The Italian Stallion, the Golden Child, the Pride of R.I., The Rock, ect. all nicknames that Rocco Baldelli has gained over the years since drafting him 6th overall in 2000. The Rays took somewhat of a risk on Rocco as during his freshman year of high school he shattered his tibia, leaving him sidelined from baseball until his junior year. Much has happened since 2000, Rocco has went from 'The Future' to 'The Goat', and I don't mean the greatest of all time. It seems as if a discontent for Rocco has began to grow like a virus on an unsuspecting host. Is the hate, or angst towards Rocco really deserved though?
Looking at the five players chosen before one Mr. Baldelli it's hard to say anything about the man who is still starting for our Rays, that is unless you'd rather have Adam Johnson, Luis Montanez, Mike Stodolka or Justin Wayne on the Rays rather than Rocco. The only player selected before Baldelli who may come close to his value is Adrian Gonzalez. The other 'great' outfielders who would undeniably replace our CF are, Xavier Nady (a 2nd round pick) and Grady Sizemore (a 3rd round pick), Joe Borchard was taken 12th overall, and Michael Vick (yes that Vick, 30th round pick by the Rockies). That's all folks, other than Sizemore there is no better OF than Rocco from the 2000 draft.
The `kiss of death' was given to Rocco before he ever made his debut in Rays green, as a scout gave him the label of `the next Joe DiMaggio'. One huge comparison for a 19 year old kid, and it is / was very unfair to Rocco. Let's be honest, there will never be another DiMaggio, and to think that Rocco Baldelli, at since a young age may become the Rays version of a hall of fame player ,holds the hitting streak record, and dated as well as married arguably the most popular actress of all time in Marilyn Monroe. To expect this all from Baldelli, 19 is extravagant.
Breaking this down piece by piece, hit streaks really don't make a player, DiMaggio is known for that, but remember he was still a darn fine baseball player, 361 homeruns, average 118 RBIs, and had a lifetime .325 batting average, as well as Ted Williams calling him the best baseball player that he (Williams) had seen. Not to mention that DiMaggio, unlike Rocco, walked a lot more, and struck out less.
Next the hall of fame thing, of course that is / was a dream of ours, but it should be for all players, Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, heck Ben Zobrist, we should have high dreams for all of them. However along with those dreams we should hold a set of realistic expectations. Expectations and dreams are two different things that have seemed to fuse together and help spread this Rocco despising plague. My parents may have dreamed for me to go to Harvard, but they expected me just to go to college. See the difference? It's like potential and ability, potential is great, it really is, it's the stuff dreams are built on, but ability is the line that expectations are placed.
As far as the Monroe connection, well let's be thankful that Rocco doesn't date the most popular `actress' or else we may be talking about valtrex for Rocco, similar to another OF in this draft, anyhow let's now move past this DiMaggio comparison. Look at the Rays as an organization, this was after we had drafted Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton, the intent was to form the holy trinity OF that would lead the Rays to the promise land, as of today it looks like 2/3 of those pieces will be around when the Rays reach that goal.
Rocco tore through three levels at age 20 and made his major league debut March 31st, 2003, facing the Boston Red Sox, and recorded his first hit, a double. He would then record a hit in 11 straight games, and 22 of the first 25 games. His first homer came April 30th, vs. the Twins, a game in which he recorded 5 RBIs, a career high. Defensively Rocco is above average, he'll likely never win a gold glove or be a nightly Web Gem but he gets the job done, and that's the most important thing.
Since Rocco has suffered two injuries that lost him the 2005 season. A knee injury and subsequently an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery gave Rocco the title `injury bitten', which simply is not true. The leg injury his freshman year was through basketball, his knee injury was while playing football with his little brother, and his elbow injury was overcompensating for the knee injury. Hamstring issues have also appeared but seem to have cooled down in recent months. The theory from outsiders that Rocco plays every other day is just not true, he's getting less and less off days, which are usually linked to a day game after a night game in which he usually pinch hits, runs, or comes in as a defensive sub.
It appears that Rocco is also destined for the leadoff spot, between his increasing plate discipline, surprising pop (recently at least), and selective base stealing (9/9) he seems to be a good table setter for the rest of what may / should become a great lineup. The game which I will choose to define Rocco's season will be the July 9th game versus the Yankees at Tropicana Field. The game in which he scored the winning run, made (at the time) a throw from CF to get the runner out at home, and in the 9th saved what may have became the tying run, the game which I remember saying "That's the greatness of Rocco Baldelli" will live for me for quite a while.
So has the `Golden Child' lived up to the hype? No, and to be honest the scout who made that comparison is either over optimistic, or just plain stupid. DiMaggio and Baldelli share nothing other than their Italian roots. However can Rocco be a good player? Yes, will he become the centerpiece of a dynasty? Probably not, but we don't need him to, we need the Rocco who is hitting over .300, hits 15-20 homers, and drives in his fair share of runs while maintaining good defense.
In conclusion what I am saying is that we as fans should not judge Rocco on comparisons that he never made, if we fully wipe the Joe DiMaggio comparisons out of our mind, and take Rocco for what he is, a good ballplayer, I'm pretty sure this `Trade Rocco' talk will end. No matter how good Elijah Dukes may be, Rocco is a man of high character, Dukes has some issues that extend past baseball, chemistry is a major factor in good teams, look at Paul O'Neil with the Yankees, he may not have been the best player on the team, but he produced and kept the team morale high, two things that I think Rocco will do throughout the years he's here which hopefully extends to the end of his career.
[editor's note, by Jacob Larsen]Fellow Blogger Corky Gaines(aka "The Professor"), of Rays Index, has decided to write a rebuttal to RJ's story.