This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 2000 ALL-USA selection Rocco Baldelli of Bishop Hendricksen (Warwick, R.I.), who after seven years as a major league outfielder with the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, works as a special assistant in baseball operations with the Rays.
For Rocco Baldelli, Thursday's major league baseball draft was a little like playing in the World Series.
"There's an incredible amount of time and effort spent on going to see these players and evaluating them," says Baldelli, 31. "Every team has their eyes set on one or two or three individuals that they're hoping to get. A lot of times, regardless of whom you're selecting, after all the work that goes in, you're going to be excited. There's a room full of adults (on draft day) that for a brief period are celebrating like kids."
Baldelli's own first-round selection (No. 6 overall) in the 2000 MLB draft was cause for celebration by the Rays. The outfielder was 6-4, 190 pounds, fast enough to win the state 55-meter dash and reportedly had a 40-inch vertical leap. He was compared to Joe DiMaggio by some scouts because of his Italian-American heritage and because he had athletic gifts that brought college scholarship offers in baseball, basketball, volleyball and track.
Projected as a can't-miss prospect out of Bishop Hendricksen, Baldelli didn't disappoint. In 2002, he began his third pro season at Class A Bakersfield, Calif., and finished it at AAA Durham, N.C., hitting .331 with 19 homers, 71 RBI and 26 stolen bases across three levels. The next season, he made his debut with the Rays, hitting .281 with 11 homers and 27 stolen bases and was third in the voting for Rookie of the Year. In 2004, he hit .280 with 16 homers and 17 stolen bases with the Rays and appeared poised for an All-Star career.
Then the same body that scouts were so enamored with began to betray him.
Baldelli missed the 2005 season with a torn ACL and then Tommy John surgery on his right (throwing) elbow. Two seasons later, he tore his left hamstring and it was slow to heal. While he frequently played well when healthy, an unusual medical condition left him abnormally fatigued after playing even for short periods.
After 2006, he never played more than 62 games in a season. He took a job with the Rays' scouting department and after a comeback attempt in 2010, he retired early in 2011 with a lifetime batting average of .278, and averages (based on a 162-game season) of 82 RBI and 19 stolen bases.
"Part of one of the most frustrating aspects is I don't really have a very clear diagnosis for what I have," Baldelli said. "Most of my doctors believe I have some type of issue that's related to the muscle channels. They call it channelopathy. Generally, it's a genetic issue that can't be resolved. On top of that, I have Lyme disease (a bacterial infection transmitted by a tick). That's also difficult to pinpoint and treat. I have certain things in my body that make things difficult for me, but they're not clear-cut issues."
Baldelli still looks like a pro athlete. He's able to run, lift and says he feels strong. He just knows his body can't perform at the level it once did.
Because of his physical and medical problems, he says he began early to think about what he wanted to do after his playing days were over.
"Most of the time when you're playing, you're trying to take care of what's in the present and your attention is in the moment," Baldelli says. "But with all the things I had going on, I was thinking about what I wanted to do. When I was close to finishing my career and I knew my body wasn't feeling well, (Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager) Andrew Friedman, who has always been unbelievable to me, as well as everybody in this organization, told me, 'If you want to stay on with us, let me know, though I don't have any immediate plans as far as what that would be.' That offseason, I thought about going back to school, maybe opening a small business, but instead I called back Andrew."
Baldelli's job lets him work in a number of ways with the Rays from player development to scouting.
"I feel very fortunate being able to do that," Baldelli says. "To be able to do all of these things at once, it's fun."
Another of Baldelli's passions has to do with predicting athletic success. He owns a few thoroughbred mares that he boards in Kentucky.
"I enjoy being around the animals," Baldelli says. "I think it's soothing. I enjoy the pedigree work and the blood lines and learning as much as I can about the confirmation of the horses. It's very similar to what we do here (in scouting) but also different. I'm trying to evaluate and predict and it's fun and competitive."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.