Rounding the bases at Fenway Park on Monday had to feel a bit surreal for Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli.
Baldelli, a Rhode Island native, has taken an even more unlikely path to the American League Championship Series than the rest of his Rays teammates.
It wasn’t that long ago that it looked like the 27-year-old’s career would be over.
Baldelli debuted in the big leagues in 2003 with the Rays with a lot of hype. The comparisons to Joe DiMaggio seemed as appropriate as … well, an Italian named Rocco. Besides sharing their Italian descent, they were both outfielders whose games blended speed and power. They both even wore the No. 5. One scout with 50 years of major league experience went as far as to call him "Joe’s twin."
But injuries have hampered him. He sports a career .282 average, but he has struggled to stay on the field. Baldelli missed the entire 2005 season after Tommy John surgery and played in only 35 games in 2007 due to a lingering hamstring problem.
Baldelli underwent a battery of medical tests in the offseason prior to this year looking for answers. He complained of lingering muscle problems and constant fatigue after short workouts.
Doctors determined that he had a mitochondrial disorder, blaming his past injury problems on that. But they were unable to come up with an exact diagnosis, making recovery very difficult for Baldelli.
He tried to come back in spring training this year but couldn’t. His career was in doubt, and the Rays declined to pick up his contract option for 2009.
But Baldelli found hope in vitamins and supplements, which seemed to help him feel better. After a couple of months, Baldelli was able to get back on the field. In August, without much publicity, he suddenly returned to the big leagues with Rays.
And there he was Monday at Fenway, in front of what could be considered a hometown crowd for the New Englander. After playing just 28 games in the regular season – most of them as a pinch-hitter – he homered over the Green Monster to help lift a team known for losing to a 2-1 ALCS series lead. His homer – off of another great story in lymphoma survivor Jon Lester – puts Tampa just two wins shy of a World Series berth.
"To start at the bottom and say that you were there those years and work your way all the way back up to where we’re at now," he told the Associated Press after the game, "that’s about as rewarding a feeling, I think, as you can get.’
His career had reached rock bottom this season. His story fits the usual cellar-dwelling Rays well.