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Rhode Island Traces
Smallest state has delivered big-time talent
By Lyle Spencer /

Anyone who has dealt with Phillies coach Davey Lopes over the years will testify to his unflinching honesty and independence of thought, which can border on the fierce if push comes to shove.

It turns out that these qualities are in Lopes' bloodlines, part of his heritage.

He is a native of East Providence in the cozy confines of Rhode Island, the first colony to declare its independence from the British.

The smallest of the 50 states with its 1,545 square miles and ranking 43rd in population with 1,048,319 residents, Rhode Island packs a powerful punch.

Lopes, whose lightning and thunder as a second baseman ignited the great Dodgers teams of the 1970s, has retained his East Coast voice and hard-nosed manner throughout his baseball travels as player, manager and coach.

Considered by many the second-greatest athlete produced by his home state -- surpassed only by legendary second baseman Nap Lajoie -- Lopes made it back from prostate cancer with characteristic mental toughness, returning in 2008 to drive the Phillies to their full potential as first-base coach and the man in charge of baserunning. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, both speedsters, can talk for hours about Lopes' influence.

"This is what I know, what I love to do," Lopes said. "Since I left East Providence, the game has been good to me -- and I enjoy giving back in any way I can."

Known for its beaches, seafood, golf courses and Providence basketball dating back to the glory days of Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin Barnes, Rhode Island identifies closely with Boston's teams. Providence is, after all, a 45-minute drive from Fenway Park.

Still, during the 2008 World Series, the state had a stake not only in Lopes' Phillies, but also in the surprising Rays of Tampa Bay.

Closer Dan Wheeler is a native of Warwick and was taken in the 34th round of the 1996 Draft by Tampa Bay out of Central Arizona College.

Wheeler delivered a career-high 13 saves for the Rays in 2008. In 397 big league appearances, he's posted 38 saves and a 3.96 ERA.

A native of Woonsocket, R.I., Lajoie's hometown, Rocco Baldelli was taken sixth overall in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft out of Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I. After he finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2003, stardom appeared to be his destiny, but he's since been derailed by a slew of injuries and a rare mitochondrial disorder causing extreme fatigue.

Baldelli's teammates know exactly what the talented outfielder has gone through to make it back for the postseason after starting the season on the disabled list.

"He could have hung it up," Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine told "But he didn't, he stuck with it. It says a lot about his personality."

And, no doubt, it also says a lot about his Rhode Island-style independence.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.