Commentary

Out in the cold

Rhode Island's Rocco Baldelli still waiting for the free-agent landscape to thaw

Updated: January 26, 2010, 5:03 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Like millions of other American job seekers, Rocco Baldelli takes comfort in his routines. Every Sunday, he heads to one of the local diners and orders a hearty breakfast with a side order of solitude. Maybe he'll kill time text-messaging with friends, or take a deep breath, gaze out the window and ruminate on life in general.

"It's my alone time,'' Baldelli said. "Sometimes I'll just eat and then vegetate for a while.''

Most ballplayers gravitate to Arizona or Florida in the winter, and Baldelli would be there too if he had a roster spot to call his own. For now, he's still home in his native Rhode Island, watching the free-agent market play out and drawing support from his family and his roots.

He works out at a local gym with Minh Phan, his close friend and former Little League teammate. Several days a week, Baldelli enters the homemade batting cage in the basement beneath his father's business and takes his hacks against Karl Allaire, a fellow Rhode Islander and former minor league infielder.

Five or six times a day, he runs into someone who asks, "How's it going, Rocco? Any luck?'' The requests are all heartfelt, so he obliges the best he can. From Westerly to Warwick to his native Woonsocket, his employment status will always be the focus of Ocean State-wide curiosity.

"You get tired of answering the same questions, but you know it's only because people are rooting for you,'' Baldelli said. "If I can bring some happiness to my friends and family by playing, that's a privilege. It's kind of an honor that people follow me and actually care about what I do.''

His agent, Casey Close, keeps him updated on the free-agent landscape. Now that Xavier Nady is headed to the Cubs, Baldelli, Jermaine Dye, Reed Johnson and Jonny Gomes all have an eye on the remaining outfield opening with the Yankees. Seattle is also still looking for a right-handed bench bat. And the Rangers and Mets both inquired about Baldelli earlier this offseason before making some other moves.

While several players in search of outfield jobs are aging, recovering from injury or defensively challenged, Baldelli resides in a category all his own. How many guys on the unemployed list are only a few years removed from Joe DiMaggio comparisons?

In 2002, Baldelli won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award, and the magazine christened him "the total package, and getting better.'' The following year, he hit .289 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs for Tampa Bay and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui.

Then Baldelli's career began unraveling, bit by agonizing bit. He came back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and Tommy John surgery only to be diagnosed with a muscular disorder that caused him to tire easily. The condition has since been identified as channelopathy, a protein irregularity that can lead to chronic fatigue.

Baldelli, now 28, takes quinine supplements to avoid leg cramps and pulls and help his muscles operate more efficiently. He understands the importance of eating properly, getting plenty of rest and monitoring his daily routine in a way that eluded him at age 21.

"I've learned how to take care of my body a little better than I did before,'' Baldelli said. "I never abused my body. But on the field, you have to know when to exert yourself and when you don't. That was always tough for me. I'd be running around like a wild man in the field and on the bases.''

Baldelli realized every New England boy's dream last year when he signed with the Red Sox. He wore Nomar Garciaparra's old No. 5 and fit seamlessly into manager Terry Francona's clubhouse mix. But Baldelli's medical condition and an assortment of minor injuries limited him to 62 games, and he missed the Division Series against the Angels with a hamstring injury.

The final numbers were so-so: Baldelli hit seven homers in 150 at-bats and slugged .441 against left-handed pitching. Still, several scouts and executives said he can help a team if used judiciously. "If you stay within your boundaries, he can be a very manageable asset,'' said an American League executive.

And what, precisely, are those boundaries? Maybe it's one start a week in the outfield, or two. It might be 200 at-bats in a season, or 250. The one thing baseball people seem to agree upon is that Baldelli isn't capable of stepping in and playing for 10 days or two weeks straight if a starter suffers an injury.

The other challenge for Baldelli, in the midst of his transition, is the mental and physical preparation required of a bench player. Former first-round draft picks once ticketed for stardom usually don't wake up one day and find they're on the Mark Sweeney career track.

[+] EnlargeBaldelli
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesBaldelli had seven home runs in 150 at-bats for the Red Sox last season.
"Younger players have this mindset that says, 'If I sit three days and play the fourth day, I have to earn my money,''' said an AL scout. "The Lenny Harrises of the world can play once every five days and walk twice and say, 'Hey, that's what you pay me for.' As time goes on, I think [Baldelli] will become better equipped mentally to do that.''

Offseason maintenance is all about diligence and discipline. In the basement batting cage beneath his father's combination pawn shop-coffee shop-check cashing business in Woonsocket, Baldelli limbers up with a round or two of BP. Then he spends the bulk of his 45-minute sessions simulating game situations with Allaire.

Flash back a decade, when Baldelli was a hot prospect at Bishop Hendricken High and Allaire was in his mid-30s and not far removed from playing infield for the Toledo Mud Hens, and the routine seems eerily familiar. Allaire stands 50 feet away and hums the ball in at a pretty fair clip, and Baldelli uncoils that fluid swing and the line drives commence flying.

"It's funny. I just told Rocco, 'You haven't lost a thing since you were 21,''' Allaire said. "If anything, he's probably become a better hitter with experience. The bat speed is still there, and you can still hear the crack off the bat. There's a distinct sound when he hits it.''

That's the sad part. If Baldelli had stayed healthy, he would still be a middle-of-the-order fixture and might have an All-Star Game appearance or two on his résumé. The reality is, spring training is three weeks away, and he's in cold-weather Rhode Island waiting to see if someone has an outfield bench spot available. Think that's not a drain on the emotions?

"I definitely think it's worn on him,'' Allaire said. "He's put up a little bit of a shell. People are always asking him, 'How do you feel? What do you think is going to happen?' It's human nature to just get sick of hearing it. With all the stuff he's been through, it's been a tough ride the last few years.''

The competitor in Baldelli yearns to see what he could achieve in 500 at-bats, but the realist in him will do whatever is necessary to earn 200 or 250. He'll play the outfield once or twice a week and log some time as a DH or pinch hitter. He even sounds enthused about giving first base a whirl for the first time since high school. Baldelli was a basketball, baseball and volleyball star at Bishop Hendricken and won the Rhode Island 55-yard dash championship in indoor track, so he's never lacked for athleticism.

The intangibles check out nicely, too. Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein calls Baldelli "a great person, an excellent teammate and an asset to any organization.'' The Woonsocket Rocket is long on character references.

"Do I wish I didn't have to deal with any of this?'' Baldelli said. "Yes. Will I ever be completely comfortable and understand why this happened? No. It's still very strange to me.

"But it's the reality of the situation, and I'll play with the hand that's dealt to me. One thing I never want is anyone to feel bad for me, I'm not here to get sympathy cards in the mail.''

At this point, he'd be perfectly happy with a phone call.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book, "License To Deal," was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer