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At last, here is Rocco Baldelli at rest: stretched out on the trainer's table in the clubhouse, arms folded across his chest, watching whatever daytime dreck is playing on the TV hanging on the wall (at this moment, a fishing show). In the long, idle hours before a game it's rare to find the restless 21-year-old rookie centerfielder of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a state of static tranquility. To pass the time Baldelli has tried reading books (among his recent attempts, A Beautiful Mind), but he hasn't gotten more than halfway through any of the three he has started since the beginning of the season. Baldelli also has a habit of starting crossword puzzles and never finishing them, not because he can't but because he doesn't have the patience. "I do a little bit of everything before games" he says, "but usually I'm just pacing around to keep busy."
For Baldelli, one of the most impetuous hitters in baseball, patience is especially hard to come by when he steps to the plate. Even on those rare occasions when the count reaches 3 and 0 or 3 and 1, he still isn't thinking about a walk. Using the same approach he had as a boy swatting Wiffle balls in his Woonsocket, R.I., backyard—"If I like what I see, I'm going to swing at it"—Baldelli had the third-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of any hitter in the majors (6.2 to 1) at week's end. But here's the contradiction in his stunning American Idol-like rise to thriving big league hitter: Despite whiffing 37 times, Baldelli had the second-most hits in the majors (61), including a rookie-record 40 through April, and the third-best batting average (.353). How much of an anomaly is Baldelli? Only four players in major league history have hit .300 in a season in which they had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.0 or higher. And keep in mind that at this time a year ago Baldelli was playing centerfield for the Class A Bakersfield Blaze. Now he looks like a shoo-in to become the 19th rookie in history to be voted to the All-Star Game.
In spring training Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli called Baldelli a "young DiMaggio," a pronouncement that Baldelli says "you can't take too seriously." Of course it's preposterous to compare a player with fewer than 200 career at bats with Joe DiMaggio, but the skin-deep resemblances are undeniable. Baldelli is a righthanded-hitting centerfielder, wears number 5 (the number he wore in the minors), has Italian roots on his father's side and glides through the outfield with the grace of a skater on ice. Naimoli, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, even asked Baldelli to wear number 56, in honor of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, during spring training.
Excuse Naimoli's shameless adoration of the kid: For the Devil Rays, 18-25 through Sunday, Baldelli is a rare Ray of hope for a franchise that since its inception in 1998 has suffered through five straight last-place seasons in the American League East with 90 or more losses. The team plays in a dismally sterile, domed ballpark, Tropicana Field, which even during games has the feel of an abandoned Home Depot.
But Baldelli's popularity, like his game, is on the rise. Whether he's being asked to do a one-on-one interview or make a public appearance at a Rotary club or elementary school, the number of requests for Baldelli far surpasses that of any other Devil Ray. "Some players have a magnetism that you can't measure or explain," says general manager Chuck LaMar. "It's something that fans, teammates, even opponents respect. Rocco has it."
Baldelli fits right in with the young, hacking Devil Rays, who count just five players 30 or older and were last in the majors in walks, with 98 at week's end. This season Baldelli didn't take a ball four until his 61st at bat. In 178 plate appearances at Double A Orlando and Triple A Durham last year he walked only five times. "Even when we were kids in Little League" says childhood friend Minh Pham, "he was this aggressive, swinging all the time at first pitches." Aggressive—not undisciplined—is the word that manager Lou Piniella uses to describe Baldelli's approach to hitting. The strikeouts will drop off and the walks will rise, the Tampa Bay coaches say, when he has a better feel for major league pitching.
"I recognize that I may not be the most disciplined hitter who's going to take strikes and wait for my pitch, but it's tough to change my approach after 18 years of playing like this," says Baldelli. "When I take a lot of pitches, I find myself thinking too much, which gets me into lots of trouble."
Prolonged slumps aren't likely to plague Baldelli, given the number of infield hits he gets because of his explosive speed out of the batter's box. (He has been clocked going from home to first in 3.8 seconds.) Through Sunday he had nine infield hits, fifth-best in the league. "He gets to first from the right side as quick as anyone I've ever seen," says Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little.
What has made Baldelli so good so soon? "He has a gifted ability to remember how pitchers worked against him," says batting coach Lee Elia. "Most guys write it down. For Rocco it's all in his head."
Baldelli is the son of a retired firefighter, Dan, who, along with his wife, Michelle, owns three businesses—a check-cashing service, a pawnshop and a coffeehouse—under one roof in Woonsocket, a manufacturing town on the Massachusetts border. Stairs at the back of the establishment lead down to a basement batting cage (nicknamed the Dungeon) that Dan built for Rocco and his younger brothers, Nick and Dante, during Rocco's sophomore year at Bishop Hendricken High in nearby Warwick. What little free time Rocco had was spent in the Dungeon perfecting his swing. He was, however, anything but one-dimensional in his interests. Rocco was a four-sport star who led the Hawks to state titles in volleyball, basketball and baseball. Baldelli was also a straight-A student who was recruited by Princeton and Yale. "I always spent more time with class-work than baseball," says Baldelli, who has looked into taking courses at Brown in the off-season but has not yet been able to work them into his schedule. "Passing up those opportunities was really hard for me."