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Some sympathy, and likely farewell, for Rays' Rocco

After all of this time, perhaps you have run out of tears for Rocco Baldelli. After all of these injuries, perhaps you are no longer able to feel his pain.

It is a cold world, and his is an old story, and by now, perhaps you are eager to see the Rays move along without him. Baldelli has been injured for so long now, and he has said goodbye so many times, that perhaps you have become numbed to the continued ache of a lost career.

Even for a good guy, even for a talented player, sympathy has a shelf life. And so it is understandable that so many fans seem to have become weary of Baldelli's continuing struggles.

As for me, I would invite you to try one more time to feel the sadness of an athlete who cannot bear up to his profession. Because Baldelli, 26, is a
better guy than most people realize. Because he is a better player than most people remember. Because none of this is any of his doing.

Most of all, because this time, it feels different.

This time, it feels as if we are nearing the end of the story.

The odds are against Baldelli now. With every day that he misses, with every doctor who is baffled by his condition, it becomes less likely that you will see him again in a major-league uniform.

Before his latest setback, it always seemed that if he had enough time, and if he found the right doctor, Baldelli would make it back. Perhaps he would never be durable enough to live up to his potential, but eventually, it seemed there would be a time for him, and a place.

As Baldelli stood inside a cramped, hot room at Al Lang Field on Wednesday morning, however, his voice seemed to come from somewhere far, far away. He stumbled over a few medical terms, and he tried to describe a few emotions. And then he repeated the words that have defined his career: disabled list.

And with a heavy sigh, here we go again. Anymore, it is not news that Baldelli is on the disabled list. It will be news when he is not.

When a player talks about missing an indefinite amount of time because of an unspecified condition, it is hard to see his future as anything but vague. As Baldelli talked, you could not help but wonder: Is it 30 percent that Baldelli makes it back this time? Is it 10 percent?

And whatever the number, isn't it time that the Rays — and everyone else, for that matter — prepare as if it is not going to happen?

That conclusion should not come without a trace of sorrow. In a story that has become repetitive, that bears repeating, too. No one who has been around Baldelli doubts his desire or his determination. Yes, sports is filled with players who allow their vices to destroy their careers and, yes, there are those who seem to lose their love of the game once the big paydays begin. No one should suggest those things of Baldelli, either.

That's the sadness here. The same body that was gifted enough to get Baldelli to the big leagues is not sturdy enough to hold up to the job requirements. Baldelli's body isn't just fragile, it is flawed. For whatever reason, it does not produce enough of a chemical (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) to allow his muscles to recover. The result is that a short workout leaves a young man feeling like an old one.

Yet, it seems a great many fans lost their empathy for Baldelli a few injuries back. Perhaps it is because other talented athletes have arrived in the Rays outfield since. Perhaps it is because there was no grisly highlight or no visible scarring to demonstrate his pain. Perhaps it is because the condition is such a rare one. Perhaps it says more about society's condition than it does Baldelli's.

The closer you are to Baldelli, the more you realize what ability is being unused, the easier it is to retain sympathy.

"Cruel,'' is the word Rays manager Joe Maddon uses. And it fits. Maddon says a healthy Baldelli is among the top 20 players in the American League.

On the other hand, it has been a very long time since the Rays have seen a healthy Baldelli. In the past three years, he has missed 359 of the team's 486 games. Currently, he has missed his team's past 124 games, which is still considerably short of the 221 in a row he missed before returning in 2006.

For the Rays, it is time to look around for another proven outfielder. No, not a defensive replacement who can give you a few innings until Baldelli is back, but a proven player who can, at the very least, platoon with Jonny Gomes (and occasionally, Cliff Floyd). As opening day gets closer, the Rays owe it to themselves to look closely at every other roster of every other major-league team.

And if Baldelli does beat the odds to make it back? Great.

But as much as the Rays may want him to catch up, it is time to move along without him.

Some sympathy, and likely farewell, for Rays' Rocco 03/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 11:20am]
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