Retired at 29
Ill-fated Baldelli reluctantly reaches a tough conclusion
Rocco Baldelli’s major league career should have been prolific. Instead it was short and in some ways tragic.
At least that’s the way we look at it from the outside, while Baldelli simply considers himself fortunate to have had this much time.
He was on his way to being one of the most complete players in baseball when his muscles started getting heavy with fatigue and the pain became too much to take. The very legs and shoulders that put him ahead of the pack in terms of athleticism suddenly turned on him.
After searching and searching for answers, undergoing test after test, seeing doctor after doctor, Baldelli was told that he had a mitochondrial disorder, a diagnosis that subsequently was changed to channelopathy, both of which create severe fatigue.
He tried to fight through it, though his five tools were reduced to one — hitting for average — and by the time he gave it one more try in Tampa Bay in the final month of last season, he realized it was a fight that he couldn’t win.
So last week, Baldelli came to the difficult but realistic decision that baseball was over for him at age 29.
“I have no regrets,’’ he said. “I played major league baseball. I got to the big leagues and I had some moments I’ll never forget.’’
Two of those moments came in the 2008 postseason: a go-ahead single against Boston in the fifth inning of Game 7 of the ALCS, and a seventh-inning home run against the Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series.
But after the first game of the Division Series last year, he had that awful feeling, as his legs cramped up and he sat in pain. It was then he knew it probably was over.
“I just feel like physically I shouldn’t be playing baseball anymore,’’ he said.
This isn’t the first time a career that could have been great has been derailed.
Bobby Valentine was a budding Angels star before he tore up his leg against a fence and was never the same again.
There was J.R. Richard’s stroke and Tony Conigliaro’s beaning. Bo Jackson’s hip injury ruined both his football and baseball careers.
Others were cut short by death: Boston’s own Harry Agganis, Twins outfielder Lyman Bostock, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.
“When I’d see Rocco play when he was very young, I saw Andre Dawson,’’ said veteran Astros scout Paul Ricciarini. “You always try to equate someone with another player, and that’s who I saw. Now, whether he would have ever got to the point Andre did, who knows?
“He had great tools. He could run, hit for power, a great arm. He was a kid that had it all together.
“I’ll never forget at the winter meetings one year when he won the High School Athlete of the Year award and he stood up and spoke and he just blew you away with the poise he showed as a kid.
“On and off the field, this kid was the real deal.’’
Bridgewater’s Glenn Tufts, one of the greatest hitters in New England high school baseball history, understands Baldelli’s pain all too well. Tufts was a first-round draft pick of the Indians in 1973, seemingly destined to be a top power hitter in the majors. But while he was in Single A in San Jose, he was in a terrible car accident and wound up with three pins in his ankle. He was never the same.
Tufts became a scout for the Giants and followed Baldelli’s high school career at Bishop Hendricken in Warwick, R.I.
“You just threw away the stopwatch,’’ said Tufts. “He ran a 4-flat down the line, and you didn’t see that from anyone.
“A special kid from the moment I saw him. So graceful, a five-tool player, a can’t-miss prospect. He’s the only kid I’ve ever seen hit home runs at Hendricken off the basketball gym wall in left field. Haven’t seen that since.’’
While Baldelli’s career is ending, a player he came up with, Carl Crawford, just signed a seven-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox. Crawford was taken by Tampa Bay in the second round of the 1999 draft, Baldelli in the first round — sixth overall — in 2000.
Baldelli and Crawford should have been a potent 1-2 tandem for years, but Baldelli started to get hurt, and the injuries lasted longer and longer with no explanation, until he got the horrible diagnosis.
The Red Sox don’t regret signing Baldelli for the 2009 season because they enjoyed him as a person and felt he made enough of a contribution. But he didn’t return with them in 2010 and decided that he would re-sign only with Tampa Bay if he were to come back.
Rays general manager Andrew Friedman gave Baldelli a job roaming the system and working with young hitters and outfielders. He also showed up for Rays home games and helped the major league team.
Baldelli stayed in shape and took batting practice. In the second half of the season, after a stint in the minors, he was activated by the Rays at the end of August so he could qualify for the playoff roster.
“When he was DHing at the end,’’ said Tufts, “you knew he was the best defensive player on the field. The disease just wouldn’t allow him to get back out there.’’
We will always think of what might have been.
Mike Easler, 60, was one such veteran, but new Mets manager Terry Collins strongly recommended Easler for Triple A hitting coach in Buffalo, and Easler is back after leaving baseball following the 2008 season.
“I’m very grateful to be back,’’ said Easler, whose last major league job was as interim Dodgers hitting coach when Don Mattingly took a leave of absence. “My goal is to make sure that each and every one of the Mets prospects I’ll be coaching gets to the big leagues. I’m really excited about being back in the game.’’
In the interim, Easler was an instructor based in Las Vegas, giving private tutorials to high school and college hitters as well as pros such as Jacque Jones and Frank Thomas.
Easler, Mo Vaughn’s personal hitting coach for years, is a player who comes to mind when you think of Adrian Gonzalez because Easler was so adept at hitting the ball toward the wall as a lefthanded batter. Easler, who in 1984 hit .375 at Fenway with 16 homers and 57 RBIs, taught Vaughn how to do it, and he envisions Gonzalez as the next big lefthanded hitter at Fenway.
“Got to watch Adrian a lot when I was over there with the Dodgers,’’ said Easler, “and I’m sure he’s going to feel the same way I did when I first started hitting at Fenway: ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven.’
“He can flat-out hit. He’s a natural go-the-other-way hitter. He doesn’t try to hook it.
“I’m sure he’ll go through the same things I went through and Mo went through, and that is they’ll start to pitch you inside. All you do then is say, ‘thank you,’ and pull the ball. It’s like a gift. You know it’s coming inside so you get yourself ready for that.’’
“It’s a great program and I think every team should have it,’’ said Penny. “My lack of success in Boston had nothing to do with the condition of my shoulder, because I had no pain and no problems from Day 1. My problem was with location and the fact I just couldn’t put the ball where I wanted to.’’
Penny went 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA in 24 starts for the Sox, allowing 17 home runs in 131 2/3 innings. He asked for and received his release once he was removed from the rotation. He then signed with the Giants, going 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in six starts, and in 2010 he joined the Cardinals, lasting nine starts before a lat injury limited his season.
Penny thanked Sox general manager Theo Epstein again for granting him his release.
“I’ll always be grateful to Theo for that,’’ he said. “He allowed me to go over to the National League and that’s where I started to get it together and started pitching better.’’
Penny thinks there is a reason he has had more success in the National League.
“There’s definitely a difference,’’ he said. “You’re facing a DH, not a pitcher. In the NL, you’ve got guys who are outs. But I don’t think the fact that I struggled in Boston had anything to do with the league. It was me falling behind and throwing, instead of pitching.’’
Penny said he attended Josh Beckett’s wedding a couple of weeks ago in Mexico and the two played catch. He fully expects Beckett to come back as a dominant pitcher.
“The way he threw, he didn’t look like there were any physical issues,’’ Penny said. “He should be fine.’’
Penny is engaged to “Dancing With the Stars’’ contributor Karina Smirnoff but said there’s no chance he’ll wind up on the show as her partner.
“I’ve done a good job of not embarrassing myself,’’ he said.
Updates on nine 1. Mike Greenwell, former Red Sox outfielder — His sons are making their mark in baseball. Bo Greenwell, an outfielder, will likely be with the Indians’ Double A team this year after hitting a combined .301 with 6 homers, 57 RBIs, and 25 steals in 488 at-bats with two Single A teams. Garrett Greenwell rejected football overtures from Purdue and Wake Forest to play baseball at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla. He is a 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound first baseman.
2. Jose Iglesias, SS, Red Sox — At No. 42, he was the only Red Sox player on Jonathan Mayo’s list of the top 50 prospects on mlb.com. Casey Kelly, who was ranked 22d, was a Boston prospect traded to San Diego in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. The Royals had six players in the top 50, while the Rays were second with four. Mayo named Angels outfielder Mike Trout the top prospect, with Rays righty Jeremy Hellickson at No. 2. In the positional breakdown, Iglesias was No. 3 among shortstops, Oscar Tejada sixth among second basemen, and Lars Anderson ninth among first basemen.
3. Grady Sizemore, OF, Indians — General manager Chris Antonetti tried his best to squash rumors of Sizemore and Fausto Carmona being discussed in a deal with the Nationals. The deal makes sense for the Nationals, who are looking for another starter and an outfielder, but Sizemore may not be ready to play by Opening Day. The Indians don’t have many draws on their gutted team, but Sizemore is one of them. Don’t bet against him or Carmona being major trade deadline chips if they are injury-free and perform well.
4. Paul Galop, Cape Cod League commissioner — Galop’s league, like the NCAA, has adopted rules to speed up the game. There will be a 20-second limit between pitches when no runners are on base and a 90-second limit between innings. The 20-second clock starts when the pitcher receives the ball on the mound and stops when he begins his motion. For a first violation, he receives a warning. Thereafter, a ball will be called for each violation. Stepping off the rubber does not stop the clock unless the umpire grants time. It would be great to see the majors adopt this.
5. Pedro Martinez, RHP, free agent — Attempts to pin down agent Fern Cuza on whether he expects Martinez to pitch again have been fruitless — probably because Martinez hasn’t yet voiced his intentions to Cuza. A couple of Martinez’s friends continue to say he hasn’t gotten pitching out of his system yet. Would he ever play for the Yankees? His stint in Philadelphia in 2009 may show that he is best suited to the National League.
6. Bartolo Colon, RHP, Yankees — Nobody is expecting him to be the Cy Young Colon of the Angels in 2005. Not at age 37 (or whatever he is), but as one scout put it, “He’s the type of guy at this stage of his career who can pitch well for a couple of months for you. So you take it and you move on to the next guy.’’ And the Yankees have to hope that the next guy is Andy Pettitte, who seems intent on getting himself a Roger Clemens-type second-half deal. “The Yankees are trying to get lucky with something here,’’ said the scout. “Sometimes you get the unexpected. I watched him pitch winter ball and he still looks the same and he definitely still has the stuff to get major league hitters out. The question is, for how long does he hold up?’’
7. Manny Delcarmen, RHP, free agent — The former Sox reliever will not be returning to Boston, but agent Jim Masteralexis is in discussions with four teams. One is believed to be Tampa Bay, which is in dire need of bullpen depth. The Rays currently have the much-traveled Kyle Farnsworth penciled in as their closer.
8. Lastings Milledge, OF, free agent — One of the most intriguing free agents out there, and he’s still only 25. Milledge has always had maturity issues, but one baseball executive whose team is not in need of an outfielder said this: “Quite frankly, I’m surprised that name is still out there. He’s one of those guys with a world of talent, and 25 years old — you just don’t give up. Look at Darnell McDonald. Same kind of thing, but he’s — what? — 31 or 32 now, and the light has gone on.’’ With the Pirates last season, Milledge batted .277 with 4 homers and 34 RBIs but hit lefties at a .320 clip.
9. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, free agent — At this point, he’s probably going to have to go somewhere on a minor league deal, even though he’d be a good tack-on to the end of someone’s rotation at age 28. The Red Sox are looking for pitching depth to place at Triple A, and Bonderman seems to be a good candidate for such a job.
Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Oakland starters were 64-58 last season with a 3.47 ERA under the guidance of Curt Young. As Sox pitching coach, Young will be happy with that improvement over the 70-50, 4.17 ERA recorded by Boston starters last season.’’ Also, “File this under ‘Equally Depressing’: Last season, Jeff Mathis of the Angels and Adam Moore of the Mariners each had 218 plate appearances, 205 at-bats, 40 hits, including six doubles, and a .195 batting average.’’ . . . Happy birthday, Jeremy Hermida (27), LaSchelle Tarver (52), and Joe Kerrigan (57).