By Paul Knepper
Sports fans choose their favorite ballplayers for different reasons. Some root for athletes who play for their favorite teams, grew up near them or attended the same school. Others admire players for their style of play or flare. Some identify with athletes that exhibit the personal qualities they value in themselves and others.
Over the past three years I’ve become a big fan of baseball player Rocco Baldelli because I admire the courageous way he’s battled illness.
Baldelli was a five-tool prospect who drew comparisons to Joe DiMaggio when the Rays selected him out of high school with the sixth pick in the 2000 draft. He had an impressive rookie season for the Rays in 2003 and followed it up with another solid season in 2004. Then the injuries began.
After the 2004 season, Baldelli tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing baseball with his younger brother. During rehabilitation, he injured his left elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2005 season and half of 2006.
He pulled his hamstring in spring training in 2007 and the problem lingered, limiting him to 35 games that year. While rehabbing from that injury the Rays’ centerfielder experienced excessive fatigue and muscle cramps after brief workouts. Routine baseball activities left him exhausted and it took days for him to recover.
Baldelli underwent a series of tests and in March of 2008 was diagnosed with “metabolic and/or mitochondrial abnormalities.” He held back tears as he informed the media that he wouldn’t be able to play in the near future and didn’t know if he’d be able to play again. Rocco also felt the need to refute rumors that he had Multiple Sclerosis, a serious blood disorder or had used steroids.
To some extent I can relate to Baldelli’s struggles. I’m not a professional ballplayer, but I love playing ball, especially basketball. For much of the past nine years, and especially the past three, I haven’t been able to.
I too have a strange illness. I’ve received varying diagnoses, from chronic sinusitis to Fibromyalgia, though no doctor seems to be sure what the crux of the problem is. I have chronic head and facial pain and swelling and suffer from extreme fatigue. Regardless of how much I sleep, my body is thoroughly exhausted and my thoughts are foggy. My muscles ache and feel very weak. Sometimes they shake or spasm.
Daily tasks are burdensome and I avoid activities that require me to go outside at this time of year because cold weather causes discomfort in my head and limbs. Most of the time I’m not strong enough to exercise, and when I am, even minimal exertion may make me ill for days.
I recognize that my situation doesn’t compare to Baldelli’s. I love playing basketball, but it’s not my livelihood. I’m not immensely talented and my illness isn’t costing me millions of dollars. I haven’t had my dream thwarted. I also don’t assume to know the exact nature or degree of his symptoms.
However, I can empathize with some of the emotions that he’s experienced. I know the frustration of feeling that your body is failing you at far too young an age. I understand how fatigue can affect your social life, general mood and self-esteem. I too have felt like a guinea pig, constantly trying different treatments, having my hopes squashed every time a doctor doesn’t have an answer or a medication fails to help.
I know what it’s like to not want to talk about an illness, but feel compelled to explain. I understand the difficulty in attempting to distinguish severe fatigue from the feeling one experiences after a sleepless night, or overexertion at the gym. I’ve had my have toughness, sincerity and mental health questioned too.
Rocco refused to give up on his career after his diagnosis. After experimenting with different treatments and an extended rehab assignment, the Ray’s outfielder made it back to the big club in August 2008, in time for the team’s first A.L. East title.
Despite being too weak to play in back-to-back games and needing to sit down and rest at times in the outfield, Rocco played a key role in the playoffs. He homered in the ALCS and World Series and knocked in the winning run against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS. After the season he received the 2008 Tony Conigliaro Award, presented annually to a baseball player “who has overcome adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination and courage.”
In December of 2008 he was re-diagnosed with channelopathy, a less serious illness involving dysfunction of ion channels or the proteins that regulate them. Soon after, he signed with the Red Sox, though he only played in 62 games in 2009 and a shoulder injury kept him off of the post-season roster.
After being unable to find a job last winter, he rejoined the Rays as a minor league instructor, but he didn’t stop working out and on July 19th, signed a minor league deal with the Rays Single-A affiliate. Once again, he fought his way back to the big leagues and played ten games for Tampa Bay in September. However, after one playoff game he was sidelined with cramping in his leg.
A couple of weeks ago Baldelli announced his retirement at the age of 29. He’s going to remain with the Rays organization as a minor league instructor. He said he’s proud of what he accomplished and doesn’t regret his career being cut short due to illness. He also noted that some of the most memorable moments of his career occurred since his diagnosis, specifically the Rays run to the World Series in 2008.
He went on to say, “I don’t live angrily; I live kind of happy. Why would I look at the negative aspects of everything that I’ve been through and live the rest of my life talking about those things that aren’t the important things to me? The important things to me were all the wonderful things I got to do.” He added, “And you know what. The only time I feel like it’s good to retire is when you’re happy to retire. And I’m happy.”
Even in retirement, Rocco continues to inspire me with his positive outlook. A mysterious illness robbed him of his health, livelihood and millions of dollars; If he can be at peace with his illness, so can I.