Friday, February 27, 2009

Rays Trainer Went Above & Beyond For Rocco Baldelli

Nice piece about the Tampa Bay Rays trainer who helped Rocco Baldelli make his comeback, via Fox Sports:

His greatest hope also is his biggest fear. Allow Ron Porterfield, the head trainer for the Tampa Bay Rays, to explain. Porterfield, 44, spent more than a year trying to help outfielder Rocco Baldelli play baseball again. Baldelli, 27, had a condition that caused extreme fatigue after physical activity.

Initially, Porterfield worried that Baldelli's condition might not only be career-ending, but also life-threatening. But Baldelli returned late last season, producing a series of unforgettable moments for the American League champions, moments that brought tears to Porterfield's eyes.

Porterfield's greatest hope — after the countless hours he spent researching Baldelli's condition, speaking with doctors from all over the country, setting up appointments, purchasing supplements, jumping out of bed at night thinking, "What else can I do?" — is that Baldelli finally will become the player the Rays envisioned when they drafted him with the sixth overall pick in 2000.

His biggest fear is that such a breakthrough will occur now that Baldelli has signed with the Boston Red Sox; that somehow, the Red Sox's trainers and doctors will hit on just the right combination of treatments and supplements to bring out the best in Baldelli. "I know I can't worry about that," Porterfield says. "In all honesty, I hope it happens."

It is not unusual for baseball trainers and players to form close bonds. They work together through spring training, the regular season and possibly the postseason, then stay in touch during the winter. The best trainers not only help players get the most out of their bodies, but also serve as sounding boards and even confidantes. Porterfield was all that for Baldelli and more. "I've talked to him more than any person in my life — the entire time I was there, but especially over the last couple of years," Baldelli says.

Baldelli, Porterfield says, always had strange injuries, weird tissue problems; he was the type of player that trainers call a "bad-tissue issue." Porterfield, entering his 13th season with the Rays, fourth as head trainer, eventually came to realize that Baldelli was just a slow healer.

Then came Aug. 2007. Baldelli was on a rehabilitation assignment with the Rays' Class A affiliate in Vero Beach, Fla., trying to recover from a hamstring injury. The assignment lasted two games. Baldelli, calling it "one of the low points of my career," became emotional when he realized that he was not physically capable of playing. "I'll never forget it," Porterfield says. "It was 4:30 in the afternoon. All I could think about was, What did Lou Gehrig go through? I was worried that he had ALS, MS, something.

"That was the turning point where I said, 'We've got a problem and it's beyond my realm.' My big thing was trying to calm him down, say, 'Hey, Rocc, we're going to be OK,' stay very positive." Porterfield recalls telling Baldelli to find a private spot and call him back. "He did. He was in utter distress," Porterfield says. "We talked and talked and talked. The whole time I'm thinking, 'Where do I go from here?' I finally got off the phone with him. I had to cut it off. It was game time. 7 o'clock."

Nick Paparesta, then the Rays' rehabiliation coordinator and now an assistant trainer, was with Baldelli in Vero. Porterfield recalls telling Paparesta: Bring Rocco back to St. Petersburg. And don't let him drive. That night, Porterfield began discussing a plan for Baldelli with the Rays' team doctor, Michael Reilly. The next day, Baldelli visited an endocrinologist in St. Petersburg and began his long search for answers.

"That winter, we spent thousands of hours on the phone, together, going somewhere," Porterfield says. "I was Googling everything I could possibly think of. His file is 3,000 pages on that issue alone." Baldelli underwent a muscle biopsy on his left biceps and later had one on each quad. He visited doctors in New York, Dallas and Cleveland. But a quick diagnosis proved elusive. Porterfield says analyzing muscle tissue is comparable to marinating steak, only a more prolonged process. "I know I was frustrated," Baldelli recalls. "I also know that he was frustrated. As someone in the medical field, you're used to getting answers. There was no answer to this."

In the meantime, Baldelli began taking supplements, trying to gain energy and strength. Porterfield had pharmacies analyze the supplements to make sure Baldelli would not test positive for steroids. He also had compounds made so Baldelli could take, say, four pills instead of 12. "Ron didn't throw in the towel," says Rays pitcher Andy Sonnanstine, a close friend of Baldelli's. "He was always looking for new ways to help Rocco out."

In January, Baldelli finally got his diagnosis — mitochondrial disorder. Porterfield designed a program for him to participate in spring training. He even spoke with cyclist Greg LeMond, the only other known elite athlete who had a similar condition. Baldelli kept trying different combinations of supplements. He did water conditioning to stay off his feet. Porterfield worried that Baldelli would get hurt again once he began playing again in the minor leagues.

The Rays' goal was for Baldelli to be a September call-up. He was in the lineup, batting cleanup, on Aug. 10. Baldelli started in right field the night the Rays clinched their first postseason berth. He hit a three-run homer against the Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. And he delivered a game-tying shot against the Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series.

That was his last at-bat for Tampa Bay. The Rays paid Baldelli $9 million from 2006 to '08, a period in which he averaged only 55 games per season. They paid for him to fly all over the country seeking additional opinions and spent between $800 and $1,000 per month on his supplements, Porterfield says. When Baldelli became a free agent this offseason, the Rays tried to re-sign him, but were concerned about assuming more risk. The Red Sox guaranteed Baldelli only $500,000, but his contract includes $1.75 million in roster bonuses and $5.25 million in performance bonuses that start at 350 plate appearances and top out at 600. The Rays, needing more certainty from their fourth outfielder, signed free agent Gabe Kapler for $1,000,018, with no incentives. Kapler, 33, can play all three outfield positions for extended periods.

Baldelli's availability to the Red Sox is uncertain — he is participating in all baseball activities this spring, but not conditioning drills. He is encouraged by his revised diagnosis of channelopathy, a less severe, more treatable condition than mitochondrial disorder. "I can relax a little bit," Baldelli says. "I would get emotional thinking about my baseball career, where I thought it was going last year and the year before that. I was even more worried about my health. That was probably my No. 1 concern. And now it's not. "It's something I think about sometimes, but it doesn't consume my thoughts anymore. I feel good and I'm confident that I'll continue to feel good."

Baldelli speaks with Porterfield often; Porterfield, who is married with two children, says Baldelli is "like a son" to him. Before Baldelli signed with the Red Sox on Jan. 9, he called Porterfield out of respect and gratitude, informing his former trainer of his decision. "I'm sure we'll be friends as long as I'm playing baseball and after baseball as well," Baldelli says. Yes, even if Porterfield's greatest hope and biggest fear are realized, even if Baldelli becomes a hero in Boston and nemesis to Tampa Bay.
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