Tampa Bay teammates Carlos Peña and Rocco Baldelli both realized the dream: local sports stars, from Haverhill, Mass., and Cumberland, R.I., rising to become professional baseball players. But the stories of these two well-grounded, likeable, and articulate young men are in many ways polar opposites.
Peña is a heartwarming story of perseverance. Discarded by the Yankees and Red Sox in 2006 (and briefly by the Rays in '07, before they re-signed him), he was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year after hitting 46 homers and driving in 121 runs last season, a performance that earned him a three-year, $24.15 million contract.
Baldelli, a tremendously gifted, five-tool player, has had his body ravaged by a still-unexplained ailment that makes his legs feel tired prematurely. A guy who could run as well as any player in baseball now has trouble walking sometimes.
After minimal activity, Baldelli's legs, by his own description, feel like jelly with a burning sensation, as if he's just run a marathon. He has been to specialists all over the country, and while they seem to agree that he has "metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities" - his body isn't producing enough adenosine triphosphate, the source of chemical energy - they have no idea how this happened. It may be genetic.
With no clue how to treat it, Baldelli will start the year on the disabled list, a familiar place.
He said it began "at some point in the last two years. We're not exactly sure why things started to change. It was tough for me to deal with. The team sent me to specialists, flew me around all over the country, trying to find out what was going on.
"My muscles don't work as they should. They don't recover as they should on a day-to-day basis. It becomes very difficult to go out and be on the field every day. My body is literally spent after a short time out there, which makes it extremely frustrating, but it's something that's kind of a reality."
He doesn't want to retire, but he has no idea whether he can ever resume his career.
"He's a teammate and I feel for him," said Peña. "He's a good guy. He's trying everything and it's going to give all of us here great joy when this is behind him."
Peña, who turns 30 May 17, has reached the potential he showed when Texas made him the 10th pick overall out of Northeastern in 1998.
"It's exciting to me that I can be with this team for a while because I want to be here on the ground floor of this," said Peña. "We have amazing talent here and we have a great farm system with more players on the way."
The reasons for his turnaround are also anyone's guess. He thinks it was beneficial to spend that one month with the Sox after getting his release from the Yankees' Triple A affiliate in '06.
"I really think what helped me is spending that month with Manny Ramírez in Boston," said Peña. "I watched him and I watched how David [Ortiz] approached hitting and it was an eye-opener. I was struck by how simple they kept things.
"I saw Manny's approach and basically it's, 'OK, I've got a bat in my hands and I have to find the best way to hit that baseball where nobody is going to catch it.'
"When I got here, I worked with our hitting coach, Steve Henderson, and [manager] Joe Maddon and they emphasized that approach. I've always had the power. I just needed the confidence and the consistency to come."
Asked whether he takes extra satisfaction when facing the Sox and Yankees, he said, "I would never waste the energy. I'm at the place where I want to be. I live down here now, so this couldn't have worked out better for me.
"I got to play in Boston, where I grew up, and at Fenway. That was a dream come true for me. My family - I still have everybody in Haverhill - got to see me. And I hit that walkoff home run [Sept. 14, 2006] that time and everybody went crazy. That was fun. I have those memories."
Meanwhile, Baldelli wishes he could explain to his family what's happening to him. In both cases, though, the support system is tremendous.
The good news for both is that they're taken care of. Baldelli, 26, had the foresight to sign a long-term deal when his advisers were telling him not to. He will earn $2.25 million this season, but general manager Andrew Friedman said the Rays will likely decline a 2009 option that has to be exercised by April 1 and pay a $4 million buyout. But Friedman wants to keep Baldelli in the organization and hopes to get him back on the field.
At the moment, Baldelli would probably trade the money for an answer as to why someone so talented and so athletic can no longer perform.
Meeting up with a Met
A few questions for Mets manager Willie Randolph:
Ever seen so many injuries in spring training?
WR: "No, not really, but again, you've got to temper that by saying there's four or five guys after post-op, so it's a little bit different than guys coming down here and getting hurt. When you combine that with some of the guys that are getting nicked up, yeah, it's a little overwhelming but, you know, get them out of the way early. But pitchers have been healthy. I don't react to injuries because we had way more than our share the last few years that I've been here. So to me that's nothing that we make excuses for. It's all part of what it is - there's no sympathy in baseball."
What was the team's mind-set coming into spring training after the end-of-season collapse?
WR: "You don't try to make a big deal about past history, you just try to learn from it with the guys that experienced it. But the mind-set of this team has been great. I didn't wait until spring training to address those issues, we dealt with that in the offseason, called guys on the phone - how you doing, what's going on, what's on your mind, back-and-forth stuff. You have to have a chance to let it calm down, flush it out, and then guys call me back - well, most of them did, actually."
Have we seen the best of Jose Reyes?
WR: "There's way more, way more. He's still a baby. There's a lot of guys that have talent, but there's a difference in having talent and having mature talent, and what he went through last year was part of the maturation period, the growing. He just got into a funk at the wrong time. Now, that could have happened midseason, it could have happened early season. He went through a confidence blow at a time when we needed him the most. He still doesn't understand the concept of what winning baseball is all about. Like Derek Jeter. Derek Jeter understands, but it took him a while, too. Jose Reyes is no different; he's going to be a phenomenal player for a long time."
A guide to following the moving pieces...
Trade winds in the spring:
Mets general manager Omar Minaya feels Moises Alou, who hit .341 in 328 at-bats last season, will be back sooner than most think. But he's still looking to tweak the roster and add a righthanded-hitting outfielder/first baseman. "I think you always look for something to add before you start the season," said Minaya. "We could use another bat."
With Mark Mulder down until May or so, Chris Carpenter (Tommy John surgery) out till maybe the All-Star break, and Joel Pineiro suffering shoulder pain, the Cardinals had little choice but to bring in free agent Kyle Lohse. Teams resisted Lohse because of his high price tag. Said a National League general manager, "I figured there'd be a team or two that got to the end or got injured and said, 'OK, we've got to do it.' Sure enough, it's happened."
With Lohse signed, Scott Boras has one more client to place: Jeff Weaver. "There's been a lot of interest," said Boras. "Pitching is starting to go down around the league and we're trying to assess exactly where Jeff's best opportunity would be."
Kyle Snyder, Julian Tavarez, and Bryan Corey are among the most scouted pitchers in the American League. One or all could be moved before the start of the season.
The Giants continue to scout White Sox third baseman Joe Crede, but he's not having a good spring. Chicago GM Kenny Williams may hang on to both Crede and youngster Josh Fields, then trade Crede when a team gets desperate at the beginning of the season.
The Phillies are in the market for both a lefty reliever (someone to go with J.C. Romero) and a starter. Looks like rehab project Kris Benson may take the No. 5 spot since Adam Eaton has been horrible, but the Phillies are concerned about their pitching and Cole Hamels's poor start.
Colorado pitcher Brian Fuentes remains a target of a few teams, the Tigers, Yankees, and Phillies in particular.
The Indians have an interesting scenario that could result in a trade. Cliff Lee is taking the No. 5 job with a very good camp, but the Tribe also has Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey in the hunt. There are plenty of teams out there - including the Cardinals, Phillies, Astros - eyeing the lefties.
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. At least three times this spring, Jason Varitek has put on the wrong (road/home) uniform and Mike Timlin has had to remind him; 2. Ichiro's spring averages before his 0-for-24 start this year: .321, .347, .382, .429, .437, .476, and .322; 3. Hideo Nomo might be pitching well enough to make the Royals; 4. Something I never thought I'd see: Manny Ramírez sitting in the clubhouse, engrossed in a book that he's marking with a pink highlighter; 5. I know Jason Giambi makes $21 million this year, but I'd play Shelley Duncan at first. What energy.
Taking the long view?
Scott Boras probably won't get Ramírez another long-term deal with the Sox, but given Ramírez's conditioning and his newfound zest for his playing career, Boras isn't ruling anything out. "We had a long chat with Manny and he wants to play a long time," said the agent. "I remember we had a 38-year-old hitter that we signed to a five-year contract. Barry Bonds. Manny knows the story, and given the way he takes care of himself and the fact he's such a special hitter, he knows he can play in this game a long time." Boras also represents Matt Holliday, a free agent after 2009. Think the Sox might have their sights on him?
Yankees won't make pitching change
Carl Pavano feels he'd be more comfortable in his rehab from Tommy John surgery with his personal trainer, but the Yankees are insisting he be under their watch. Pavano says he understands that stance because of the big salary they're paying him, but he feels he could make better progress with his own guy. "I'll be pitching somewhere after the All-Star break," Pavano said. "I'm advancing to about 90 feet throwing on flat ground. I guess I'll just stay down here and keep working my way back." Pavano added, "I've had elbow problems ever since I can remember, so I'm hoping I can turn the corner now and pitch. I can still pitch. I haven't lost any confidence in my ability to do it." While you don't hear Pavano's name mentioned much in the Yankee organization as someone who can help down the road, he is thinking that way.
It doesn't catch them by surprise
Jorge Posada and Varitek have both gone through a dead arm period in spring training. "No matter how many years you come to spring training, it happens," said Varitek. "There's nothing you can do to avoid it. You have to go through it, get through it. It's like clockwork." Posada said, "People don't understand how much throwing a catcher does. It's constant, and after a couple of weeks of it, you feel sore and weak for a while. It's true, it happens all the time."
At that size, he's an easy target
Last week I met an original "Wizard of Oz" Munchkin, and this week I met one of the largest baseball players I've ever seen: Andrew Brackman, a 6-foot-10-inch righthander and former North Carolina State basketball player. He was the 2007 No. 1 pick (30th overall) of the Yankees. He's not only recovering from Tommy John surgery, but veterans have put him through some serious hazing. They've cut all of his shoelaces and stolen one of his cars. But Brackman has taken the ribbing in stride. "If I retaliate, it'll only get worse," he said with a smile. "It's all fun. It's all good." Brackman had a 1-0 record and 1.09 ERA for Orleans of the Cape Cod League last summer. He said he actually appreciates being in his teammates' thoughts.
Bravo for this prospect
The Tigers acquired a lot of talent in offseason trades, but they might have given up too much to the Braves for Edgar Renteria - specifically, 22-year-old rookie Jair Jurrjens, who has been extremely impressive in spring training. He threw an eye-opening three perfect innings against the Indians in his second outing. His first two starts: 2-0, 1.00 ERA. With John Smoltz and Tom Glavine around him, the righthander will be in a fantastic learning situation. "Great ability and he knows what he's doing," said Glavine.
Arm harm awaits
By last Wednesday, Albert Pujols had hit his fourth homer of the spring and was slugging .926, even with a bad right elbow that could go at any time. Pujols has no problem hitting with it, but he's a first baseman and will have to make throws across the diamond. One doctor familiar with Pujols's condition said he would be far better off in the American League as a DH. Doubt the Cardinals are thinking about trading him anytime soon. But at some point, logic says he'll need Tommy John surgery, which will require a good calendar year of rehab.
Jim Leyland's Opening Day lineup (good luck, one and all): Curtis Granderson, CF; Placido Polanco, 2B; Gary Sheffield, DH; Magglio Ordonez, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 3B; Carlos Guillen, 1B; Edgar Renteria, SS; Pudge Rodriguez, C; Jacque Jones, LF . . . Hall of Fame director Dale Petrovsky stopped by Reds camp last week to ask Ken Griffey what cap he'll wear when he heads to the Hall five years after he's elected on the first ballot. Griffey told Petrovsky, "It won't be red [Cincinnati]. It'll be blue [Seattle]." . . . On the book shelf: "Dice-K: The First Season of the Red Sox $100 Million Man," by Ian Browne. "Dynasty, the Inside Story of How the Red Sox Became a Baseball Powerhouse," by Tony Massarotti. And don't forget Maureen Mullen's "Diary of a Red Sox Season," with Johnny Pesky. All terrific reads . . . Happy 24th birthday, Harvey Garcia.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com