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10/11/08 5:10 PM ET

Baldelli: Back from brink in big way

Outfielder overcomes mitochondrial disorder to help Rays' run

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's become the norm for Major League players to arrive at their home clubhouse four or five hours early. Some work out, some play cards and others do crossword puzzles quietly in front of their lockers. Rocco Baldelli doesn't have that luxury.

Instead, the Rays outfielder spends the four hours before every game getting various treatments, taking a cocktail of pills and doing everything possible to offset a rare mitochondrial disorder that causes extreme fatigue.

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And while his Tampa Bay team may be the best story in baseball, Baldelli's triumph is that he is suiting up in a Rays uniform at all.

"He doesn't want any of the publicity," longtime Rays teammate Jonny Gomes said. "Trust me, he doesn't. But I don't think he gets enough."

Gomes was part of the Tampa Bay outfield in 2002, with Baldelli in center field and Josh Hamilton -- who's now with the Rangers -- in right. And while Hamilton's return to baseball after battling substance abuse has garnered national attention, Baldelli spends most days quietly battling a disease that for years nobody could even diagnose.

He wasn't supposed to be here in October, Baldelli will be the first to tell you that.

The Rhode Island native held a tearful press conference this past spring announcing that he would start the year on the disabled list to try to recover from four years of nagging injuries and mysterious illness. Teammate Andy Sonnanstine remembers Baldelli telling him and Justin Ruggiano that day that he didn't know what to do.

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

Five months, two rehab assignments and a diagnosis later, Baldelli defied his own doubts and was reinstated to the Rays' lineup Aug. 10.

"I wouldn't have thought I'd be even playing in any games," said Baldelli. "Just to be out here, it's almost like a special present someone gave me."

It is a gift the Rays faithful cherish, as every time Baldelli runs out to right field or steps up to the dish he is greeted with thunderous applause. The sixth overall selection in the 2000 June First-Year Player Draft, Baldelli was a coveted young player full of promise before being struck by his illness.

"He is so gifted. You watch him swing and hit, he's got this fluidness about him, just like everything else he does, in an athletic sense."
-- Manager Joe Maddon
on Rocco Baldelli

Now he is a symbol of hope, living proof of the powers of modern medicine.

"What he's doing, nobody's ever done before," Sonnanstine said. "I think it's really underrated."

After returning to the Rays' lineup, Baldelli played in 46 games down the stretch, hitting .263 with four home runs and 13 RBIs.

One of the runs he drove in came on Aug. 30, when Baldelli delivered a walk-off double to clinch a 10-9 victory over the Orioles. Maybe he hasn't returned to the same physical condition he was in a few years ago, but on that day, Baldelli was back in a big way. And his teammates -- who rushed the field to mob Baldelli following the walk-off -- couldn't have been happier.

"Talk about the love for the game," Gomes said. "That should be the definition. That rehab every single game. They are going to make a movie about the guy when it's all said and done."

Baldelli shies away from reflecting on the magnitude of what he's done. The unassuming 26-year-old is perfectly content sitting in front of his locker -- tucked away in the right corner of the Rays' clubhouse -- and pretending he is just another ballplayer.

But the Rays know better.

"He is so gifted," manager Joe Maddon said. "You watch him swing and hit, he's got this fluidness about him, just like everything else he does, in an athletic sense.

"In the back of my mind, I always thought he'd be back."

And in a season full of thrilling victories and celebrations, Sonnanstine smiles when the talk shifts to one of his favorite moments this year, when his phone rang on Aug. 9. It was Baldelli, calling from his hotel room in Baltimore with the news: He was going to be activated for the following day's game.

And so Baldelli and Sonnanstine spent the night shaving their beards, in what had become a symbolic gesture during the outfielder's long absence.

"To see him back like that is unbelievable," Sonnanstine said. "I [almost] cried."

Baldelli's fight is far from over. He isn't cured by any means and could blow out at any second. The Rays declined his option for next year, and his future is uncertain.

But right now, the opportunity to lace up his cleats and help his team in the American League Championship Series is there. And for Baldelli, that is more than enough.

"[In the past], I was thinking about a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn't have been thinking about," Baldelli said. "Just because I was scared. As of right now, I fully plan on helping this team win."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.