ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - His handshake could send you to the disabled list; that’s how strong he is. But that strength no longer could translate to his limbs, and the fatigue he experienced was so severe that it ended the career of one of the great New England athletes.
Rocco Baldelli had it all.
He was a five-tool player. He could run with anyone - including Carl Crawford, a player he came up with through the Rays organization. He could hit, hit for power, and played center field as well as anyone in baseball, with a terrific arm.
But little by little, what was first diagnosed as a mitochondrial disorder - and later changed to channelopathy - sapped his strength and his ability to be what he once was.
According to most definitions, channelopathy is a condition that determines the flow of particles such as sodium and potassium ions through cell membranes. It is a dysfunction that can be fatal in some cases, nonprogressive in others.
Baldelli, whose playing career lasted from 2003-10, with one season in Boston and the rest with Tampa Bay, is still in the game, as a special assistant to Rays general manager Andrew Friedman. His duties include instruction during spring training, and amateur scouting the rest of the time.
On Wednesday, Baldelli was at Tropicana Field in the afternoon working out a local high school kid. His input in the draft is important.
“It’s been a great experience,’’ Baldelli said. “I love my job. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing right now. Of course, I’d prefer to play, but that’s no longer an option, so starting this phase of my career last year was something I fell in love with.
“If I didn’t think my opinion meant anything, I wouldn’t be doing it. They value what I have to say about a player and my evaluations of players. That means a lot to me, and I think I’ve been able to give them my honest take on what I’m seeing.’’
Baldelli still lives with his condition; that part hasn’t gone away. He deals with it every day. His job requires him to travel a lot, and that can take a toll. But he does it eagerly and willingly.
“It’s something I’ll always have to deal with,’’ he said. “People ask me if the rest from major league baseball has made me stronger, to be able to play again. The answer is no. It doesn’t work that way. It’s something that’s just part of my existence right now and that’s the way it is.’’
People who saw Baldelli as a high school athlete at Bishop Hendricken couldn’t believe their eyes.
He was Tony Conigliaro reincarnated. He was Harry Agganis. He was Bobby Valentine.
Ask anyone to name the greatest high school baseball players they ever saw come through New England, and Baldelli is usually at the top of the list.
His skills even were compared to those of Joe DiMaggio.
When the Rays had Crawford and Baldelli, it was Baldelli who played center field.
His throws from the outfield are legendary. To throw it perfectly straight, with no hop, to the catcher from reasonably deep center? Suffice to say, there aren’t many center fielders in baseball who can do it. He did.
But he was never able to hit his prime because the injuries just kept knocking him down, and rehabs would take so much longer.
He had the same ulnar collateral nerve injury his buddy Crawford is currently going through. And while the Rays tried a similar conservative approach to his rehab, Baldelli eventually had Tommy John surgery. Then came a long rehab from that.
Before the Red Sox signed him in January 2009, they sent him for major tests to the Cleveland Clinic and other institutions in an effort to get a read on his disease. They thought they had come up with a reasonable program of medication and vitamins and a managed playing-time program.
When he did play, he was effective. But it all seemed to catch up with him.
You think back to some of the press conferences Baldelli would hold when he was trying to come back, and you recall the look of helplessness on his face. He couldn’t explain what was ravaging his body or say when he would be able to return.
One thing he was sure of: He loved playing baseball at the major league level. But there came a point when he realized his career had to come to an end, that the ailment was too much for him to overcome.
“Why would I look at the negative aspects of everything that I’ve been through and live the rest of my life talking about those things that aren’t the important things to me?’’ he once said. “The important things to me were all the wonderful things I got to do.’’
Baldelli got to participate in the 2008 postseason. In Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against Boston, he hit an RBI single that put the Rays ahead for good, and he homered in Game 5 of the World Series against the Phillies.
He had his moments, but the fatigue and cramping in his legs got so bad that he just could not endure any more.
Now, in his new career, Baldelli loves watching high school and college players. Some of them were superstars at their schools, as he was, but the most rewarding aspect of the job is to find a kid who others might have reservations about but you believe in enough to take a chance on.
Baldelli was never the underdog - he was the sixth overall pick in the June 2000 draft - but he has seen his share of players who defied the odds and made themselves outstanding major leaguers.
The Rays no longer draft at the top of the board as they did in those years when they got players such as Baldelli, Crawford, and Josh Hamilton. Now they’re near the bottom of the round, which makes the challenge of finding players tougher.
And the competitor in Baldelli hasn’t left him. He wants to be the best scout, the best instructor.
For a guy whose playing career ended at 29, the next chapter has no limits, no restrictions.