Baldelli grinds through a ballgame to remember

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It wasn't that long ago when Rocco Baldelli was just another good ballplayer, another part of a Tampa Bay Rays future that was hazy. Promising, perhaps. But, vague.

The Rays were waiting on a lot of guys like Baldelli, assuming they'd grow up and develop sturdy skills and bodies and character. Baldelli was special, but in that approaching special kind of way. He had long, stringy power. There was unusual easiness to his game, unusual life to it.

When manager Joe Maddon first walked in going on three years ago, he confessed that Baldelli reminded him – the way he moved, the way baseball came to him – of Joe D.

As in DiMaggio.

Dutifully, almost, Baldelli wore No. 5.

Well, here we are in the final days of October 2008 and the Rays' future is quite real, quite chartable, and undeniably sound. Baldelli is 27. And no one can be too sure about him anymore.

He has a rare neuromuscular disease known as mitochondrial myopathy. And no one knows what that means for his baseball career exactly, but there are nights like Thursday when he plays the game from end to end, and walks to the clubhouse filthy dirty and a winner. When he's just another good ballplayer, one that happens to kneel during pitching changes, one that happens to be the last man on the field most innings.

Despite unrelenting fatigue and the knowledge there is no cure for what has attached itself to him, Baldelli played nine innings. And the Rays beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2, tying the World Series at a game apiece. And when the game sought him out early, Baldelli did not relent. He could not, even when a hard dash here or an explosive burst there is probably borrowed from some other time.

"I'd rather not have to sprint, to be honest with you," he said in the first minutes of Friday morning. "But it's the World Series."

Yeah, sometimes it's required.

So in the second inning – the Rays straining to increase their lead from three runs to four – Baldelli charged around third base toward home. The throw from right fielder Jayson Werth to catcher Carlos Ruiz was true.

"I looked up and the ball was in his mitt," Baldelli said. "A slide isn't going to do me any good there."

The result was something that looked like a guy falling off a snowboard, a half-slide, half-bail that ended in a tangle and the end of the inning.

But Baldelli strolled out for the third inning. And in the fourth, with Rays at first and second and none out, he hit a grounder to third base. Baldelli humped it to first, narrowly beating the Phillies' attempt at a double play, leaving runners at first and third. Jason Bartlett, the next hitter, squeezed home the Rays' fourth run. It was only there because Baldelli was there, because you do not squeeze with two out or, in that instance, extreme desire.

But Baldelli trudged out for the fifth inning.

Before he did, first baseman Carlos Pena hugged him.

"The only reason we scored that run was because of you," he told Baldelli.

The Rays led 4-0. The game ended with the potential tying run at the plate, not on the bases.

"Later in the game, how huge was that run?" Pena said. "That's why I love baseball. That play, because he hustled out of the box, an easy double-play ball, that was the difference."

And in the fifth, Baldelli rushed in from his regular place in right field, snared Chase Utley's sinking looper, crow-hopped and threw behind Werth at first base, the double play ending the inning and another potential Phillies rally.

And, yes, Baldelli made it out for the sixth inning. And the seventh, and until they all stood on the infield and congratulated each other for keeping this a series.

The game had hunted him. It had demanded energy he wasn't sure he had, and for three hours.

In the ninth, the Phillies holding that two-run lead, the crowd clanging and the series hanging, center fielder B.J. Upton looked to his left. He couldn't help it. Good for you, Rocco, he thought.

"With all he's been through and he still hasn't given up …," Upton said, not needing to finish the sentence.

"He gives his body," Upton said, "when he knows he's not healthy. And he beats that ball out. It says a lot about him, the type of guy he is."

What he'd like to be, of course, is the type of guy he was. The one with the body that wouldn't quit, despite all those other injuries. The one with the future that had baseball in it. Lots of baseball. But he probably wouldn't say that. Maybe he's got a few games left and that's it. Maybe there's more, but no one knows, least of all him.

There will be this night, however, forever. When everything held up, and his game was there, and so were the Rays, who might one day have to go off without him. He'll likely be a free agent soon. He also might be sick soon, simply too tired to perform.

Baldelli shrugged and smiled, those nine innings behind him, darkness circling his eyes. He looked tired. But, then, so did everybody else in the room.

"It's fun being in there for the whole game," he said. "It was nice to slap five with the guys for a change. You know, you live your life as if you're perfectly OK and have fun."

And once in a while, maybe, your body will believe it.

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