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Rocco Baldelli
Talented outfielder overcoming adversity daily

By Corey Gottlieb / MLB.com

The camera pauses only for a moment on Rocco Baldelli's face, but it is enough to recognize that he is just now beginning to feel some peace.

He is sitting in the dugout, head resting on folded hands resting on top of an upside-down bat, eyes trained toward the field. There is calm in his gaze, not exactly a sense of comfort, but perhaps the ease of a man closing in on fulfillment.

Such a look encapsulates a culmination of sorts for Baldelli, who has trudged from the apex of future baseball stardom to the brink of retirement and back again.

It began in a place called the Dungeon, a makeshift batting cage constructed by Dan Baldelli, Rocco's father, underneath his Woonsocket, R.I., family business. Along with younger brothers Nick and Dante, Rocco spent countless hours there, honing a stroke that helped him lead Bishop Hendricken High School to four straight state titles.

Soon after, the rising star was selected by Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft, drawing comparisons to a young Joe DiMaggio from then-owner Vince Naimoli. Call it hyperbole, but Baldelli's average stats over his first two big league seasons -- a .285 average with 14 homers, 76 RBIs, 84 runs and 22 steals -- left little doubt about his enormous potential.

Age: 27

Hometown:
Woonsocket, R.I.

School: Bishop Hendricken High (R.I.)

Team: TB

Video | Player bio
"He is so gifted," manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com. "You watch him swing and hit, he's got this fluidness about him, just like everything else he does, in an athletic sense."

So gifted, and so entirely unfortunate. Perhaps ironically, the natural talents that Maddon describes exist in violent disharmony with the rash of ailments that have derailed Baldelli.

In the offseason following the 2004 campaign, Baldelli tore his left anterior cruciate ligament while playing a game of backyard baseball. Expected to be sidelined for the first half of '05, he suffered a mid-rehabilitation elbow injury that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and forced him to miss the entire season. The resilient outfielder returned for a productive '06 campaign, only to be dealt a hamstring injury near the start of '07 that ultimately limited him to 35 games.

It would only get worse. In the summer of 2008, Baldelli was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder that causes chronic fatigue. For the kid who once seemed to have the baseball universe at his fingertips, it had nearly become too much, and there were rumors that he'd begun to consider other lines of work.

But that kid was one and the same with the young man who'd taken his hacks in the Dungeon to become the "Woonsocket Rocket," one and the same with the young man who got a Major League Baseball logo tattooed on his left ankle at age 19, well before he broke into the bigs.

And so Baldelli rose to the challenge, battling through multiple rehab stints and consenting to a strenuous daily routine that helps to combat the effects of the disease.

The rest has been well documented. He returned to the Rays lineup on Aug. 10, playing his way into a postseason roster slot.

"Talk about the love for the game," Rays teammate Jonny Gomes told MLB.com. "They are going to make a movie about the guy when it's all said and done."

Maybe they will.

But even if they don't, one need only glance at a single still shot of Baldelli, sitting in the dugout as an integral part of an historic Rays team, to appreciate just how far he has come.

Corey Gottlieb is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.