- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Rocco Baldelli's new career as a troubleshooting scout for the Tampa Bay Rays got off to a shaky start this spring when he suffered a case of food poisoning that necessitated a trip to the emergency room. All evidence points to a concession stand hamburger at a Georgia high school game as the source of Baldelli's distress.
The job has taken a more upbeat turn in recent weeks. Each new day at a high school or college game confirms Baldelli's gut instinct that he's in his element scouting budding young talents, dissecting their swings and trying to assess their makeup and passion for the game. And like most major league baseball scouts (not to mention sportswriters), Baldelli has become well-versed on the ins and outs of frequent traveler programs.
"I'm a Southwest A-List preferred member now and I just became a Marriot Silver member this spring," Baldelli said by phone this week. "I think I'm teetering on Gold status already."
Nearly eight months after taking his final big league hack against Texas in the American League Division Series, Baldelli has taken a walking lead and slid head-first into the next chapter of his baseball life. After spending so much time digging a toe into the batter's box and trying to make things happen, he now stakes out a seat behind home plate, applies some sunscreen and diligently takes notes on teenagers pursuing his old dream.
With 12 picks among the first 89 choices in the MLB first-year player draft Monday, Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison was smart enough to realize he needed every discerning eyeball he could get. So he enlisted Baldelli to help with scouting hitters in the draft, and assigned former Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland to look at pitchers.
Last year, Baldelli broke down some video for the club and participated in pre-draft meetings, then fulfilled a largely ceremonial role alongside Don Zimmer as one of the team's celebrity representatives at the draft in New Jersey. Not this year: He'll have a seat in the Rays' draft "war room" in Florida and be available to confer directly with Harrison and the club's scouting supervisors when the action gets hot and heavy.
"He's as good as it gets," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "He's got a really good feel for hitters and different swings, and he brings the perspective of a guy who's just stepped off a major league field. We're fortunate he's chosen to be part of what we're doing. He really adds to our process."
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Baldelli. He began scouting players at the start of the junior college season in February, and has since roamed the country checking out first-round talents and potential sleepers later in the draft. He scouted the ACC tournament, drove the back roads of Pennsylvania, checked out a high school tournament in Sebring, Fla., and made two West Coast trips. During one arduous stretch, Baldelli was on the road for 18 days in a three-week span.
Baldelli, 29, knows the drill from personal experience. He was an athlete for all seasons at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., dominating the competition in baseball, basketball and volleyball and winning a state title in the 55-yard dash. The Devil Rays, as they were known at the time, chose him with the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft and signed him to a $2.25 million bonus.
Baldelli seemed bound for stardom by 2003, when he hit .287 with 11 homers and 27 steals and finished third to Royals shortstop Angel Berroa and Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. He was a little too free-swinging for his own good, but there was no shortage of burdensome historical comparisons. Tampa Bay owner Vince Naimoli raised the bar of expectations considerably when he compared Baldelli to a "young Joe DiMaggio."
By 2005, the storyline took a major turn south. Baldelli blew out a knee playing backyard baseball with his little brother at home in Rhode Island, then injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Those setbacks were followed by mysterious bouts of lethargy, countless visits to doctors and an eventual diagnosis of channelopathy, a protein irregularity that can lead to chronic fatigue.
Baldelli tried to come back with Boston in 2009 and Tampa Bay last season, and provided one of the feel-good moments of 2010 when he went deep against Baltimore's Mike Gonzalez in his first plate appearance. But with his tank on empty, Baldelli officially retired in January and took a job as a special adviser with the Rays. He conferred with Friedman to craft a position that was best suited for his skills, and they agreed that scouting amateur hitters for the draft was right in his wheelhouse.
"This was something I was always interested in as a player," Baldelli said. "Why would some guys hit and some wouldn't? It's an art, not a science. It's intriguing, and the more you talk to people, the more you learn. It gets my blood flowing. I get excited."
Baldelli still has a lot to learn as a scout. At this level, it's not just about projecting whether a kid will or won't produce at the plate. Scouts have to take swing paths, bat speed, plate coverage and the intricacies of pitch recognition into account and make judgments on the fly. One of Baldelli's biggest challenges is conveying the information he's gleaned in concise nuggets rather than sending in stream-of-consciousness observations in his reports.
"I know I write way too much," Baldelli said. "I write some novels on some of these guys. I was told, 'You don't have to do that. You can tone it down a little bit if you want.' But I'm doing it for the first time and this is such a big draft for us as an organization, I would rather be more thorough than not."
That conscientious mindset helps explain why the Rays are so enthused about having Baldelli on board. If the franchise is going to keep paying him, he's intent on earning his money. By all rights, he should still be in the prime of a long and productive major league career, but he accepted his setbacks with a quiet dignity and forged ahead. A lot of his contemporaries endured much less and whined a whole lot more.
"It's kind of a bummer that he's not a major league All-Star right now," Harrison said. "He got dealt a bad hand, but I don't sense any bitterness or anything. He just moved on with life and really embraced what he's doing now. He's a guy that we need to keep in this business, let me tell you that."
Could Baldelli's current gig lead to a front-office position down the road in the scouting and player development realm or even in a general manager's suite? That's a question he's too busy to ponder at the moment.
When Baldelli talks to potential draft picks and their parents on the field or in the parking lot after games, it makes for an entertaining dynamic. The mothers ask lots of questions, and the fathers are generally aware that he was a prominent big leaguer for a stretch. Some of the kids know it too, but a few are either disinterested or blissfully oblivious to his pedigree. It's not unusual for Baldelli to be talking and see them scanning the stands in search of girls. Maybe a few kids know that sportswriters back in Rhode Island once referred to Baldelli as the "Woonsocket Rocket" -- a nickname that makes him simultaneously cringe and chuckle in hindsight.
"I always found that name so funny," Baldelli said. "I don't know who thought of it, but I have to find them and have a talk with them."
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
Rocco Baldelli has moved on to the next chapter of his baseball life as a scout for the team that drafted him 11 years ago.