PORT CHARLOTTE — More than five hours after his first at-bat in his latest comeback, Rocco Baldelli was finally leaving the dugout.
The Charlotte Stone Crabs had persevered for 19 innings, and Monday night had come and gone. With the rest of the team hurrying up the rightfield line for the clubhouse beyond the outfield wall, it was Baldelli who stopped to sign autographs for a handful of kids.
Here, in a nearly empty Class A ballpark in the middle of the night with billboard-sized posters of contemporaries such as Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and James Shields seemingly mocking him over his left shoulder, Baldelli seemed utterly at peace.
It is true, his future might as well be a thing of the past. He has no expectations of tomorrow, just as he has few regrets about yesterday. Once, it seemed Baldelli would be the star of so many stories and seasons to come. He had the name. The smile. The game. He had it all. And then slowly, cruelly, his ambitions were picked apart as his body, time and again, betrayed him.
Which is why he has come to understand that today is his only certainty. And, to be honest, today is fine with him. Even if the Rays are in Cleveland while he'll be in Clearwater wearing the uniform of a minor-league team with no promises of what's to come.
"I don't know how to quit when I'm dealing with something I love," Baldelli said later that night in the Port Charlotte clubhouse as the clock inched toward 1 a.m. "Especially baseball. It's been very good to me. A lot of people have been very good to me in the game. I owe it to them, as well as myself, to get out there and play."
By now, you are probably familiar with the litany of heartbreak. The knee surgery in 2004. The elbow surgery in '05. The mysterious muscle pulls and stamina issues in 2007-08, and the increasingly frightening search for an elusive diagnosis.
Baldelli finally made it back to the big leagues with the Rays in the fall of '08, and spent last season with the Red Sox. But even now, the physical issues persist. The diagnosis of channelopathy — a disease that can cause severe muscle fatigue — means he can be, at best, a part-time player. And a shoulder injury suffered midway through 2009 kept him off the field for the first half of this season.
The hope now is that Baldelli, 28, can possibly be a designated hitter against left-handers and an emergency outfielder for the Rays in the final month or two of the season. That is, if he can pull his game together quickly enough.
Before Monday night, he had not seen a fastball or a breaking pitch in more than nine months. With no extended spring workouts to be had, Baldelli is being thrown in the middle of a minor-league season with minimal preparation.
It will take at least a couple of weeks, and maybe more, before he'll be ready to see big-league pitching. But if there is one thing Baldelli is confident about, it is his ability to hit. Through all the injuries, through all the stops and starts on the disabled list, he has never lost his stroke.
And, though he briefly retired in the spring of 2008 before the cause of his muscle fatigue was discovered, Baldelli said he never thought about walking away as he traveled from Port Charlotte to Montgomery (Ala.) to Durham (N.C.) to Bowling Green (Ky.) working as a minor-league instructor for the Rays in recent months. This is his sixth consecutive season interrupted or delayed by ailments, and he has come to grips with the annoyance of being forever in a holding pattern.
"I've always been tired of waiting. Always been tired of my body not feeling like I know it should," Baldelli said. "But I don't think in these last six months that I've thought any harder about retirement than I did the first day I ever suited up."
A decade after he was the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft (a little behind Adrian Gonzalez and a little ahead of Chase Utley), Baldelli remains one of the most popular players to have worn a Rays uniform. It is not his accomplishments, for they are far short of expectations. And it is not totally due to sympathy, although that plays a part.
I think a lot of it has to do with the way Baldelli has carried himself.
He was humble as a budding star, and stoic as a declining athlete. He is not the type to casually spill his heart, but his down-to-earth attitude and gracious manner have shone through all of his setbacks. Baldelli has been through more than most of us will ever know, and there is an appreciation in the bleachers for the way he has handled it all.
"As a player, early in my career especially, you try not to think about anything besides what you have to do on the field. So you don't really think about how people perceive you. Honestly, you don't even care," Baldelli said. "My priority was never to be the most loved player out there. But, you know what, over time you start to realize there are a lot of people out there who care about you and who wish the best for you. It's something that takes time for you to appreciate.
"By now, I'm to the point where I can look at it — and I don't like to think I'm some big thing that people out in the public care about — but I've met a lot of people and been in contact with a lot of people in the St. Pete-Tampa area, and everywhere to be honest. And it took a little time, but I think I do know now that there are a lot of people out there pulling for me, and it makes me feel good."
The channelopathy will always be an issue. The shoulder will too. Baldelli says there's so much wrong with the shoulder it will eventually need surgery to correct, and he figures that will be the end of his career.
So, for now, he is worrying only about this day. This month. This season.
"I'd be very happy to do what I did in 2008," Baldelli said. "If I come back and help the team win one game, I would be pretty satisfied with myself."