February 27, 2009
Rocco Baldelli got himself turned around.
“Which way do I go?” he asked, looking for the visitors clubhouse at Rays spring headquarters in Port Charlotte, Fla.
The Rays don't train at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg anymore, as Baldelli did with them for his first five seasons in the majors. Baldelli doesn't train with the Rays anymore, period, having left for the Red Sox via free agency in the off-season.
He found the visitors clubhouse and found his former team, too, on Friday. Baldelli, usually composed, greeted his friends with a lot of emotion.
"I got more hugs today than I got in a long time,'' Baldelli said. "It was really nice.''
Aside from a long conversation with manager Joe Maddon, along with embraces with ex-teammate Carlos Pena and others, Baldelli also visited Ron Porterfield, the athletic trainer who cared for him in Tampa during the toughest of times.
Porterfield, who has been with the Rays organization since its start, used to have two jobs. He looked after all of the Rays players and he also looked after Baldelli, whose baffling chronic injuries and illnesses required a lot of care.
"My wife asked me, ‘Are you married to me, or... ?' Porterfield said with a laugh before trailing off.
Baldelli would call Porterfield from minor-league ballparks, saying he couldn't take it anymore. Porterfield would talk him down and encourage him to keep fighting.
Rock bottom came in 2007, when Baldelli phoned Porterfield hours before a game. The conversation ended only because Baldelli had to take his seat on the bench for the first pitch.
"He was on the field, on his cell phone, in tears. We shed many tears together," Porterfield said.
Porterfield wondered, like everyone else, why Baldelli's health suffered so much.
Images of Lou Gehrig, who died of ALS, popped into Porterfield's mind.
"That was my first thought. What did he have to go through?" Porterfield said. "How does something like this happen to an athlete? At that time, I thought, 'Is this guy healthy? Is he going to live?' "
Baldelli eventually found a true diagnosis and made it back for the tail end of the Rays surprising run to the World Series in '08.
"I don't know that I'd be out here playing if he didn't put in the effort that he did," Baldelli said of Porterfield. "I don't know any other way to put it better than that. The guy gave it everything he had, and I'm out here and I'm playing again. For that, I'm very thankful."
Despite a more specific diagnosis in the off-season that has Baldelli feeling better physically and mentally, the Rays worried about his health and decided to let go. Maddon said Baldelli would be starting in the Rays outfield if fully healthy. He will be a part-time player, at least at first, for the Red Sox.
"It kills me to see him in another uniform," Porterfield said. "I wish nothing but the best for him, except against us."
Going to Boston has some tough consequences for Baldelli, who left many friends behind. One of them was Porterfield, who got a call before news broke that Baldelli was on his way to the Red Sox.
"He called me before he signed with Boston to let me know, hey, 'I'm going to sign with Boston,' " Porterfield said. "He's such a great guy, man. If he wasn't such a good person, it might have been different, going through what we did.
"I'd do it all over again."