When Rocco Was the Next DiMaggio

When new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli visited Minnesota for the first time in late April 2003, he was a 21-year-old rookie phemon. Slender, fluid with a graceful swing, the 6-4, 190 lb. Baldelli had an Italian heritage, wore No. 5 and was drawing Joe DiMaggio comparisons. Unlike the Yankee Clipper however, Baldelli played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, probably the least prestigious team in the major leagues. In their sixth season, the franchise had never won more than 69 games.

I had a press credential for the Twins/Rays series, writing for simply-baseball-notebook.com. I was eager to meet this charismatic, five-tool prospect. Stretching near the visitor’s dugout, which in the Metrodome, was on the first base line, I approached Baldelli for an interview. Here are a couple of the highlights…

On the DiMaggio comparison:
“I don’t consider myself in those terms. I’ve only been in the big leagues for five weeks, I can’t even think about that stuff.”

“I wore No. 5 in A ball and when I was young. Normally in the minor leagues, the shorter guys get the smaller numbers, so I couldn’t wear it. In the big leagues, they make your jersey for you, so you get whatever number you want.”

On April 30, Baldelli went 2-5, including his first big league homer off Twins starter Brad Radke. With the two hits, he now had 40, which was (maybe still is?) a rookie record for the month of April. After the game, I caught up with him as part of the media scrum in the dark Metrodome corridor outside the vistor’s lockeroom.

“I knew I was close the last couple days, but it wasn’t something I was worried about,” Baldelli said of the record. “I read the newspaper, that’s basically the only way I know. It’s not like I know all the major league records in my head – I wouldn’t know that kind of stuff.”

On his first big league homer:
“It was a fastball, actually (Radke) doubled up on the fastball – I fouled the first one off my leg. You don’t know it’s coming, but I’d already seen one, and he came back with pretty much the same pitch. I don’t hit enough home runs to know when they go out. I knew I hit it solidly.

“I almost ran past C.C. (Rays outfielder Carl Crawford who was on first base). (First-base coach Billy) Hatcher was yelling at me. Every time I hit the ball I try to run…so I almost caught him and I got yelled at for that.”

Because of the record, the Hall of Fame had a representative on hand to package up his jersey, bat and batting gloves, “That was a surprise,” Baldelli said of the Hall’s involvement. “They just kind of let me know (earlier) today. I was hoping I wasn’t jinxing it before the game.”

It was unanimous, Baldelli, Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2002, was destined for the greatness.

Baldelli ended his rookie year hitting .289/.326/.416 with 11 homers, 78 RBI and 27 steals in 156 games. He put up similar numbers in 2004, but knee and elbow injuries cost him the entire 2005 season and the first half of 2006.

When he returned in ’06, the Woonsocket, Rhode Island native hit .302/.339/.533 with 16 homeruns in 92 games. After a lingering hamstring injury limited him to 35 games in 2007, Baldelli underwent further testing and was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disease that caused muscle weakness.

While he contributed some big hits during the Rays postseason run to the World Series in 2008, Baldelli played in just 100 games from 2008-2010 with Tampa and Boston. At 29, his playing career was over.

But on April 30, 2003, Baldelli had just completed his first month in the big leagues with more hits than anyone in history and had his gear headed to Cooperstown. The possibilities seemed endless…

“I think I’ve played pretty well my first month,” he said nonchalantly. “I’ve felt confident…if I’m feeling confident out there when I am playing – that’s all I can really ask for.”

-photo by Sebastian Vannavong

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