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Dan Shaughnessy

Baldelli's energy crisis

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 27, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - He's dressing in Manny's locker, he's got Nomar's number, and he's enshrined in the Rhode Island Italian-American Hall of Fame, right there alongside Ernie DeGregorio.

Oh, and his name is Rocco.

How can he be anything but a fan favorite at Fenway Park?

Rocco Baldelli is scheduled to make his Red Sox debut against big league competition today when the club takes its show up Route 75 to play the American League champion Rays in Port Charlotte.

Nice symmetry there. Rocco played the first five years of his career with the Rays and he homered in his last game with Tampa, the final game of the 2008 World Series. He signed with the Red Sox in January, and the Sox plan to use him as a fourth outfielder - no small job on any team that employs J.D. Drew.

Most Sox fans need no introduction to Rocco. He was All-State in baseball, basketball, and volleyball at Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I. He burst onto the big league stage in 2003, hitting .289 with 11 homers, 184 hits, 78 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases. He got down the first base line faster than just about any other righthanded batter. He played center field. He was likened to a young Joe DiMaggio, which seemed a little lofty, even then. But there was a ton of potential.

Baldelli played 156 games in his rookie season. His injuries started a year later and he played 136 games. In 2005, he did not play at all because of a torn ACL in his left knee and a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He came back for 92 games in 2006, then disappeared again. He played 35 games in 2007. Then 28 games last season.

What's wrong with Rocco? He's not sure himself. It's tough for a young athlete to explain chronic low energy.

Baldelli is only 27 years old. He's 6 feet 4 inches, weighs 200 pounds, and looks healthy enough for an 80-hour week on the loading dock. But he's got something that won't allow him to play baseball full time anymore. And the Rays let him go because they couldn't live with the uncertainty and didn't want to match money incentives offered by the Red Sox.

"The way things played out, I think this was the best situation for me," Baldelli said yesterday after taking extra batting practice.

According to Baldelli's bio in the Red Sox press guide, he suffers from "a mitochondrial disorder, a condition that slows muscle recovery and causes fatigue."

Tests conducted in Cleveland last December indicate Baldelli suffers from channelopathy, a protein irregularity that is considered less serious than mitochondrial disorder.

"I don't want to get into medical stuff," he said. "It's difficult to explain. I'm not really a doctor and it's not like it's a one-word answer. It's tough for me to give a brief answer when I'm talking about this stuff, so usually I stay away from it. But I did go to Cleveland and I got what I would call a rediagnosis. I would not say I was misdiagnosed. At the time, with the information they had, I think it was the best they could do.

"Right now I feel many times better than I did last year. Last year I was still pushing myself because I wasn't fully aware what I was dealing with and I wasn't comfortable feeling the way that I was. So I was halfway trying to push myself to do more and more, and instead of getting better, I was going the other way."

So how do we put this in layman's terms?

"It's tough," Baldelli said. "I don't know if there is a layman's way to describe it. It's almost impossible. My muscles get tired, but I prefer not to even say things like that because I don't want that to be the headline of the story. That's why I don't really get into it much. It's tough for me to explain to other people exactly what's going on."

Does Baldelli have any emotions about playing against the Rays today?

"It will be nice to see everyone," he said. "I have a lot of friends over there, and it was a really good time."

Baldelli is polite, almost shy when dealing with the media. He'll deliver words and fill the sound bite for the 11 o'clock news, but strives to say as little as possible. This makes him a perfect fit for the 2009 Sox. Theo and his guys have assembled a group that is the polar opposite of the 2004 Idiots. No more wild and crazy quotes. No more Jesus hairdos or Jack Daniel's shots.

Rocco won't admit to rooting hard for the Red Sox or even the Providence Friars when he was growing up. He says he was busy being a player, not a fan. And he's not going to get all sentimental about playing outfield for the Olde Towne Team. It's a good fit because the Sox need help, the Sox win, and the Sox can pay him more than the Rays.

Baldelli played left field and batted three times (two strikeouts) against Boston College Wednesday. He sent autographed baseballs to both pitchers who struck him out. He said he felt good after the game. He did not play against the Pirates yesterday.

"I do pretty much everything except for some conditioning stuff, but I'm taking part in all of the baseball activities," he said. "My individual goal is to be able to do what Tito [Francona] asks me to do."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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