For Baldelli, it's been one step up, two steps back

TAMPA, Fla. -- In some respects, it is just another night at Tropicana Field.

The Tampa Bay Rays are going through their normal batting practice paces under the watchful eye of manager Joe Maddon. With his funky horn-rimmed glasses and his decidedly erudite air, Maddon looks like an engineer on-site at a construction project. Come to think of it, perhaps that's true.

In front of the home dugout, Dick Vitale -- ubiquitous as ever and no stranger to hyperbole -- is gushing about phenom third baseman Evan Longoria, invoking comparisons to Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt.

But elsewhere, Tropicana Field has been transported to some parallel universe. Down the right-field line, camera crews dot foul territory, a few of them from networks.

The Boston Red Sox are in town and, as usual, their backers are making themselves seen and heard in the stands.

But on this night, for a change, they are greatly outnumbered by local loyalists. The Rays have seized first place in the American League East, and in so doing uncovered a rush of fandom unashamed to affiliate with a franchise that has yet to crack the 70-win plateau in its mostly forgettable existence.

More than a decade in the making, this is the Rays' coming out party.

As the Rays sprint off the field at the end of batting practice, Rocco Baldelli takes it all in.

"Pretty amazing," he says, drinking in the atmosphere.

Baldelli wasn't here at the beginning, but among current Rays, only fellow outfielder Carl Crawford has a longer tenure with the franchise. Baldelli was here when a more typical crowd at the Trop was 9,000 or so, and winced a bit when the bigger crowds cheered when the Rays invariably fell to the Red Sox or Yankees.

And now that the Rays have arrived, Baldelli has not. He's here, but he's not here. Baldelli is on the 60-day disabled list, unsure exactly what is wrong, unsure when -- or if -- he's coming back.

Who said life was fair? And who said baseball was any better?

Felled by a succession of injuries -- both major and minor -- Baldelli has played a grand total of 127 games in the past three seasons combined. In the span of a few months, he blew out a knee and an elbow. Little did he know those would be relatively simple setbacks.

Since then, Baldelli has been victimized -- again and again -- by muscle and hamstring pulls. Then, this past spring, he began feeling fatigued at the slightest exertion of energy. Light jogging would leave him feeling like he had run a marathon.

Talk spread that he had multiple sclerosis. Instead, extensive tests -- conducted across the country, by a variety of specialists -- revealed that he was suffering from a mitochondrial disorder, a neuromuscular disease. Some mystery remains, and Baldelli himself admits the diagnosis isn't fully complete.

But at least the doctors and Baldelli have an idea what they're dealing with. They've prescribed a few different cocktails of medicine, and lately, seem to have hit on one that works.

Even with the physical improvements made of late, Baldelli has come to accept that "my body is not going to feel like it did five years ago, or even two years ago. But I feel I can still contribute."

Baldelli's energy is better and his strength is returning, even if his swing and baseball skills seem to come and go. In a recent Single A rehab stint, he homered one night, and struck out four times the next.

There's no way to quantify frustration. Every time I thought I was frustrated, little did I know I would be more frustrated in the

--Rocco Baldelli

For now, Baldelli isn't concerning himself with results. He's focused on how he feels -- better, stronger. Now, it isn't the baseball activity that tires him as much as the nagging questions, approached gingerly, as if the wrong choice of words might trigger a setback.

How are you? How do you feel? Are you feeling better?

Polite, but probing.

"You're reminded of it every day," Baldelli says.

Of course, Baldelli doesn't need nosy reporters or caring inquisitors to be reminded of what he's missing, of what could have been.

The Rays' first-round pick in 2000, chosen sixth overall, Baldelli was going to be the face of the franchise. His graceful outfield play, his fluid right-handed swing and Italian surname inspired former Tampa Bay managing partner Vincent Naimoli to foolishly compare him to Joe DiMaggio. He was even given DiMaggio's No. 5.

As a rookie, he hit .289 with 11 homers and 78 RBIs and 27 steals. He hit safely in 23 of his first 24 major league games and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year balloting. He followed that up with a similar season in 2004 -- and until an injury cost him time in the final month, Baldelli was on track to become the first player to lead the league in assists in each of his first two seasons.

But after that second season, he suffered a torn ACL playing backyard baseball with his younger brother, and while rehabbing that injury the following year, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Baldelli became a rarity: a position player who needed Tommy John surgery.

Still, after a hamstring strain further postponed his comeback, he had a triumphant return midway through 2006, hitting .302 with 16 homers and 57 RBIs in 92 games. In the final six weeks of that season, only David Ortiz had a higher slugging percentage.

But the following season brought more injuries, one nagging pull or strain after another.

He's careful not to complain or lapse into self-pity, but there are times, he acknowledges, when his patience has been pushed.

"There's no way to quantify frustration," he says. "Every time I thought I was frustrated, little did I know I would be more frustrated in the future. This is probably one of the most difficult and frustrating things I've had to deal with, just the fact I haven't been able to get healthy. It's one thing to think about your baseball career, it's another thing to think about your body and not being able to feel the way you want it to feel.

"As a baseball player, you just want to be out on the field. You want to show up to the field and you want your body to feel good enough where you don't have to be in the training room, getting work done on you. I've been in the training room a lot throughout my career, and that's a frustrating thing. I've had surgeries and have had to rehab months at a time, and to me, that's not baseball. Everyone deals with injuries; that's the reality of this game. But I feel like I've spent a little too much time in the training room and not enough time on the baseball field."

This season, even as he steers himself back from the injury abyss, the sense of lost time is greater. The Rays are the story of the 2008 season, holding down first place above their more moneyed competitors until a seven-game skid sent them tailspinning into the All-Star break.

The Rays are athletic, young and full of promise, not unlike Baldelli once was. Crawford is still there, but B.J. Upton has supplanted Baldelli as the team's center fielder. Longoria, an All-Star with three months' worth of experience, is the new Next Big Thing.

Baldelli, meanwhile, watches and waits. A recent rehab stint was interrupted by a groin pull, a sad reminder of his fragility, one injury battling for supremacy over another.

This season was what Baldelli had been waiting for. And now, he must wait some more. He will restart his rehab assignment at Double-A Montgomery on Wednesday, limited still to DH duty and pinch-hitting assignments. Outfield play, once natural, is now foreign and will have to wait.

Maybe by September, when rosters expand, Baldelli can still contribute to this magical season. Just 26, he could be the veteran bat off the bench for their stretch run.

"This guy is just a great teammate and we just want to see him get back on the field," says lefty ace Scott Kazmir. "You look at him taking BP during homestands and he's still got it. This guy definitely still has it. He's hitting moonshots out of the ballpark. We hope we can get him back as soon as possible. No matter where he is in
the lineup or on the field, he'll be a positive for us and really help us out."

But at midseason, Baldelli can feel this season passing him by. Bearded now, he's wistful. As he comes off the field from batting practice, the rest of his teammates will prepare for game time in an hour. Baldelli's work for the day, however, is done.

There, but not there. Rocco Baldelli is on the outside, looking in.

"It's kind of sad," he says. "I've been here a while and we hadn't had much success when I played. I wish I could be part of this, on the field."

He looks around Tropicana Field, full of energy, teeming with support for the home team, for a change drawing national media attention for something other than long-running futility, and he manages a smile.

"But at least I get to appreciate it," he says.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.