ST. PETERSBURG - He has watched B.J. Upton become the future in center field. Now he is fighting to be a big part of the three person, two position platoon - right field and designated hitter.
How the mighty have fallen.
The injury bug has made Rocco Baldelli so much of a spectator the last three years that if he were to be charged admission to the park, no one would be surprised.
"It's been awhile since I've been on the field and been with these guys," Baldelli said Sunday. "It just feels good to be out there running around and not be hurt.
The St. Petersburg resident via his hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island has been a major disappointment since signing a long-term deal on November, 10, 2005. There were whispers why the team would make such a commitment to someone who had just missed the entire season from a torn ACL and as he neared a return returned to the operating table for a torn rotator cuff.
Over the first two years of the contract, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound five-year veteran has appeared in just 127 games and has not seen action since last May 15, when he limped off the field during a game with the Texas Rangers at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex.
Now he is in camp, again, hoping to regain his rightful place in the Rays' lineup. Carl Crawford may be the catalyst. Carlos Pena may be the power guy. But many agree that Baldelli is the engineer of the Rays' train. As he goes, so does the rest of the team.
Despite all the time lost, the now 26-year old appears to have lost very little when he climbed into the cage. Facing lanky Jeff Niemann, Rocco's sweet swing is still clearly visible belting line drives that would have all gone for extra-base hits.
"I'm seeing the ball pretty good. The pitchers are telling us what's coming but it's not going to be like that too much longer but I'll definitely take my swing right now the way it is."
Manager Joe Maddon and the training staff have joined heads to come up with a spring training routine for the oft-injured star and at this point, Baldelli has followed it to the letter.
"I've switched up my spring schedule a lot," he said. "I'm not taking part in a bunch of stuff to just keep my legs healthy. Normally I take part in everything and do it as hard as I can. That's pretty much gone away. I just take part in what we all think I should be part of."
The Rays traded a couple of outfielders over the winter, Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, and knowing the question mark with Baldelli, the front office saw just two players, Jonny Gomes and Justin Ruggiano, to cover right field and DH. The protection they sought came when they signed veteran outfielder Cliff Floyd.
If all things go well, Ruggiano will likely get another year of seasoning in the minors and the big club may have a problem, albeit, a good one with. Together there is the potential to rack up sixty or more homers.
"It's not easy to deal with, going through all this," Baldelli said. "It's not something most ballplayers have to go through. It's kind of an odd situation I'm in. But I think I'm holding up about as well as I could hope for." As for making the opening day roster, he has but one answer. "It's the only place I want to be."
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES? B.J. Upton, who came into training camp with a full head of hair - something coaches and teammates had never seen before. The centerfielder and third base coach Tom Foley got into a discussion about hair styles, and the "Mohawk" came up. Foley asked Upton, "Why not do a Mohawk." Upton replied, "I'll do a Mohawk if you go blonde - not highlights, but bleach it." The reference was to former manager Lou Piniella who lost a bet only to get around paying off with streaks. Upton arrived Sunday morning with a neatly almost shaved head, and Foley? Well, he still had his full head of salt and pepper hair.
NAIMOLI COMPLEX SWAN SONG? This is the final year the Rays will hold spring training in St. Petersburg, as they will be abandoning the Naimoli Complex for new digs in Port Charlotte. Whether that is the reason, the new uniforms and colors, a bright future or the combination, approximately 1,000 fans showed up under threatening skies to show their support. "It's just great to see the fans so pumped up. I couldn't believe the turnout at FanFest yesterday over at 'The Pit.' It was an awesome feeling. It was a sea of blue with fans donning the new Rays' colors - a wonderful and positive change, a welcome site for the players and myself. I look forward to seeing much more of this as time progresses."
WILLY AND THE REST: The Rays expect to know more on Monday on the status of Juan Salas, Joel Guzman and Willy Aybar, who remain stuck in the Dominican Republic due to visa problems. Manager Joe Maddon said that all three will be competing for spots, but that Salas is the guy who needs to get out there and pitch. "The longer Salas is out, the more difficult it's going to be for him," said Maddon.
E-JAX DRAWS GRAPEFRUIT: Don't read much into it, but Edwin Jackson gets the nod to open the Grapefruit League season Friday against the Reds. He's leading the competition for one of the two remaining spots in the rotation. "It's just his turn," Maddon said. "We had to pick somebody."
HEY, NIEMANN: Jeff Niemann, competing for one of the final two spots in the rotation, was superb. He overpowered Carl Crawford with some nasty pitches, and Cliff Floyd was speechless after his time in the cage.
"THE BOMB" AFTERMATH: Lefty David Price was not happy when outfielder Jonny Gomes took him deep during Saturday's batting practice. "He sets high standards," Joe Maddon said of last year's top overall pick. "He's all business."
FLICK OF THE BIC: Pitcher Jason Hammel signed a one-year deal, leaving only 10 players unsigned, although they remain under the Rays' control.
TURN ON, TUNE IN: The Rays will broadcast a dozen games this year via their radio partners, 1250 WHNZ and 620 WDAE. There will also be two games telecast by Fox Sports Net Florida. Here is the schedule - ALL GAMES AT 1:05pm UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED:
• March 1 vs Toronto - WHNZ
• March 2 @ Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 8 @ NY Yankees - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 9 vs. Cincinnati - WHNZ
• March 15 @ Atlanta (ss)- WDAE, or
• March 15 @ NY Yankees (ss) - WDAE --- 1:15pm
• March 16 vs Detroit - WHNZ / FSN
• March 21 @ NY Yankees - WDAE ---- 7:15pm
• March 22 vs. Pittsburgh - WHNZ
• March 23 @ Reds - WHNZ
• March 28 vs Reds - WHNZ / FSN
• March 29 @ Reds - WHNZ
TURN ON, TUNE IN - PART II: XXX
GIT YER TICKETS HERE: Single-game tickets are on sale now at the Tropicana Field box office, Tampa office, and all TicketMaster locations. Tickets can also be purchased online (www.raysbaseball.com or www.raysbeisbol.com) or by calling 888-FAN-RAYS.
Althea Pashman contributed to this report.
Ted Fleming, the owner/operator of TBSN Radio 510, has been covering the sports scene in the Tampa Bay area for the last decade via the airwaves and in print. His radio show, Speaking of Sports, is syndicated by the Black Athletes Sports Network live from 11:00am to 1:00pm weekdays. He frequently discusses the Rays on his show. Additionally, he is a stringer for the PA-SportsTicker and has previously done work for WEEI in Boston, ESPN 1050 in New York along with Metro Sports and the Florida Sports Network.