Celebrating Rocco Baldelli

Consider this Part Two in my quasi-series on Rocco Baldelli (@roccoalthough), illness, and baseball. Part One can be found here.

As tough as it is to admit it, Rocco Baldelli has seen his best playing days already. He's only 28-years-old, an age when most other position players are hitting their athletics peaks, but Rocco is aged beyond his years. After suffering from numerous injuries early in his playing career, Baldelli's condition worsened in 2007, leaving him constantly energy deprived. His muscles would tire easily, leaving him winded and muscle-tired after a light workout, and he wouldn't recover as fast, leaving him physically shaking from fatigue at times while playing in the field. That'd be scary for anyone, but for a 26-year-old athlete that was drafted straight out of high school, it's life-altering.

What exactly is plaguing Baldelli is still a matter of some conjecture. After the 2007 season, he was diagnosed with a metabolic/mitochondrial disorder and was given a drug therapy combination that allowed him to play part-time with the Rays in late 2008. His diagnosis changed during the 2009 off-season, when he was diagnosed with channelopathy, a less serious, more treatable condition. Since that report, there have been no new updates on Baldelli's condition, so we can either assume that the doctors finally got things right or Baldelli is playing his cards closer to his chest. Medical information is inherently private, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are details of Rocco's illness that are not part of the public knowledge.

Despite being diagnosed with a less serious illness, Baldelli is still confined to a part-time role as he manages his disease. He was an average defensive (1.9 UZR) and offensive (.326 wOBA) fourth outfielder for the Red Sox last season, providing them with extra depth off the bench whenever he wasn't on the disabled list. He was on-and-off the DL multiple times during the year with hamstring and leg injuries, until a shoulder injury kept him off the postseason roster and ended his season. Rocco's nursed his shoulder back to health all off-season and through the beginning of this season, joining the Rays' minor league Single-A affiliate around a month ago. 

Currently, Rocco is playing with the Triple-A Durham club and has finally seen some success. His early results weren't promising - in Single-A, a .302/.318/.387 slashline with a 64% groundball rate isn't something to get excited about. In Durham, though, Rocco hit his first homerun of the year on Sunday to help the Bulls win by one run, and just last night he went 2-4 with a double and a run batted in.

Do these results mean much? Statistically and realistically speaking, no. Baldelli may get called up to the big-league club in September, but he's a shadow of his former self and wouldn't be a upgrade in the outfield over Sean Rodriguez or Matt Joyce. Barring a miracle, he won't make the Rays' postseason roster and he'll be lucky to crack the Rays' bench next season. He's an average outfielder whenever he can play, but his disease will always put limits on him.

Emotionally speaking, though, these last two games mean everything.

Do you know what it's like to know you can do something, yet you aren't able to do it? To see others do something you've done your entire life, yet know that you can't do it that same way anymore? You're constrained, held back, limited - at the mercy of a disease you can never beat. You're forced to change your life to accommodate your disease, a roommate you didn't request, don't want, and can't get rid of. Everything you do in life is different, from changing your shoes to throwing a baseball. So when you succeed, when you persevere through all those odds and succeed despite your illness...well, there's nothing in life as sweet.

When I was in the fourth grade, I was diagnosed with cancer - Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, to be exact. I was placed on a two year chemotherapy regiment that staved off the cancer and cured me, but left me with some powerful memories I'll never forget. One of these memories is of playing baseball during that first summer of treatment. I was a bald kid, chubby cheeks and body from the steroids I was taking, with legs that felt like iron rods that were welded to the ground. Some days the medicine would make me so weak, I couldn't write because my hand was shaking uncontrollably and I couldn't walk up and down the stairs to the bathroom. My legs would shake and fall out from under me, so I learned the fine art of skooshing up and down the stairs on my butt. It was a painful time full of constant nausea and weakness, yet all I wanted to do was continue playing baseball.

To my doctor's (and parents') credit, they let me play Little League. I was a miserable hitter and fielder, lead-footed in the field and too uncoordinated at bat, yet no coach was going to tell me I couldn't play. I couldn't make many games and failed horribly most times I managed to play, but that didn't matter - I was maintaining a shred of normalcy in my otherwise chaotic life. And when those infrequent successes came, they were so powerful, I still remember them to this day.

One game, I found myself on third base. Don't ask me how I arrived there - horrible hitter that I was, the odds are I'd walked and been hit over to third through the course of the inning. We were playing at a horribly dusty field with a deep backstop and rocky terrain, and I was standing on third feeling pretty good about myself. Anytime I reached base was an accomplishment and if things went right I might even be able to score a run, a relatively unheard of level of success for me. And just then, the pitcher threw a wild pitch that got away from the catcher.

I don't know what possessed me to break for homeplate. Like I said, I was an incredibly slow runner at the time. I was chubby, I was weighed down with a chest protector (safety equipment I had to wear for all sports, per the doc), and my leg muscles were so weak, they collapsed at the thought of running. I was a lumbering brontosaurus, as good as dead.

And yet somehow, as I'm sure you've guessed, I made it. I slid awkwardly ahead of the tag and was called safe, thus securing the memory that serves as the pinnacle of my childhood baseball career. I stole home. I stole home on chemo. I became a much better player over the years, but that memory and moment always stood with me - that achievement trumps everything else I ever accomplished on the field. The pain and the struggle were tough, but it made that victory so, so sweet.

And so, congrats Rocco. Congrats for having an awesome couple of days. Congrats for finding the courage and strength to keep pulling yourself back from injury and into competitive shape. Congrats for never giving up, for succeeding despite your illness and for never complaining about the unfairness of it all. Congrats for refusing to give in. You're an inspiration to us all and I sincerely hope you make it back to the Rays this year. When you do, the child in me will be watching, cheering my heart out.

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