The man the Twins picked to replace manager Paul Molitor doesn’t have Hall of Fame credentials to draw upon when relating to players, but Rocco Baldelli certainly has stories all his own.
Baldelli’s playing career unfolded like a Bernard Malamud novel, with a meteoric rise, years of struggles against a mysterious disease and some late-career heroics to rival the fictional Roy Hobbs.
A school boy legend in Rhode Island dubbed “The Woonsocket Rocket,” Baldelli could have played volleyball at UCLA but went the baseball route after the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays made him the No. 6 overall pick in the 2000 draft.
Ex-Twins outfielder Sam Fuld, who grew up near Baldelli in Rhode Island, called him “a freak athlete.”
“We were at this tryout for the Indians at Holy Cross, and he was hitting these balls onto the freeway,” Fuld said. “It seemed otherworldly.”
Blaine native Dan Johnson first saw Baldelli play in Class A and later teamed with him in Tampa.
“He was so fast,” Johnson said. “I remember watching him run down the line, and it seemed like it took him three steps to get to first.”
Baldelli made the Rays Opening Day roster as a proverbial five-tool center fielder in 2003, at age 21. Team owner Vince Naimoli compared him to a fellow Italian — Joe DiMaggio — and the club even handed him DiMaggio’s No. 5.
Living up to the hype, Baldelli delivered, starting his career with a 13-game hitting streak. He finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, batting .289 with 11 home runs and 78 RBI.
He went through a rough start in 2004. Baldelli was batting .120 nearly two weeks into the season, when manager Lou Piniella summoned him to his office. Baldelli thought he had been shipped to the minors. Piniella told him to relax — he wasn’t going anywhere.
“That moment taught me a lot,” Baldelli said. “… Just hearing that allowed me to sleep at night.”
Baldelli finished that second season with numbers very similar to Year 1 and looked like a potential Hall of Famer himself, whose career might still be going now, at age 37.
But he tore up his knee, needed Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and never played more than 92 games in a season again.
In 2007, with Baldelli beset by inexplicable muscle fatigue, doctors diagnosed him with mitochondrial disease, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, occurs when structures that are supposed to produce energy within cells malfunction.
By 2008, the woebegone Rays were on an improbable run to the World Series, and Baldelli was back, albeit in a limited capacity. With Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon conserving Baldelli’s energy, he would bat but not play defense.
Baldelli played just two games of the American League Championship Series against Boston, hitting a three-run homer in Game 3 and the game-winning RBI single off Jon Lester in Game 7 to secure the pennant.
“No words can describe what we felt,” Baldelli’s mother, Michelle, said Thursday. “Because we didn’t know how many days he had left playing baseball.”
At the time, the Woonsocket Rocket was all of 27. He played two more seasons, one for the Red Sox and one back in Tampa Bay. In 2010, he was out until September, but the Rays still put him in the lineup, at DH, for Game 1 of the Division Series vs. Texas.
That night, the muscle cramping from the mitochondrial disease was too much. The Rays had to remove him from their ALDS roster before Game 2.
“I think it was at that moment we realized how significant was the battle that he was facing,” said Twins General Manager Thad Levine, a Texas assistant GM at the time.
Baldelli retired that offseason, staying on with the Rays as a scout and later a first-base coach. There is no cure for mitochondrial disease, but Baldelli’s mother said he no longer needs the medication.
“I take care of myself probably a lot better than I used to when I was 25,” Baldelli said. “I get as much sleep as I can. I work out. I feel great. … I feel more than comfortable that my body and my mind will hold up great.”