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Rays outfielder Baldelli's outlook is uncertain

ST. PETERSBURG — Even after tests "for everything you can test for," visits to numerous specialists and a series of invasive procedures, Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli still isn't sure exactly what's wrong. But he knows enough about what isn't right, a feeling of extreme fatigue after even minimal physical activity, to acknowledge Wednesday that it's unclear when, or if, he will be able to resume his once-promising baseball career.

Baldelli, 26, will be sidelined indefinitely — though he stopped short of retiring — as he and the Rays continue to further identify, treat or cure a condition considered "extremely rare" for a professional athlete.

The consensus — though not absolute — diagnosis, Baldelli said, is that he has "some type of metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities," the result of his body "not making or producing or storing (the chemical adenosine triphosphate, an energy source for muscles) the right way," which prevents the muscles in his legs from working and recovering properly.

"I think the best way to describe it is literal muscle fatigue and cramping way before my body should be feeling these things," Baldelli said. "I would go out there and I was pretty much incapable of doing basic baseball activities, running and hitting and throwing."

Baldelli was once considered among the Rays brightest future stars, offering an enticing mix of power and speed with an engaging personality that quickly made him a fan favorite, but an assortment of injuries has limited him to just 127 of the team's 486 games the past three seasons.

Baldelli seemed on the verge of tears at points in discussing details of his condition for the first time Wednesday in a cramped room under the stadium. He indicated it is not considered life-threatening, but acknowledged the frustrations of not knowing exactly what is wrong, dealing with an inquisitive — and sometimes skeptical — public, and not knowing whether he will ever feel well enough to return to the field.

"Do I believe I'll play again? I'm going to do everything in my power to play again," Baldelli said.

Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the Rays were "cautiously optimistic" Baldelli would return, but admitted he had no "medical reason" to feel that way.

"With Rocco's determination, with our training staff, with modern medicine the way it is, I refuse to believe there's not a way we can figure this out," Friedman said. "It may prove to be naive. It may prove to be right. We don't know yet."

Baldelli will be placed on the disabled list and the Rays will seek to identify a replacement to platoon with Jonny Gomes in rightfield while providing depth at other outfield spots and designated hitter, with John Rodriguez and Jon Weber the top in-camp candidates.

Baldelli said it's not clear when he first became affected, suggesting it may have been as far back as two years ago, when he started having repeated hamstring problems.

Baldelli said he felt strong coming into spring training, but during daily workouts quickly wore down. In analogy, consider a cellphone battery that won't hold a charge — it's plugged in all night and the next morning goes dead in five minutes.

"I feel like I've done a serious workout after a very short period of time, and it's a very odd feeling," Baldelli said. "I try not to be too dramatic when I explain what's going on, but it's not easy when you're out on the field for a very short period of time and you're done, and you're not really worth anything else out there. That's a tough thing to handle because you wonder why."

Baldelli will continue to make his $2.25-million salary this season. And though Friedman said the Rays "will likely" decline his 2009 option by the April 1 deadline and pay a $4-million buyout, they plan to keep Baldelli in their organization and hope to have him back on the field.

"It's hard," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's harder for him than for us. It's frustrating for us; it's a career for him. It's a way of life. It's supporting his family in the future. It's difficult."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

. fast facts

What's wrong
with Baldelli?

The problems that cause the type of fatigue Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli describes start deep within the muscle, where its fuel is produced.

Lipids and glycogens — fats and sugars — are broken down. Inside almost every cell of the body are mitochondria, which receive the breakdown products and turn them into a chemical called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, the substance that makes muscles contract.

In some metabolic disorders, the body can't break down lipids or glycogen. In mitochondrial disorders, the mitochondria can't produce ATP properly.

"So the muscle has less fuel, or can make the fuel less efficiently," said Dr. Lara Katzin, an associate professor of neurology at the University of South Florida who studies neuromuscular diseases but is not treating Baldelli.

Lisa Greene, Times staff writer

Rays outfielder Baldelli's outlook is uncertain 03/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 9:42am]
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