Friday, August 8, 2008

Rocco Baldelli - Getting Back In The Game

Another Rhode Island connection in the article below about Rocco Baldelli's struggles return from injury and a mysterious disorder. If the Rays can add Baldelli and pitcher David Price to their team down the stretch, then they could have two players who can really give them a better chance of making the playoffs. Here is the story, via the NY Times:

With a bird’s-nest beard over his increasingly haggard complexion, Rocco Baldelli looks like a castaway, cut off from the world he knew.

This is no accident. Once a youthful and vibrant star outfielder for Tampa Bay, Baldelli has spent almost two years in his own surreality show while a mysterious cell disorder has left him exhausted, unable to run or swing, and unsure if he will even live normally. Fans’ dreams of Joe DiMaggio, which he conjured as a rookie sensation in 2003, gave way to nightmares of Lou Gehrig.

Baldelli has worked his way back to the point where he could be activated any day. But he will return to a different world, one in which the Rays are leading their division, and one in which, at 26, Baldelli understands he probably will never again be the athlete he once was.

“My body isn’t able to do what I’d like it to do or what I could do as of a couple of years ago,” Baldelli said Wednesday before the Rays beat the Cleveland Indians, 10-7, before flying to the West Coast. “But I didn’t know if I’d ever play again. I was having trouble swinging at all, in batting practice. I was thinking: ‘This is awful. How am I going to do this? How am I ever going to play baseball anymore?’ ”

Chronic exhaustion and muscle cramps sidelined Baldelli for most of last season. By the end of the year, his condition was maddeningly mysterious. Baldelli could not run without his hamstrings feeling as if they would tear in half; he would wake up almost unable to move because his leg muscles seized up; and the slightest workout left him too exhausted to even swing a bat. The answer vacuum was filled by speculation — shared by team executives and even Baldelli himself — that he might have either multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“You got scared for his life — no one knew what it was,” said the Rays’ current center fielder, B. J. Upton. Baldelli added, “It makes you think about a lot of things you never thought about before.”

It also made him try anything to get a diagnosis. He visited maybe 10 doctors, and underwent dozens of tests. Baldelli pulled up his uniform sleeve and shorts to reveal nasty four-inch scars on his left biceps and both thighs — all from tissue biopsies where doctors cut out muscle to try to learn what was going on.

Last November, a plausible theory emerged: mitochondrial disease, a disorder in which cells do not properly turn food and oxygen into adenosine triphosphate, which produces energy. The primarily genetic condition, which forced the cyclist Greg LeMond to retire in 1994, can appear at any age and shares some characteristics with diseases commonly associated with aging, like Parkinson’s disease, according to the Web site of the Cleveland Clinic.

“If he were a basketball player, forget it, his career’s over,” the Rays trainer Ron Porterfield said. “Can you get along with it in baseball? That’s what we’re hopeful about.”

There is no cure for the condition, but Baldelli’s daily mix of about 10 medications and nutritional supplements, increased sleep and better hydration and diet have helped mollify its effects. Baldelli spent this season’s first half learning how to manage his situation, to the point where he was able to play in parts of 13 rehabilitation games for the Rays’ Class AA affiliate last month.

Baldelli hit .297 with three home runs and eight runs batted in in 37 at-bats, but he still was not the Rocco Baldelli most baseball fans recall from 2003. At 21, Baldelli was a blindingly fast, spectacular athlete who had been an all-state volleyball and basketball player in high school and was expected to develop power with age. Comparisons to DiMaggio might have been absurd, but those to Dale Murphy were not.

Knee and elbow injuries cost Baldelli all but 92 games of the 2005 and 2006 seasons, and hamstring problems — perhaps related to the mitochondrial disorder — knocked him out after 35 games last year.

If Baldelli emerges from his long tunnel this weekend in Seattle, which club officials described as probable but not necessarily expected, his role will remain limited. He probably will not have the vigor to play a full nine innings, but he could serve as a designated hitter or as a pinch-hitter against left-handers. He could also play the late innings on defense.

Baldelli’s energy will be so precious that he will work out mostly in ballpark and hotel swimming pools, where the water can buoy his legs. “The thing that’s tough is that you can’t really exercise him,” Porterfield said.

Baldelli said he would take any playing time at this point. He boarded the team’s charter to Seattle on Wednesday hoping merely to be activated on the trip — to play one game, even one inning — so that he can feel part of the team again and build toward contributing to the pennant race.

“I’ve gone through so many difficult times, ups and downs, that I don’t really get antsy, I don’t get wary,” Baldelli said of the anticipation. “It’s almost like the stuff I’ve been through has kind of numbed me.”

Members of the Rays, several of whom grew beards to show support for Baldelli, said his first at-bat would be one of the most special moments in the team’s season. The veteran Cliff Floyd said, “We might have to have some Kleenexes in the dugout.”

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