Never underestimate the value of a good eye. Without a keen batting eye, it's nearly impossible to be a successful hitter in the major leagues. It takes a different type of eye to be successful in the breeding industry, but a good eye is just as crucial when buying mares or yearlings at auction.
Former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli is now the team's first base coach, but lately he also has relied on his good eye to help him buy mares at auction, breed them to stallions, and sell the foals.
Baldelli certainly isn't the first sports celebrity to own horses. Former player, manager, and current Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre has owned shares of racehorses, including a portion of multiple Grade 1 winner Game On Dude, and former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner bred and raced many graded stakes winners under the Kinsman Stable banner. NFL receiver Wes Welker, Pro Football Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Bill Parcells, and former NBA player Rashard Lewis all own multiple racehorses. Baldelli, however, is unique in that his focus is on the breeding and sales side of the game.
"It's a very small commercial operation," Baldelli said about Fair-North Thoroughbreds LLC, which he named after his now-defunct Little League in Woonsocket, R.I. "I try to breed commercially, but I try to breed a nice racehorse as well."
Baldelli bought his first mare -- Union Waters, by Dixie Union out of Panama Canal, by Gulch -- for $140,000 in 2011 at the Keeneland November sale. She was carrying a Stormy Atlantic colt whom Baldelli sold as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton October sale in 2013 for $30,000. He bred Union Waters to Speightstown in 2012 and sold the resulting colt as a weanling for $270,000 at the 2013 Keeneland November sale; the colt was subsequently pinhooked and sold for $400,000 as a yearling at the 2014 Keeneland September auction.
Baldelli is not your typical Thoroughbred breeder, though. He wasn't born into a horse-racing family, and growing up in Woonsocket, he was far removed from the bluegrass of Kentucky. He was interested in racing as a kid and would watch the big races on television, but he was more focused on playing sports. He was a four-sport star in high school, but he was a standout baseball player. Baldelli was selected in the first round of the 2000 MLB draft by Tampa Bay and quickly rose through the minors, debuting for the Rays three years later.
He was a rising star as a center fielder, a "five-tool" player who could hit for average and power, run, field, and throw, and he was often compared to New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio. At the end of the 2004 season, Baldelli had just turned 22, yet he had put together two full seasons that left many fans thinking he could be the first real superstar for the young Tampa Bay franchise. Injuries and illness shortened his career, leading him to hang up his spikes at the end of the 2010 season, but along the way, he met a number of people who helped reinvigorate his interest in horse racing.
Dan Dement, whose family runs a small racing operation as Brigade Stables, was "literally the first teammate I ever met in professional baseball," according to Baldelli, and once he made the big club, he started talking racing with the players and coaches.
"Lou Piniella was my first manager for the Rays," said Baldelli, "and he is a big racing fan."
Don Zimmer joined the team as a coach in 2004, and Gerry Hunsicker joined the front office in 2005; both were lifelong racing fans.
Baldelli talked horses with them and realized he was becoming fascinated with the game, particularly the breeding side.
"I was always interested," he said, "and once I stopped playing baseball, I worked in the Rays' front office with Gerry Hunsicker. He was very much into racing, and I would pick his brain. I just began to learn a lot, and I read as much as possible. I've always loved the animals and their athleticism. I love going to the farm and spending as much time around the horses as I can."
Hunsicker, now the senior adviser of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, saw Baldelli as a keen student.
"He's very bright and very passionate about things," Hunsicker said. "When you put passion and intelligence together, you have a chance to do something special. He spent countless hours reading, talking to people, looking at sales results. I can't imagine anyone with a shorter learning curve. He understands pedigrees and pedigrees that sell. He has sought advice from knowledgeable people in the business and has chosen them well, and I believe that's really helped Rocco."
Some of those who have provided advice include David Ingordo, the bloodstock agent who helped Baldelli pick out his first mare; Callan Strouss, manager of William S. Farish's Lane's End Oak Tree Division Farm; and Bernie Sams, bloodstock manager at Claiborne Farm.
"Rocco might be the nicest guy you've ever met in your life," Sams said. "Almost so nice you think, 'This guy can't be that nice.' But he does his homework. He'll get the sales catalogs and go through them before I do."
Like Hunsicker, Sams is impressed with how quickly Baldelli learned the commercial breeding side of the game.
"He has a pretty good idea of value, and he's got a good idea of what he likes," Sams said. "So far, he's done a good job."
Strouss agrees that Baldelli has learned quickly, and he credits his baseball background with helping him pick out horses.
"He looks at them as athletes," Strouss said. "He has a very good eye for what he likes and doesn't like."
Baldelli owns a handful of horses, mostly stabled at Lane's End Oak Tree Division. Warm Breeze, a Grade 3-placed Street Sense mare, just foaled a Tiznow filly last Monday; Baldelli plans to breed Warm Breeze to WinStar Farm stallion Super Saver. He owns a share of Reforestation, a Grade 1-placed Forestry mare who will go to Street Sense this year -- "a stallion that I've always liked and always look to breed to if I have the chance" -- as well as a piece of the Smart Strike mare No Splits, who will be bred to Tonalist.
Baldelli hasn't campaigned any horses on his own yet, but he does own a small percentage of Sugar Heaven, a Bluegrass Cat filly who won a turf sprint at Fair Grounds last Monday. Though he plans to continue breeding to sell, he does expect to keep one to race, and he's excited for that day to come.
"Playing baseball in front of a lot of people wouldn't affect me," Baldelli said, "but you watch your horse run, and you can't help but get a bit worked up."