Rocco’s hard place with the Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Do you remember Boston?

Carl Crawford’s eyebrows jump as though tugged by a puppeteer. Does he remember Boston?

Um, do you remember your first kiss, or your first car, or your first paycheck?

Because Aug. 13, 2004, at Fenway Park, was the first time something on the baseball field left Crawford speechless, and it was Rocco Baldelli’s right arm.

“They were almost identical plays,” Crawford says, and with Baldelli 10 feet away from him in the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse Friday, he recounts them: First Kevin Millar trying to score from second base on a Jason Varitek single only for Baldelli to cut him down by 15 feet with a throw, then Varitek on the very next play falling prey to another one-hop laser.

“Why would you keep running on him?” Crawford asks, and plenty of Red Sox fans echoed the question to third-base coach Dale Sveum, whom Baldelli single-handedly turned into an object of derision. The right arm was just part of the package.

Baldelli stood 6-foot-4, a lean 200 pounds stretched across his frame. He hit mammoth home runs, ran like he was drained from a sluice, caught everything in his vicinity. Scouts compared him to Joe DiMaggio, and there was more to the link than Italian heritage.

The part about Boston that Crawford doesn’t remember is the next day. Baldelli left the game in the second inning with a strained right quadriceps. His quads were habitual bothers. Usually he played through it. He wanted to then, too, but manager Lou Piniella insisted he rest on the disabled list.

Baldelli was 22. He’d be fine soon.

“That was always the plan,” Baldelli said.

The plan changed. That was the first of a half-dozen trips to the DL. Baldelli blew out a knee, then his throwing elbow, and missed all of 2005 and half of 2006. Last year, it was his legs again, the hamstrings this time. He pulled both. He batted .204 in 35 games.

And though Baldelli still stands 6-4, still maintains the 200 pounds, still hits huge home runs and, yes, still has that arm, he’s not the same, not even close. Baldelli, 26, doesn’t know how to stay healthy, and it’s a harrowing feeling.

“We’ll see how it goes when I get going,” he said. “I feel good right now. So I can’t ask for anything more from my body right now.

“I’m still a young guy. I don’t feel too old. I’ve got a lot of baseball left in me.”

In the five years since the Devil Rays summoned Baldelli, he has taken only 1,656 at-bats, so, sure, he should have plenty remaining. And then you glance at the injury report from last season, the one when the Rays shut down Baldelli in August, and it describes him with such perfect simplicity: done due to all-around soreness.

“Those were muscle pulls,” Baldelli said. “It wasn’t like it was just a little sore. I couldn’t walk. And it’s frustrating. It’s not like I could have surgery that could correct it. It was just something that was going to take time.”

The pain went both ways. The Rays believed Baldelli to be the centerpiece around which they built, and instead, his descent has mirrored their own. Only now are they poised to contend, years later when Baldelli, now a right fielder, is one of the veterans.

He called a short meeting with B.J. Upton, the new center fielder, and Crawford early Friday. He needs the stimulation because the Rays aren’t letting him participate in full activities. They’ve coddled Baldelli with hope that something will exorcise the injury bug.

So far – less than a week into camp – it’s working.

“Three home runs the first day off live pitching (batting practice),” Crawford said. “That’s one of those days where guys don’t swing the bat. And here he is, hitting home runs.”

Baldelli shrugs. It’s early. He usually feels good now. Give it a week. Then two. Then a month. Then a half season. And then – maybe then – he’ll uncross his fingers and start walking under ladders again and come within restraining-order distance of a black cat.

“I want to play the whole year healthy,” Baldelli said. “I know it sounds simple. It’s supposed to. I don’t have statistical goals. None this year.

“It’s just to be out there.”

Though a couple of outfield assists wouldn’t be the worst thing. And playing deep into August? Even better.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Feb 23, 2008