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October 16, 2008

On the Beat

Comebacks and Throwbacks

by John Perrotto

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BOSTON-Rocco Baldelli says it is not in his nature to complain, mope, or feel sorry for himself. If it was, he would be one miserable human being. "I believe the most important thing in life is to be the best person you can possibly be," Baldelli said. "I always try to keep a positive attitude and try to look on the bright side of things. Everybody has some misfortunate in life. You can't let it get you down. You've got to keep fighting through it."

The Rays outfielder has had his share of misfortune over the past four seasons, after impressing as a potential superstar in 2003 when he broke into the major leagues with a 13-game hitting streak as a 21-year-old, a year after Baseball America had selected him as its minor league player of the year. Three years earlier, Tampa Bay had selected him in the first round of the first-year player draft from Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, Rhode Island. Baldelli flashed so much raw ability and moved so gracefully that former Rays owner Vince Naimoli once referred to him as a "young Joe DiMaggio."

Since then, much has happened to Baldelli on his way to becoming a cultural icon, and little of it has been good. His problems began just after the 2004 season, when he ripped apart his left knee while, of all things, playing backyard baseball in with his 7-year-old brother, causing him to miss all of the 2005 season.

He has averaged just over 51 games a year in the three years since. He was not able to play until early June of 2006; he appeared in 92 games while still rehabilitating his knee. He saw action in just 35 games last season because of multiple hamstring strains. The worst news came this year in spring training, when he learned that he had contracted a mitochondrial disorder that was sapping his strength and causing him muscle fatigue. "I probably hit my low point during spring training, when I would go out there and have trouble even taking batting practice or jogging or playing catch," Baldelli said. "That was pretty tough to take, coming from the end of 2006 when I started feeling really good again, to struggling with injuries in 2007, to coming back to spring training and struggling again."

Things are finally turning in Baldelli's favor recently, as his Rays hold a 3-1 lead over the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series and can close out the series with a win tonight at Fenway Park. Though he has played only a bit role for the Rays this season, his story has been one of the best of this October. After all of the injuries and the fear that he might never play again, Baldelli is on the Rays' post-season roster, and his three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game Three of the ALCS punctuated a 9-1 win over the Red Sox this past Monday.

"What Rocco has done just to get back to this point is amazing," Rays right-hander Andy Sonnanstine said. "It was an issue completely out of his control, and I can remember having conversations with him in spring training in which he was thinking about stepping away from the game. That was a pretty tough time for him. He did everything he could, saw as many doctors as he could, to try to figure this situation out, and there were times when it looked like there wasn't an answer. To see him back out on the field is an inspiration to all of us, and really speaks to his determination."

Baldelli and Rays trainer Ron Porterfield visited various doctors across the country in an attempt to determine the root of the problem. While there were low points, Baldelli said he always held out hope that he could resume his career. "I just kept thinking that eventually I would get back because something good would happen," Baldelli said. "I owe a lot to Ron Porterfield. He's spent thousands of hours with me, going to different doctors, working with me to get me back on the field. He's more than a trainer, he's my friend, and he's done a lot of work for me. I take some medication now, and I think that's probably why I am able to play."

Baldelli came off of the disabled list on August 10 for a game against the Mariners in Seattle, and had a .286 EqA while hitting .263/.344/.475 in 90 plate appearances over 28 games in the regular season. He is still not strong enough to play on a regular basis, and Rays manager Joe Maddon uses the right-handed hitter in a platoon with Gabe Gross in right field. Just having Baldelli back in uniform has been one of the biggest highlights of an amazing season for Maddon. "I'm so happy that he has been able to be a part of this season and has the chance to experience this franchise's first postseason," Maddon said. "When you think of the Rays, you think of Rocco Baldelli. He's been one of this franchise's most recognizable players. He has come back and really helped us as a role player. I'd love to see him get back to a point where he can play regularly, because Rocco is very gifted. In fact, he has more gifts than just about any player in the major leagues."

Considering that Baldelli is only 27, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to see him emerge as a star, but even if he spends the rest of his career in a part-time role, Baldelli won't complain. "I'm really enjoying what I'm doing now," Baldelli said. "It's fun coming off of the bench to try to provide a spark when I'm in there. I'm content with what I'm doing now, and if this is how it's supposed to be from here on out, then I can live with that. Hopefully, I'll be able to do more as time goes on, but I'm just thankful to have any chance to play again."

---

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has always been a favorite of statistical analysts more than scouts. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder was the American League Rookie of the Year last season when he had a .291 EqA and 8.1 WARP3, and is considered a strong candidate to win the AL's Most Valuable Player Award this season as he raised his EqA to .306 and WARP3 to 10.4

The two opposing managers in the ALCS can't stop talking about Pedroia. "He's one of the very best players in the game," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I don't think anyone will dispute that after what he's done in his first two years in the major leagues. He's tremendous."

"He could have played in 1910, 1920, 1930, all the way up to the present day," Maddon said. "I think the term throwback is thrown around pretty loosely these days, but that's truly what he is. One time I saw that show on HBO that did bits and pieces of old films, and there was the Yankees and [manager] Joe McCarthy was talking about one of his players-I can't remember who it was [Ed. note: Joe Gordon]-and he called him over to be interviewed. He asked the guy what he was hitting, and he said, 'I don't know' and he asked the guy what the team's record was and he said, 'I don't know.' Then the guy walked away and McCarthy said, 'That's what I love about him. He just comes to beat you.' That's Dustin Pedroia. He just comes to beat you."

Francona believes that Pedroia uses his small stature as a motivational tool, even though he was a three-time all-Pacific 10 Conference player at Arizona State before being the Red Sox' second-round draft pick in 2004. "His motor is always running, and I'm sure that's because he's been told from a very early age that he couldn't do things and he continues to want to prove that he can," Francona said. "He's gone so far past that, and now he's proven to be one of the best players in baseball."

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Charlie Manuel has managed the Phillies into their first World Series appearance since 1993 after they beat the Dodgers last night in the NLCS. Manuel has been managing with a heavy heart though, since his 87-year-old mother June Manuel died last Friday on the day of Game Two in Roanoke, Virginia, following a brief illness. Manuel will fly to Virginia for the funeral today, and he admits that while it has been difficult to manage in the NLCS, he never thought about leaving the club in the midst of the postseason. "My mom and I were very close, and I knew that she would definitely want me to finish the season," Manuel said. "There's no way I'd miss her funeral, but at the same time, hopefully this is going to work out. We've come this far, and I just want to be there. This is something you've got to deal with and it's all part of life. You have to definitely be strong and find a way to get through."

Manuel jokingly used to refer to his mother as his assistant manager because she was never short of opinions on how her oldest child should run his team. "I feel like I know my mother would want me in the dugout, because she used to manage a lot for me anyway," Manuel said. "She'd tell me things like, 'You go tell those guys that I said I'm praying for them, and I want them to bear down and really get after it.' And I used to say, 'Yeah, Mom, I'll be sure to tell them.' Sometimes I might get a little upset and say, 'One of these days, I'm going to bring you up here and let you tell them.'"

---

The well-respected Paul Beeston has returned to the Blue Jays' organization to help find a new chief executive officer to replace Paul Godfrey, who will resign in December. Beeston was the first employee hired by the Blue Jays as a start-up operation in 1976, a year before they began play as an expansion team, and he served as their president when they won back-to-back World Series in 1992-93. "I have a great deal of loyalty to the Blue Jays," Beeston said. "They've been a big part of my life, and I've been around them since the beginning. I'm not interested in a full-time job, but I can work full time for two or three months.

Beeston, who was also Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer from 1997-2002, expects the Blue Jays to have a new CEO in place by the time spring training begins in February. The Jays are coming off an 86-76 season, and Beeston feels they are ready to be contenders in the AL East. He also believes that the Blue Jays should retain general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who has two years remaining on his contract. "I'm a friend of J.P.'s," Beeston said. "He's done a good job. I'm a supporter. When you start with the best pitcher in baseball [Roy Halladay], you can make yourself a contender very quickly. You are over .500. You've got some good baseball people like [manager] Cito Gaston and [coaches] Nick Leyva, Gene Tenace, and Brad Arnsberg. You've got a good group of young pitchers and a good nucleus in the minor leagues. I believe it's a good situation."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Padres are more serious about trading right-hander Jake Peavy than initially appeared to be the case, as they want to ramp up their youth movement in the offseason. The Braves are expected to make a big pitch for Peavy, who also reportedly would waive his no-trade clause for the Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, and Cardinals. ... The Padres are also trying to re-sign closer Trevor Hoffman before he become a free agent next month. ... The Padres are expected to hire two veteran baseball men for manager Bud Black's staff; Jim Lefebvre as hitting coach, and Ted Simmons as bench coach. ... The Marlins seem certain to trade arbitration-eligible second baseman Dan Uggla, with the Angels and Giants the most likely teams to land him. ... The Giants have also reportedly inquired about Twins left fielder Delmon Young as they look to add another bat to their lineup.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Add Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer to the growing list of executives who are not going to interview for the Mariners' GM job. Indians assistant GM Chris Antonetti and Athletics assistant GM David Forst also turned down the Mariners. Seattle was also denied permission to talk with Tigers assistant GM Al Avila and White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn. Brewers GM Doug Melvin could emerge as a frontrunner if his talks for a contract extension do not go smoothly. ... Bobby Valentine would like to come back to the United States after managing the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League for the past six seasons, and he figures to get strong consideration for the Mariners' opening. ... The Yankees want to fix their starting pitching via free agency, and hope they can sign two of three from among Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia, Blue Jays right-hander A.J. Burnett, and Dodgers right-hander Derek Lowe. ... The Yankees have interest in bringing Willie Randolph back to their staff as bench coach. If Randolph is hired, bench coach Rob Thompson would shift to third-base coach to replace the fired Bobby Meachem. ... The Indians are trying to re-sign infielder Jamey Carroll at a salary lower than his $3 million club option for next season.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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