This time of year always represents a moment of promise for baseball players, a time to look ahead and dream.
On Sunday, Rocco Baldelli finally took some time to look back.
The former Bishop Hendricken star who went on to a career in Major League Baseball was inducted into Hendricken’s Athletic Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the school on Sunday morning.
It was a humbling experience, even for the man Hendricken President John Jackson called the greatest athlete in school history.
“Like most athletes, you don’t sit back and look at what you’ve done,” Baldelli said after the ceremony. “I think most athletes have a mindset where they’re looking to what they’re going to do next. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in what I’ve done on the athletic fields, but I don’t always think about it after the fact. I guess it’s okay for a day of that, to sit back a little bit and appreciate it. Doing it here makes it all the more better.”
Hendricken was the starting point for Baldelli’s journey, the place where he went from gifted athlete to bona fide Major League Baseball prospect. He was drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft and played parts of seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.
His return to Hendricken on Sunday wasn’t without its bittersweet moments. Baldelli retired after the 2010 season, when he was just 29. Injuries and mysterious fatigue that still doesn’t have an official diagnosis forced his hand.
But Baldelli has come to a certain level of peace with the end of his career, and he’s still involved in baseball as a member of Tampa Bay’s front office. The fact that it was a premature ending did little to dampen the spirit of his Hall of Fame induction.
“The saddest day of my life was taking off my jersey for the last time,” Baldelli said. “When it happens, you see grow men crying. I was right there with them. But there comes a time when you have to step back and say, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life and what’s important to me?’ Every guy has to make that decision differently. That’s coming for everyone that plays sports, whether it’s high-school or college athlete, professional athlete. I didn’t know what I’d be doing but I’m happy to be standing here in the shoes that I’m in.”
Baldelli was particularly happy to be back in a place that feels like home. He was at Hendricken a few years ago to see his baseball and volleyball numbers retired, but a busy schedule doesn’t give him many opportunities to come back. He seized this opportunity as a chance to reflect on how much the school means – and to say thanks.
“The older I get, the more emotional I get about everything,” Baldelli said. “These people are such good people here at Bishop Hendricken. I’ve been treated so well from the first day I showed up. It’s nice to actually be able to stand up in front of this group and say thank you to them. It’s very special to me.”
Baldelli was inducted in a ceremony in the Hendricken theater. Basketball coach Jamal Gomes, soccer coach Mickey Rooney and former wrestling standout Alfred Baker were also inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Baldelli was introduced by Jackson, who had him in class and coached him on the freshman basketball team. Jackson said Baldelli is the easy answer whenever he’s asked about the best athletes to walk the halls of Hendricken, and his baseball prowess was only half the story.
Jackson recalled watching Baldelli running indoor track in his senior year, the first time he’d come out for the team. In one 55-meter race, he broke out of the gates slowly but his sheer athleticism and speed allowed him to overtake everybody.
“If he had ever learned to get out of the blocks, he’d probably be a world-record holder,” Jackson joked.
But it was also Baldelli’s attitude and work ethic that stood out.
“Rocco’s athletic prowess may be what he is best known for,” Jackson said. “But it certainly does not tell the complete story of Rocco Baldelli. He is a gentleman and he is compassionate. These qualities and more are why he is such a great success today.”
Baldelli led the Hendricken baseball team to state championships in both his junior and senior seasons, and draft buzz grew every step of the way. He even drew comparisons to former Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.
The Rays made Baldelli the sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft, and he was in the majors three years later. He hit .289 his rookie year with 11 home runs and 78 RBI, and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. The next year, he hit .280 with 16 homers.
After missing the entire 2005 season with an injury, Baldelli returned to form in 2006, hitting .302 with 16 home runs. But that was the high point of his career, and the trouble started soon after. He played in only 135 games in the next four years.
That stretch included a World Series with the Rays and a stint with the hometown Red Sox, but Baldelli called it quits after playing just 10 games for the Rays in 2010.
“It’s always been a little bit tough to deal with,” Baldelli said. “I’m 30 years old right now. A small part of me thinks I should still be out there playing. But I know that at certain times I feel certain things in body and I know I shouldn’t be competing at the highest level of professional sports.”
When Baldelli retired, he wasn’t sure what to do next, but Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told him to reach out if he wanted to stay in baseball. Baldelli decided that he did, and he became a baseball operations special assistant with the Rays.
It’s much different than playing the game, but Baldelli has enjoyed it. His job description includes observation, evaluation, amateur scouting, and just about everything else that happens in a Major League front office.
“Everyone wishes they could still throw the uniform on and still be out there, regardless of who you are and how old you are,” Baldelli said. “I’m no different, but I like what I’m doing right now.”
Baldelli is hoping to help the Rays get back to the postseason this year. Spring training is well underway and Baldelli is spending most of his time at the Rays complex in Port Charlotte, Fla.
It’s that special time of year, when you can look ahead and see the possibilities. For Baldelli, the possibilities are different now, but they’re still out there.
“I loved competing more than I could ever tell anybody, but that’s not in the cards for me,” Baldelli said. “These are the cards that I’m dealt. I’m still here, I’m still breathing, I’m still smiling. Everything else is good. I still have a smile on my face, and I’m still happy.”
And for one day at least, he was happy to be looking back.