Not many baseball players get selected in the first round of the MLB first-year player draft. Fewer still do so from New England, where the baseball season is short and development slower.
But Rocco Baldelli of Cumberland, R.I., bucked that trend in a big way when he was chosen sixth overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2000. He made it to the major leagues just three years later. But a series of injuries limited him and his major league career was soon curtailed, leaving many to wonder what he might have accomplished.
Since his playing career ended, Baldelli has worked for the Rays in a variety of capacities, including his current title as major league field coordinator. We spoke with Baldelli recently about his memories of growing up in Rhode Island, playing sports and rooting for the local teams.
BSJ: Tell me about your childhood and growing up in northern Rhode Island...
Rocco Baldelli: I grew up in Woonsocket, until I was about 12. I played in Little League for Fair North Little League, which is now defunct. We moved to Cumberland when I was about 12-13, and I went to Bishop Hendricken (in Warwick) for high school. So, that’s kind of where it all took place. I spent five years at Hendricken, due to a pretty severe tibia fracture. I tore it up pretty good playing freshman basketball. I went up, tried to dunk the ball in layup lines before the game and my leg came apart on me. Actually, at that point, I didn’t know if I was going to be doing much of anything sports-wise (thereafter); was kind of told that by some medical people at the time. Even at that early age, it’s probably why I never took much for granted, never set expectations through the roof and never looked too far ahead. It happened in January and didn’t go to school the rest of the year after that. The next fall, I started my freshman year again.
BSJ: How about before high school? What about pick-up games in the neighborhood?
Baldelli: I grew up playing in my backyard. I grew up playing a lot of baseball informally. In my backyard, with my brother Nick and two or three neighbors, we would set up a hockey goal right behind home plate because if the ball got past home plate and you didn’t hit it, it would end up in the road. So we would set the goal up behind the plate. I didn’t like (the ball) going in the goal at all. I don’t know if that had anything to do with my development as a player. But I grew up swinging at everything from the time I was a little kid and I did it growing up, in Little League, in high school and on to professional baseball. (On-base percentage) was a non-discussion point and truthfully, at the end of the day, when I tried to change what I was doing, I struggled to become a different kind of player. I think, for me at least, sticking with my strengths was probably the best thing for me.
BSJ: What was the involvement of your parents playing youth sports?
Baldelli: My parents were at everything. My dad coached as many as teams as he could, mostly baseball and football. But they were always around everything I did and supported me at every step of the way. Almost to the point where I was, like, ‘You know, you guys don’t have to be here for everything.’ Looking at it now, the support I received from them, with everything I’ve ever done, has been there from the start. You really appreciate it as you get older and look back.
BSJ: Other sports? You mentioned basketball.
Baldelli: I did everything. I did karate. I did gymnastics when I was very small. And then by the time, I was 7-8-9, it was soccer, football … I got myself into basketball. But I only started playing when I was about 12 or 13. I started playing volleyball in high school.
BSJ: But growing up in Woonsocket (home to legendary high school hockey powerhouse Mt. St. Charles Academy), you never played hockey?
Baldelli: I never played hockey. My neighbors had a rink, a homemade rink, behind their house. I put the skates on when I was a kid and my legs just did not work well with the skates. The ankles turned and I couldn’t stop and that was the end of it. But I grew up outside. We were outside every day, running around. If there was nothing to do, you were racing, you were playing tag. That’s what I did when I was a kid. I didn’t spend a ton of time inside.
BSJ: You might have been part of that last generation that didn’t necessarily concentrate on one sport year-round. You played a little bit of everything.
Baldelli: I don’t know if I’d be sitting here and talking about this if I had grown up only playing baseball. I actually feel pretty confident saying that. I probably wouldn’t have had a pro baseball career if I only played baseball. This is a very specialized game. You can refine your skills to a point by playing a lot and experience does matter. But this is not a game that promotes athleticism or anticipation. You get a very limited experience when you’re on a baseball field. When you play these other sports, you learn other things you’re not going to learn playing just baseball. As much as anything, you learn how to compete by playing all these different sports. You try to learn from your mistakes, you anticipate and you make better decisions next time. There are a lot of good players who only played baseball but, for me, I think I learned a lot playing the others. I don’t have kids, but hopefully I will someday and if they like sports, they’re going to be out there playing a bunch of them, absolutely. They can do whatever they want and go have fun, but I’ll encourage them to go out and play as many sports as I can.
BSJ: At what point did baseball become The Sport?
Baldelli: I loved just playing whatever; all the sports I was playing, I enjoyed. My dad loved baseball. That’s what it really came down to at the end of the day. After I hurt my leg in high school, I didn’t play baseball for, like, two years. That’s a long time to not play something. But my dad forced the issue. I didn’t really want to play. It’s kind of scary, moving up to the big diamond. But my dad made me play, made me try out for the American Legion team. I was the youngest kid there, hadn’t played in two years, and I didn’t really want to be there. I was kind of intimidated. But I made the team. I ended up getting into it and started playing baseball again. But it was only one sport – it was just one of the things I did. I wanted to play college basketball and college baseball at maybe an Ivy League school. That was my goal.
BSJ: When did you get more focused on baseball?
Baldelli: After my junior year, I went to a couple of events, spoke with some scouts, went to one of the original East Coast Pros (a showcase in New England) and heard from some people that there was a chance I would get drafted. I never even thought about that. I was just content going to school. Then, going into the spring, I heard, ‘You might get drafted in the third, fourth, fifth round…something like that.’ I said, ‘Cool.’ I didn’t know what to think. (When it came to information about amateur baseball), there was Baseball America and that was basically it. That’s all you heard from anyone. I only played less than a dozen games because I pulled my oblique in my senior year. But looking back, the things that I could do were the things that scouts were looking for. I had tools. If you’re good size, really run and can hit the ball hard and far, and you compete and show some instinct, that’s really what they’re looking for. By the time the draft was getting closer, I heard that I was probably going to go in the first round. But until the end, I really didn’t know.
BSJ: When did it dawn on you that you could make a career out of playing baseball?
Baldelli: Not until the draft. But even then, I didn’t even plan on signing unless I got drafted early – the first or second round, maybe. That’s what I was shooting for and it happened. It just kind of came together. I signed my letter of intent to play baseball at Wake Forest. That’s when I kind of realized that baseball was probably the direction I was going to go in. I had to make some sort of commitment to one sport and that was the right one for me. But I was fully prepared to go to school. It’s not like I was negotiating or threatening; I was very happy to go to school. I was looking forward to it, actually. But ultimately, the decision wasn’t very hard. When you’re getting drafted in the Top 10, in my mind, there was no decision at that point. They kind of made the decision for me (with a signing bonus of $2.25 million) and I was ready to go. That was a nice opportunity; things like that don’t come around very often. So I said, ‘I’m in ... let’s go … let’s play.'
BSJ: What about being a fan? What are your memories of following players and teams, growing up?
Baldelli: I followed the Red Sox. I would watch them on NESN. Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens were the stars then, but I liked Rich Gedman, Ellis Burks, Marty Barrett, Mike Boddicker – the guys who weren’t the obvious stars. I went to Fenway a handful of times; we weren’t there often. We were too busy playing. It’s not like we had tons of time to go up there. But I really enjoyed walking up the ramp and seeing Fenway Park. I still remember, to this day, the first time I went – Roger Clemens was pitching that day. I was about as excited as I could be. I want to say, for the sake of this story, that I was this absurd Red Sox fan. (But) I liked baseball. I enjoyed watching baseball and the Red Sox were on, and I rooted for them. But I was busy playing. I liked competing more than I liked watching.
BSJ: In northern Rhode Island, you had to go to McCoy Stadium, right?
Baldelli: A few times, yeah. It was usually a league outing, group things. I did spend some time there. I would hang over the bullpen and ask, ‘Hey, you mind signing this baseball?’ I liked talking to those guys.
BSJ: A lot of Italian families in Rhode Island are fans of the Yankees because of the long tradition of Italian stars on the Yankees – DiMaggio, Rizzuto … Was your dad a Yankee fan?
Baldelli: My dad loved baseball, but again, he wasn’t necessarily a Red Sox fan or a Yankee fan, though he probably was a little more of a Yankee fan. My mom’s dad was a huge Yankee fan, and he’s not Italian – he’s French-Canadian. But yeah, there’s a lot of both Red Sox and Yankee fans in Woonsocket. But it wasn’t a big rivalry in our house.
BSJ: How about other teams?
Baldelli: To this day, I still pull for the URI teams. My dad was there. But I also root for PC. (Providence basketball coach) Ed (Cooley) is a great guy. It’s Rhode Island – what am I going to do? Not pull for both schools? You almost have to.
BSJ: And the other Boston pro teams?
Baldelli: We do watch the Patriots, still, every game. I always wanted to go to a game and we went one time to the old stadium. I’ve been to the new one a handful of times. But part of me is starting to get disgusted with pro football. The older I get, the less in love with it I am, with everything that’s going on. I love watching the Patriots, but the things going on (with concussions and injuries) make it tough for me to watch sometimes.
BSJ: Favorite players from those Patriots teams?
Baldelli: Andre Tippett is the name that I remember most. I would say he’s the one that sticks out. The Patriots now are so different from that era. Everything that they’ve accomplished (in the last 20 years) is such a contrast to that time. My memories are barely there from the Patriots from that time.
BSJ: How about the Celtics?
Baldelli: My first priority every day was, ‘Where’s my game?’ Because I played a game – a different sport, a different town – every day, from the time I was a kid. And so most nights were spent getting pizza after the game and getting home and the (pro teams’) games were almost over. I would watch when I could, but that was all secondary to my games, or my brother’s games. It was a family affair and we would travel around. That’s what we did.
BSJ: And now, you have a much young brother, Dante, playing baseball at Boston College. Is that nerve-wracking for you?
Baldelli: It is, because you care. When you care about someone, you want them to do well and it’s personal. That being said, I watch his games probably the way everyone in the family supported me and watched my games over the years. I finally get a chance to do it myself. It’s cool. And it’s a fun to actually have a vested interest. It goes beyond sports. You want them to be happy, you want them to do well. I watch all of his games, either on the internet or TV.
BSJ: You live most of the year in the St. Pete area. How different is the fan experience for people there compared to what it was like in New England?
Baldelli: When you grow up in New England, you get used to what New England is. The passion, the intensity that the fans have for sports, it’s not like that in other places. It’s kind of a different world. It’s hard, I bet, for those fans to imagine what it’s like in other places if that’s all you’re used to. In Rhode Island or Massachusetts, when you have a baby, they get a Red Sox hat. And it’s pretty special. The pulse of the entire area in some ways is so reliant on the sports teams and how they’re doing. That can be good or bad, I guess. They’ve had this great run for the last 20 years, which makes it all the more fun. You look at some other places that have the same kind of passion but not the same success, and there aren’t as many smiles and it’s not quite as fun. The day-to-day mood changes on (how the teams do).
BSJ: You also have become an investor in horses, and some race?
Baldelli: Yeah, I have a few horses. I love animals. I’ve always been interested (in horse racing) from afar, but I didn’t have the time. When I stopped playing, I decided to purchase a couple of mares and breed them. Really, I breed mares and bring the foals to auction and I have a couple of fillies that race, as well. First and foremost, I have an appreciation for the animals. I loved scouting when I was done playing – I love going out and evaluating players and this is kind of similar in some ways. You get the same taste when you’re out there looking at the horses. I keep a few. I have one that is racing right now and hopefully, she’ll be a nice broodmare someday. She ran really well in a nice stakes race at Kentucky Downs and raced at Del Mar. She’s doing well. We’ll see. It’s a pretty cool way to enjoy time away from the game.’’