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A special time for Baldelli

Rocco Baldelli, 0-for-6 in his career against Boston left-hander Jon Lester to this point, drives home Willy Aybar for a 2-1 lead.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Rocco Baldelli, 0-for-6 in his career against Boston left-hander Jon Lester to this point, drives home Willy Aybar for a 2-1 lead.

ST. PETERSBURG

On the team that defied belief, his story was more remarkable than the rest.

A story that begins with hope, flirted with despair and turned into a fairy tale before our eyes in Game 7.

It has been a long time since Rocco Baldelli was the face of this franchise, but in the most important game in Tampa Bay history, he returned Sunday night as this team's heart.

"There are a lot of great human interest stories but I think he surpasses all of them," said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "There's nobody in America who isn't rooting for Rocco."

And in the final game of the American League Championship Series, Baldelli gave everyone a moment to cherish. With the score tied in the fifth inning, he lined a single to leftfield to drive in the eventual winning run in Tampa Bay's 3-1 victory against the Red Sox.

Tropicana Field seemed to shake from the noise, but Baldelli showed almost no emotion as he rounded first. No fist pump. No shout. Just a slight grin, and the longest journey ever covered in 90 feet.

"I never thought this was possible," his father, Dan Baldelli, said. "I didn't think he was ever going to play again. We just had no answers, even up until June we still weren't sure if he could ever come back."

Seven months ago, Baldelli stood in a hot, cramped exercise room underneath the bleachers at Al Lang Field and announced he was temporarily stepping away from the game.

His voice was grim and his optimism was gone. Baldelli spoke of coming back, but it seemed as if the end had already arrived. He was a 26-year-old premier athlete living in the body of an old man.

"The guy thought he was going to die," said Rays trainer Ron Porterfield, who worked countless hours with medical specialists around the country to find a solution to Baldelli's strange muscle disorder. "To come back from where he was and get the winning RBI on this stage? It's just unbelievable."

The words are not tossed around lightly. For those who lived it, this story is beyond belief.

For months, Baldelli flew around the country and even across its borders, looking for answers. He was poked, probed and tested for every conceivable disease, but answers seemed impossible to find. At some point, Rocco told his father he could accept it if the next doctor was the one who would finally tell him he was going to die.

Once, after leaving the Cleveland Clinic where doctors had taken another biopsy sample, Rocco and his father sat on an airplane bound for uncertainty.

He is not easily moved to tears, but in the middle of the airplane on that spring day, Dan inexplicably began to cry.

"I don't know why it hit me at that moment," Dan said Sunday evening. "We were just so scared."

Now, a half-year and a life's reprieve later, Baldelli is a ballplayer again.

He will likely never again be the hot shot prospect the Rays chose with the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft. His condition has been diagnosed — it is a rare muscle disease closely related to mitochondrial myopathy — but it is not cured. Baldelli, now 27, has simply learned how to manage it.

The truth is, this disease still has a grip on his life. He takes a fistful of pills daily. He has to stay away from caffeine and tries to sleep as much as a pre-schooler.

Because of his condition, Baldelli cannot play a lot of defense, or play many games in succession. His job is to hit left-handed pitching, and so he got the rare start in Game 7 against Boston's Jon Lester.

When he batted in the fifth, Baldelli was 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in his career against Lester. The score was tied and the Rays had runners on first and second when Baldelli lined a pitch between the third baseman and the shortstop and Willy Aybar stormed home.

"It's so unbelievable, I don't want to take the time to think about it now," Baldelli said on the field as teammates danced and sprayed champagne around him. "This is the most fun I've had playing baseball at any level. This is what I came back for. I wanted to prove to myself that I could play, but I wanted to help this team win a World Series."

The beauty of Game 7 is the heroes are not beholden to a script.

Who would have picked Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to hit a home run in the top of the ninth to beat the Mets in the 2006 NLCS? Or Francisco Cabrera, with his 10 regular-season at-bats, to drive in the winning run for the Braves in the bottom of the ninth against the Pirates in 1992?

Who would have guessed that St. Louis pitcher Danny Cox would get the last shutout of his major-league career in a Game 7 against the Giants in 1987?

And now a new fairy tale has been written.

About a boy from Rhode Island who had his dream taken away from him, but never stopped believing in a world with happy endings.

A special time for Baldelli 10/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 3:19pm]
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