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Sight of Rocco Baldelli in red will take some getting used to for Tampa Bay Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — There was an easy way to tell how the first round of the Rocco reunion tour went Friday.

"I got more hugs today than I got in a long time," said Rocco Baldelli, the longtime and popular Ray who is now a Red Sox. "It was really nice."

Baldelli was greeted warmly at every step by the Rays, and he did okay by his new employer, too, with a walk and an RBI single.

As pleased as the Rays were to see Baldelli, who signed with the Sox as a free agent, many were struck by the sight of him wearing red.

"He looked so much different in another uniform," Rays C Dioner Navarro said.

"It was weird," said right-handed starter Jeff Niemann, who admitted he tried to put a little extra on his fastball for the first inning at-bat that ended in a flyout. "I had to, you know."

Rays manager Joe Maddon said he had a "great conversation" with Baldelli and sincerely wished him well, and that he thinks it will be a good match for Baldelli, a native Rhode Islander, to play in Boston.

Rays head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield spoke passionately and emotionally about all the time they spent together, and tears they shared, trying to figure out what was wrong and how to deal with Baldelli's fatigue-related problems, accumulating a medical file that swelled past 3,000 pages.

"It kills me to see him in another uniform, but I wish him the best," Porterfield said. "I think anybody that would have seen him when he was at his rock bottom would have done the same for him."

Baldelli said that without Porterfield's assistance: "I don't know for a fact that I'd be out here playing if he didn't put in the effort that he did. I don't know any other way to put it."

With three more exhibitions and 18 regular-season meetings, the novelty of Baldelli in Boston may wear off. But Friday it was just different.

"It's strange a little bit," Baldelli said. "I've been in one place my whole career, but this is the reality of the situation — I play for the Red Sox now. They're all still my friends even though I'm competing against them now."

FLOWING BETTER: Traffic movement appeared to be significantly improved, as promised, the result of several changes team, county and police officials made after Wednesday's opener.

Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt said they "more then doubled" the number of parking lot attendants and decreased the frequency of times traffic was stopped to allow fans who parked at the fairgrounds to cross El Jobean Road. Plus, people came earlier since gates were open earlier.

"It was just a world of difference," Kalt said. "We're very pleased with how the parking operation ran today."

WIN ONE: After scoring one run in their first two games, the Rays jumped to a 10-0 lead in three innings and notched their first spring win 12-4. … 3B Evan Longoria and 1B Chris Richard homered. … CF Fernando Perez had two hits and set up the first run when he stole second then went to third on an errant throw. … Maddon said Niemann, a candidate for the No. 5 starter spot, did well and was "very sharp" over his two innings. … The Rays had a messy fifth, allowing four runs on two errors. SS Tim Beckham, the 19-year-old top draft pick getting his first action, made one on the first ball hit to him. Later, he beat out an infield roller for his first hit.

GAME SIX?: The Rays and Phillies meet today for the first time since the World Series, but only three of the Rays in uniform then are scheduled to be in Clearwater: INF Willy Aybar, LHP J.P. Howell and Perez. "Who knows," Perez said. "It may bring back some interesting thoughts."

The bigger story will be the return of former Phillie Pat Burrell, who is scheduled to DH for the Rays.

MISCELLANY: Howell will pitch an inning today, stay at his St. Petersburg place tonight then report to the Team USA training camp in Clearwater on Sunday in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. … Aybar leaves Sunday to join the Dominican team in Jupiter. … OF Matt Joyce, sidelined with a right calf injury, is improving and could be on the field next week, Maddon said.

Sight of Rocco Baldelli in red will take some getting used to for Tampa Bay Rays 02/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 6:20am]

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