort of young player teams lock up on long-term deals, which is to say the sort of player teams are built around.

"He was quite an athlete and quite a player," said Bill Evers, a longtime Rays employee and Baldelli's manager in AAA. "I just liked the way he prepared himself. He was one of the few guys that worked on his weaknesses to become a better player."

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At first, the contract looked genius, and Baldelli looked like a superstar: He returned to the lineup in June 2006, playing sparking defense and hitting .302 with 16 home runs and 10 steals over the season's last 92 games. He would never again play that many games in a season.

The following spring, Baldelli strained a hamstring and could not seem to get right. He had been injured before, but never like this. He barely played in 2007, laid up with injuries and inexplicable fatigue. Baldelli fought his way back to the bigs for parts of the next three seasons, but his mysterious illness finally forced him to retire in 2010. He was 28.

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Which is a different thing than saying Baldelli was finished. Baldelli spent the last four years as a special assistant to former Rays GM Andrew Friedman; he served as an amateur scout, offered insights on current major leaguers, learned about numerous departments and helped with other front office duties. Now 33, Baldelli is in his first year as the team's first base coach, and is the youngest coach in the majors.

"He's got a great baseball mind," Rays president Matt Silverman said. "And he's very, very curious about all aspects of the operation."

Even when Baldelli was healthy and in the Rays' lineup, he showed interest in the business and analytical aspects of the game and developed a close relationship with Friedman and Silverman, young executives that graduated from academically elite colleges—Friedman from Tulane and Silverman from Harvard—and worked in finance before transitioning to baseball management. Baldelli might have done the same, if he hadn't been such an athletic genius.

At Bishop Hendricken High School in Rhode Island, Baldelli was an A-student in the classroom and an All-State selection in four sports. Few people from Rhode Island have ever become professional athletes, so the idea of making sports a full-time career didn't cross Baldelli's mind until the summer after junior year in high school, when he attended the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase in Wilmington, North Carolina. His performance there attracted the attention of scouts who were impressed with Baldelli's size (6-foot-4), speed (he was also Rhode Island's top sprinter), and athleticism. Growing up, Baldelli had dreamed of playing baseball and basketball in the Ivy League. He could now dream bigger. In 2000, the Rays made him the sixth player picked in the June Draft, and he joined Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford, the team's first two picks the previous year, in a stacked farm system.

By 2002, Baldelli was generating as much hype as anyone in baseball. He started the season in high-A Bakersfield, got promoted to Double A Orlando, and played the final 23 games with Triple A Durham. In 117 combined games, he hit .331 with 19 home runs, 71 RBIs, a .370 on-base percentage, and a .521 slugging percentage. Baldelli was Baseball America's minor league player of the year in 2002, the No. 2 prospect in the sport in 2003 behind Mark Teixeira, and a highly productive big leaguer at the ages of 21 and 22. Even after a 2004 lost to injury—first a left knee injury sustained while playing in the backyard with his younger brother, then Tommy John surgery on his right elbow—the Rays' decision to sign Baldelli to that long-term deal was an easy one.

"He had incredible talent and great potential," Silverman said. "When we signed him to that contract, it was with the hope and expectation that he would be an All-Star caliber player for many, many years."

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The persistent fatigue that slowed Baldelli during that magical half-season in 2006 and eventually devoured his career is still a mystery. Doctors initially thought he had mitochondrial myopathy or channelopathy. Baldelli says he's had Lyme disease since he was 15, which may contribute to the fatigue, but it's all just a guess at this point. These days, he's able to work out every day, although he said his body still doesn't recover as well as it used to after lifting weights or high-impact training.

"I don't generally talk about it that much because I don't really have any good answers for any diagnosis or anything like that," Baldelli said. "Of the doctors that I've seen, and I've seen a lot of really talented doctors who are specialists in this field, I don't really have an answer after all these years of what it is that was affecting me."

For brief stretches, Baldelli was still his talented self, including when he appeared in eight postseason games in 2008. Baldelli hit a three-run homer in Game 3 and delivered an RBI single in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to help Tampa Bay defeat the Boston Red Sox and advance to its first World Series.

Following that season, Baldelli signed with the Red Sox, but appeared in only 62 games. He returned to the Rays as an instructor in 2010 before making a playing comeback later that year. However, after going 0 for 3 with two strikeouts as the Rays' designated hitter in Game 1 of the 2010 American League Division Series, he felt fatigued and was taken off the postseason roster. He never played another game and never regretted the decision to stop playing.

"It was easy because I knew that I physically couldn't do it anymore," Baldelli said. "I knew that my body just couldn't do certain things that I would need to do to play professional baseball. The frustrating thing at that point was the fact that there were a lot of things that I still could do, but there were some things that I couldn't. I felt that I could swing the bat, but I couldn't run enough to compete out there and do what I needed to do and to stay healthy throughout the course of the season."

When Baldelli retired, Friedman asked if he would stay in the organization. Baldelli told him he didn't want to coach, but he was intrigued with other areas of baseball such as scouting and analytics. He proved it by spending most of the past four years on the road, watching and evaluating amateurs in high school and college games. Still, he remained in touch with Friedman and other executives on a daily basis, participated in meetings about trade possibilities, and offered his views on the Rays' players.

"He provided a unique perspective as a former player, a recent player, and someone who had been scouted and developed in our system," Silverman said. "That's a great opinion and perspective for us to be able to use as we're evaluating our organization and making decisions."

Last fall, Friedman left to become the Dodgers' president and manager Joe Maddon departed to take over as the Cubs' manager. Soon after, Silverman hired Kevin Cash to replace Maddon and asked Baldelli to become the first base coach.

"I thought about it, but didn't think about it too long," said Baldelli, who had never coached on any level. "I said, 'Yeah. Let's just do it.' When I made that decision to stay in the game, I didn't have any goals there, but everything kind of developed in a way that I enjoyed what I was doing. I just want to do a good job at what I'm doing now. Maybe in time I'll be doing something else, but right now I really enjoy what I'm doing."

Besides his first base coaching duties, Baldelli's main responsibilities include teaching players about baserunning and working with the outfielders. So far, his transition has impressed his bosses.

"I hope he's a Ray for life," Silverman said. "We hope he's wearing a Rays uniform or working in the Rays' front office for as long as he wants to be in the game."

For Baldelli, remaining in the game has helped ease any disappointment from his shorted playing career. "Trust me," he said. "I walk around with a smile on my face and not upset with how anything went."