Rare disease doesn’t stop Baldelli

BOSTON – The biggest series in the 11-year history of the franchise, and the Tampa Bay Rays start a cleanup hitter who freely admits he doesn’t run out ground balls if he doesn’t have to. He has all but given up playing the outfield, too, and more often than not, prepares for a game by finding a good place to sit.

“I try to get by with doing as little as possible,” he said.

Appalled? Don’t be. It’s a wonder Rocco Baldelli is on a ballfield at all.

The 26-year-old designated hitter is playing despite what has been diagnosed as a rare neuromuscular disease known as mitochondrial myopathy, for which there is no cure. That conclusion came after visits to countless doctors, who for months couldn’t offer Baldelli an explanation for why his body was betraying him.

“I can’t say it’s 100 percent, but it’s what we’re going to go with right now,” he said. “We have no reason to believe it’s anything else. This is what we’re getting. My family and myself still hope it’s something else, but realistically this is probably what we’re dealing with.

“I’ve had to deal with things that most people my age don’t have to deal with. I have to think about things that 26-year-olds don’t really want to think about. There’s no one in sports going through anything like this.”

Baldelli does as little as he can because he has no choice. His muscles won’t allow him. He measures his baseball career not by the season, but by the day.

“I get asked that a lot, ‘What’s going to happen, are you going to play?’ ” he said. “I don’t look too far ahead about anything, really. I try to enjoy what I’m doing right now. I’ll worry about tomorrow or next week when I get to it.”

Dr. David K. Simon is a neurologist at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. He offers a simple explanation of the disease. “Mitochondria,” he said, “are like the energy factories, the power plants, of cells.”

Baldelli’s mitochondria are not producing the energy required for his muscles to function properly. Often the cause is a genetic mutation, Simon said. Muscle weakness is one symptom, and in some cases may not go beyond that. But the disease also can lead to heart failure, diabetes, deafness, blindness or seizures.

“The word that gets thrown out when I talk about it in the media is fatigue, like I’m tired,” Baldelli said. “I am, but the symptoms I’m talking about are not tiredness.

“Literally my muscles fatigue to the point where they’re burning, then severe burning, then they cramp up. They can seize up just after what I would call minimal exercise.

“I try to get by and do as little as possible, which goes against everything I’ve done my entire career. It goes against everything I’ve been on an athletic field since I was a little kid. I’m even at the point where I don’t sprint, I don’t run as fast as I can, which is tough, because I love to run.”

In 2003, when Baldelli led major-league rookies with 184 hits and the American League with 14 outfield assists, Rays owner Vince Naimoli was likening the Rhode Island native to a young Joe DiMaggio. He threw out two runners at home plate from center field on consecutive plays in Fenway Park. A year later, he hit home runs against Boston aces Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.

Baldelli had a lyrical name, and an unfettered future. But then the injuries began. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and sustained a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, both injuries occurring in 2005. A strained left hamstring cost him the first two months of the 2006 season. Another strain of the same hamstring ended his 2007 season in May, and led to an investigation of why his legs kept breaking down.

“I was pretty scared at first,” he said, “just going through all the testing, not knowing what I was dealing with. It was pretty scary, because my body went from a seemingly strong, fit guy to I couldn’t run, I was weak, I was sickly.

“I don’t know how many doctors I saw. I’ve been, not to the four corners of the country, but all over the place. I’ve seen many, many doctors. I’ve done every kind of test you can possibly do to the human body, and I’ve done them multiple times.”

Baldelli declined to discuss the specifics of his testing, but Simon said that typically a muscle biopsy is performed as well as genetic testing, and it’s almost certain Baldelli has undergone both on multiple occasions.

“I wasn’t worried about baseball, to be honest with you,” Baldelli said, “when I was struggling healthwise.”

There appeared to be reason for hope in February, when Baldelli felt well enough to begin spring training.

“But after a couple of weeks,” he said, “things started to deteriorate real fast. I would hit a round of batting practice, and my muscles every day would have a little less endurance, until I got to the point where I couldn’t swing. Every time I swung, my hamstrings would cramp up.

“I didn’t really expect to play ball anymore, to be honest with you.”

Baldelli spent the first 116 games of this season on the disabled list, after missing 124 games last season. Over the last four years, he had played in just 127 of 602 possible games due to injury.

But as the summer progressed, Baldelli discovered that something in the cocktail of prescription drugs, vitamins and energy supplements he was taking on a daily basis seemed to work. Simon said that the supplement creatine has been shown to be effective, along with vitamins C and E and an antioxidant known as coenzyme Q10.

“It’s not killing my insides,” Baldelli said, “but I take a bunch of pills and get an upset stomach every day.”

He also drinks nothing but water, juices, and Gatorade.

“I think my main mission in life is to stay hydrated in any way possible,” he said.

On Aug. 10, after a couple of rehabilitation assignments in the minors, the Rays activated Baldelli. Twelve days later, in Chicago, he hit his first home run in over a year. Then, on Aug. 30 against the Orioles, he hit a game-winning double, the first walkoff hit of his career. After watching his teammates win all season, he was finally a part of it.

“It’s awesome to be in a pennant race,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a lot of losing.”

Baldelli has started 10 games since coming off the DL, all but two as DH. Rays manager Joe Maddon said it’s doubtful he’ll start any more in the outfield.

“It takes a significant amount more out of me than DH-ing does,” Baldelli said. “Just standing in the outfield, even if I don’t have to make any plays, but just jogging in and out between innings, if I don’t get a break, that becomes a problem.

“I used to do a lot to get on the field to get my body loose – jogging, stuff like that. Now, if I don’t need to do anything, I do as little as possible. I try to sit on my butt as much as possible. That’s honestly going to keep me on the field.

“Right now my job is limited. I don’t do what I used to do. I’m not the outfielder I was, or wish I could be. But I’m pretty confident when I go to the plate, I think I can still swing the bat well and produce.”

It didn’t happen Monday night for Baldelli and the Rays in a 3-0 loss to the Red Sox, who cut Tampa Bay’s lead to a half-game in the AL East. He struck out in all four of his plate appearances. Left-hander Jon Lester whiffed him the first three times, the last time with two runners on base to end the sixth. There were two more men on base in the eighth when he struck out against closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Even after going 0-for-4, he is batting .300, with three homers and nine RBIs in 50 at-bats.

Baldelli’s younger brother, Nick, who is at Providence, (R.I.) College and planning to apply to dental school, was waiting for Baldelli outside the visitors’ clubhouse. Mom was coming Tuesday; Dad on Wednesday.

“Sure,” Nick Baldelli said, “it would have been great to see him have a good game, but it was just great to see him out there.”

Enough just to be playing?

“You know what,” Rocco Baldelli said, “I don’t look at it like that on a day-to-day basis. Maybe I’ll look at it like that when the season is all done and it’s the wintertime. I think at the end when I step off the field this year, whenever our last game is, I think I’ll be pretty pleased, regardless of the statistics or anything.

“I have goals, just like anyone else sets goals. But my goals were to get out here and play, and help this team win games. I think I’ve started doing that already, and hopefully I can continue to do that. I think when all is said and done this season, I’ll be happy to be a baseball player again.”

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008