Warwick, R.I. – Everything Rocco Baldelli ever needed to know, he learned in high school. Bishop Hendricken Catholic School, in Warwick, R.I., where an understated schoolhouse fronts the complex of pristine baseball diamonds upon which big-league scouts belatedly discovered an athletic outlier.
In high school, Baldelli learned that he could dominate in any sport he chose, winning championships as a sprinter even before he mastered the starting blocks. He learned to handle unexpected fame and daunting expectations. He savored time with those closest to him, the ones by his side later in life when his body failed.
Two decades later, Baldelli is the Twins’ new and unlikely manager. At 37, he has never run a team before and is only seven years removed from being forced to retire as a player because of a mysterious ailment he still struggles to describe, one that friends worried would kill him.
In Rhode Island, Baldelli is seen not as an inexperienced manager but, as his father says, “an old soul.”
“He was one of the great athletes in Rhode Island history,” said Paul Danesi, the Bishop Hendricken CFO. “Yet he’s completely devoid of ego. He always tried to shine the spotlight on kids who couldn’t do what he did.
“He was a great student who tutored other kids in physics. He was the perfect kid but wasn’t a braggart. That’s why people are so endeared to him.”
Allowed to leave campus during free periods, Baldelli instead camped in Danesi’s small office and tutored friends or talked baseball. Baldelli didn’t even earn his driver’s license until his senior year, when he was on his way to becoming the sixth pick of the 2000 MLB draft.
Baldelli’s parents had enrolled him at Hendricken, a private school and athletic powerhouse, even though the school was 40 minutes away from the family home. So Dan “Rocky” Baldelli, Rocco’s father, drove his son.
“We had a chance to spend time together and listen to a little classic rock,” Rocco said. “Those were good times, important times for us.”
As the Twins begin their winter festivities, Baldelli, who grew up in Cumberland and Woonsocket, R.I., will fly in from his current home in Providence to introduce himself to fans, starting this week at TwinsFest. The kid once described as the next Joe DiMaggio will instead emulate Joe Maddon, one of his managers with Tampa Bay.
Baldelli’s ascension to a managerial job surprises only those who viewed him as merely a superior talent or a tragic figure. Those close to him say his intellectual curiosity and natural empathy qualify him to lead.
“He was always reading — Audubon, animal books, baseball books, whatever he could get his hands on,” said his father, Dan. “When he was injured, he’d sit home and work on the Princeton Review or his SAT prep.”
Minh Pham befriended Rocco playing youth baseball in Woonsocket, a city of about 40,000 halfway between Boston and Providence. Pham’s family had escaped from Vietnam in the early 1980s.
When Pham was 9, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and his father felt unable to properly care for him. Pham moved in with the Baldellis and when his mother died three years later, the Baldellis unofficially adopted him.
“Rocco had that unique ability of being the best of everything,” Pham said. “Growing up, it made you jealous. You wanted to be everything that he was.”
Mike Quigley, who coaches and teaches U.S. history at Hendricken, said Baldelli would sneak into the back row to audit his classes even after he was drafted.
“When he was a senior, he decided to run in a big track meet,” Quigley said. “There was a young man from Cumberland who was a guaranteed gold medal winner but couldn’t compete for some reason. So Rocco won the gold and gave the kid his medal.”
Baldelli was Rhode Island’s version of Joe Mauer, a too-good-to-be-true natural athlete raised on Dunkin’ Donuts instead of Caribou Coffee. And like Mauer, his career was too often defined by injuries.
Baldelli could dunk at 13. He became all-state in volleyball, basketball, track and baseball. He received scholarship offers to play baseball at Wake Forest and volleyball at UCLA. Princeton wanted him to play basketball.
As a high school freshman, he leapt during warmups and “my leg broke under me. It wasn’t your typical fracture. It ended up being some kind of compound fracture of the tibia.”
With his growth plate broken in an injury doctors compared to car-crash trauma, Baldelli was confined to a wheelchair and ended up needing to repeat his freshman year.
“The doctors at Boston Children’s did a pretty phenomenal job of putting me back together,” Baldelli said. “I still have some hardware in that leg, screws and bolts that they left in.”
Baldelli recovered and came back as an older freshman, which might have provided him the year he needed to develop into a top draft pick instead of a college baseball player.
Dan Baldelli owns several small businesses, including pawn shops, and built Rocco a batting cage in the basement of one of his buildings. As his senior season approached, he began hearing that he might become a fourth-round draft pick, but as more scouts began to see his rare combination of speed and power, his stock rose.
The Rays wanted Baldelli to be part star, part savior. Starting play in 1998, the Rays lost 90 or more games in each of their first 10 years of existence. Baldelli made it to the big leagues in 2003, played in 156 games and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year balloting.
He played in 136 games in 2004, then missed 2005 after first tearing the ACL in his left knee, then needing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow months later. Upon his return in June 2006, he produced his best statistical season, but after that, he never played in more than 62 games in a season again.
In the spring of 2007, he suffered a pulled hamstring and couldn’t recover. He would play in a game and feel jelly-legged, as if he had just run a marathon. His muscles constantly cramped and failed.
Baldelli began the season on the disabled list and traveled the country seeking a cure, often with his friends and family as traveling companions.
Mauer’s woes in 2011 were improperly called “bilateral leg weakness” and never fully explained. Baldelli, similarly, says there is no easy explanation for his condition.
Baldelli feared he would never regain his health, which had never been ideal. He has broken his right hand three times, his left hand once, and has had mono, viral meningitis and Lyme disease.
This new, debilitating, ailment was termed channelopathy. Nature.com describes channelopathy as a “group of disorders that are caused by dysfunction of ion channels. Channelopathies can disrupt neuronal or muscle function, including heart function …”
Baldelli required copious amounts of sleep and medication — and moral support.
An ‘us’ man
Al Marano grew up with Baldelli. Last weekend, Baldelli attended the field hockey practice of Marano’s daughter, Isabella, 9. Baldelli is Isabella’s godfather. Isabella has posters of Baldelli on her bedroom walls.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Marano said of Baldelli’s health problems. “He was stripped of what he could have been. I went down and stayed with him for a year, for moral support, to help him stay positive.”
Baldelli returned to the Rays in August 2008. He hit a three-run homer in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Red Sox and drove in a go-ahead run in Game 7 as the Rays advanced to their only World Series.
Marano, Pham and the Baldelli family were there. “That’s one of our best memories,” Marano said. “He wanted all of us to be there. He had always said, ‘This isn’t me doing this — this is all of us doing this together.’ That’s the kind of kid he is. Besides my two kids being born, that was the best day of my life.”
Baldelli played 62 games for the Red Sox in 2009 and 10 for the Rays in 2010. He announced his retirement Jan. 26, 2011, accepting an offer from Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman, now with the Dodgers, to become a special assistant and roving instructor. In 2014, he became first base coach for new Rays manager Kevin Cash after Maddon left for the Cubs.
Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said he hired Baldelli because of his background, and the way he presented himself — curious and personable, someone more interested in new information than former accomplishments.
“He’s going to be phenomenal,” Danesi said. “No one will have to explain analytics or algorithms to Rocco.”
Pham describes the Baldellis — Rocco, his two brothers, Dan and mother Michelle — as a “giving, incredibly generous family.” Dan is the frenetic Type-A father who once told Rocco, “Don’t be a little me” — with Rocco telling him, not unkindly, “I promise I won’t.”
Michelle — Pham calls her “Mama Mich” — is the cheerful caretaker who hikes ski slopes.
“I tried to go with her,” Dan said. “But I’d rather sit on my butt and eat veal parm and buy some bigger pants.”
In that crowded house, when Rocco was recovering from his shattered leg, the Baldellis worried about his spirits.
“We had a person we were very friendly with who did hypnosis,” Dan said. “She talked with Rocco and came back and said, ‘He’s an old soul.’ I’m looking at her like, ‘What?’
“She said, “It’s like he’s been here before.’ We’re like, ‘Don’t get weird on us.’ But after talking to her, we started asking ourselves, ‘Is this why he is the way he is?’
“She said, ‘He answers my questions like someone in his 50s or 60s, who has been through all of this before.’ ”
Maybe Baldelli is more experienced than we think.