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Illness forces Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli to retire

Rocco Baldelli looked to be a future star, but injuries and a mysterious illness kept him from reaching his potential.

Times (2008)

Rocco Baldelli looked to be a future star, but injuries and a mysterious illness kept him from reaching his potential.

ST. PETERSBURG — Rocco Baldelli would have reason to spend hours, if not days, lamenting how his once promising baseball career was cut short by injury and a mysterious illness.

He won't do that, because that's not his nature. Plus, he's too busy embracing the next phase of his life.

Baldelli, 29, is expected to officially announce his retirement as a player today, as well as his new assignment as a special adviser in the Rays' front office, working in scouting and player development.

"I don't anticipate ever playing baseball again. I'm retired. The paperwork will be filed," Baldelli said Tuesday night. "And you know what. The only time I feel like it's good to retire is when you're happy to retire. And I'm happy."

Baldelli quickly became one of the most popular Rays after a blazing 2003 rookie season and a solid followup, but his career was repeatedly interrupted by a series of injuries and an unusual condition that sapped his energy and affected his muscles.

"I don't regret anything. You know what's sad is that I love to play, and I really didn't get a chance to do it as much as I wanted to," Baldelli said.

"But I don't live angrily; I live kind of happy. Why would I look at the negative aspects of everything that I've been through and live the rest of my life talking about those things that aren't the important things to me? The important things to me were all the wonderful things I got to do."

Atop that list, Baldelli said, was being part of the Rays' run to the 2008 World Series. "That made my career," he said. As for top individual moment, when pressed, he passed over two dramatic 2008 postseason home runs for the fifth-inning single that put the Rays ahead to stay in the pennant-clinching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Baldelli made the decision to retire in October after his body failed him again, with severe cramping leaving him unable to keep playing in the Rays' division series against Texas. But at the counsel of team executive vice president Andrew Friedman, he spent three months making sure it was the right move, and he is convinced it is.

"It's tough, because you almost never put playing and being an athlete behind you," Baldelli said. "But in my mind, I already feel like it's a step behind me."

As he looked back at his career over the course of a 90-minute conversation, he wanted to thank many people: Rays officials, from principal owner Stuart Sternberg down; the medical staff, headed by Ron Porterfield; teammates, family and fans. He appreciates all that has been done for him, and the opportunity being provided him now. He is eager to learn as much as he can from the other side of the game, unsure where he will end up or what he'll be doing, in baseball or in college or in business.

As Baldelli rose to the majors, it seemed he was headed for superstardom, if not quite meeting former managing general partner Vince Naimoli's comparison to a young Joe DiMaggio. He set a major-league rookie record with 40 hits in his first month in the majors and finished third in the 2003 AL rookie of the year voting.

But a hamstring strain during an otherwise solid sophomore season was a sign of what was to come, as he never played even 100 times in a season after that, and less than 25 percent of his team's total games.

There were significant injuries, such as the blown-out left knee and the right elbow that cost him the 2005 season, but it was the recurring problems, which sapped his energy and left him sore just to walk, that not only jeopardized his career but endangered his life. The first specialist he was sent to, he found out when the elevator doors opened, dealt with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"You start thinking weird, crazy thoughts," he said. "You think of every possible scenario being realistic, which is scary."

He eventually was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder, then later a less severe channelopathy, though there is still some uncertainty (though his overall long-term health appears fine). With medicine and rest he was able to return several times on a limited basis, rejoining the Rays last spring in a front-office role after spending 2009 with his hometown Red Sox, then working his way from the low minors to the majors by Sept. 1 (and homering in his first at-bat). But he knew after the playoff opener he could no longer help his team, and time to retire.

"I battled that decision in my head for a while, and that was the first time where I couldn't keep playing and look at my teammates and still be out there," Baldelli said. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it any more."

Beckham, four others to camp

Shortstop Tim Beckham, the 2008 No. 1 overall draft pick, has been invited to major-league spring training, along with four other minor-leaguers: pitchers Brian Baker and Ricky Orta and catchers Craig Albernaz and Stephen Vogt. The spring roster stands at 54, with Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez expected to be added next week.

Illness forces Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli to retire 01/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 12:40am]
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