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No one knows the pain of waiting quite like Rocco Baldelli

ST. PETERSBURG — The cure, such as it is, still awaits Rocco Baldelli.

It has nothing to do with a fistful of pills. Or specialists offering their best guesses. All these months, all this heartache later, Baldelli's best hope for a cure might just be this familiar ballfield in front of him.

"I realize I've been able to do a lot of great things in my life. I've done things not many people get the chance to do," Baldelli said, while sitting in the Rays' dugout Monday. "But it makes you a little greedy, too. Maybe greedy isn't the right word, but it makes you want to get back. I've missed it so much. I don't get (ticked) off. You know what I get? I get sad. I get sad because I love this game.

"I've spent many nights thinking about this kind of stuff."

The assumption had been that Baldelli might be activated Monday night for the Rays game against the Indians. But, because of other injury concerns on the roster, the Rays now appear to be in a wait-and-see mode.

And, bless his heart, no one knows how to wait like Rocco.

The counter is now up to 235 consecutive games missed due to injury or illness. And 470 of his last 597 games. He has nearly six years of major-league service and about half has been spent on the disabled list.

By now, he no longer thinks about the future. He has little expectation of being the centerfielder Vince Naimoli once linked, absurdly early, to Joe DiMaggio. Today, Baldelli would just be happy to be called a ballplayer.

He may be on the verge of being activated, but he is not recovered. This rare muscle condition, most closely related to mitochondrial myopathy, has not gone away. Instead, Baldelli has learned to live with it. On his better days, he might say he is controlling it.

"I try not to be dramatic, but it really is a day to day thing," Baldelli said. "I'm taking my medications. You know how when you're sick, you might miss a dose? I don't miss a day. I can't miss. I'm taking care of my body like never before because I have no choice. I can't get dehydrated. I try not to drink coffee. I get a ton of sleep now.

"Things I wasn't worried about a couple of years ago are now make-or-break as to whether I'm going to be able to play or not."

So how many pill bottles are in his medicine closet?

"I take … I don't even want to say it," Baldelli said. "I take medications. Plural."

Maybe you had your doubts after the knee surgery. Or the elbow surgery. Maybe you were skeptical after the hamstring problems, and maybe you wrote him off after the sort-of-diagnosis of the mitochondrial disorder this spring.

But here's the catch: At various times, Baldelli has felt the same way as you.

There were the times when his legs were not strong enough to make it through batting practice, and he wondered how he could ever be a major-league hitter again.

There were a bunch of hospitals, but no easy solutions. A ton of tests, but no discernible results. There was concern for his career, and fear for his quality of life.

"We're all very concerned for his future," said his father, Dan Baldelli. "Will this be a debilitating thing in five years? Will it be something we find the right medicine for? Baseball is baseball. It's a great game, but it's not my biggest concern right now.

"It's a helpless feeling. I can't even imagine the poor parents who have younger children with even more serious conditions. You feel like you've failed your child because you can't help them. It's sad."

Baldelli knows not everyone understands. He accepts that some people think he is soft. So you ask him, why doesn't he explain his condition in more detail? Why doesn't he tell people about his muscles cramping or locking up to the point he can barely walk? Why won't he admit his condition can sometimes be similar to a 26-year-old premier athlete trapped in the body of a 60-year-old?

"It's the kind of thing where, if you're not familiar with it, it doesn't sound too concerning," he said. "Muscle fatigue. How bad is that? But that's okay. I'm not looking for sympathy from anyone. Even people who know me, sometimes …"

His voice drifts off, and the message is clear. No one knows what he has been through, and it is futile trying to fully explain.

So you ask him what he expects in the coming days. How many innings can he play in the field? How many games might he be able to play in succession?

"That stuff doesn't even cross my mind anymore," he said. "I don't even worry about anything like that. It's not worth it because I don't know if I'm going to get to that point or whether I will exceed that expectation by a lot."

Before he can say another word, a baseball comes flying from the field and grazes Baldelli's ribs before whacking loudly off the Rays bench. For a few seconds, he is stunned into silence.

"That," he says, "was scary."

And, for a moment, you wonder if he was talking about the ball or his future.

No one knows the pain of waiting quite like Rocco Baldelli 08/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 12:24pm]
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