Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rocco Ready To Roll

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Rocco Baldelli never heard boos -- or any other associated nastiness -- while patrolling center field for the Rays at Fenway Park. No need to worry, since Baldelli was playing before a stacked upper deck.

"I used to get more positive things yelled than negative things," Baldelli said. "It’s probably all my friends. I’ve had groups of people that I know buy all the seats in center field before I came into town. I know the people up there."

He won't have that luxury in the new Yankee Stadium this summer, with seats close to the outfield and sentiments stacked against him. In his first season witht the Sox, the Rhode Island native knows exactly what he's getting himself into.

“I know it’s going to be unlike anything I’ve experienced before,” said Baldelli, an outfielder who signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox in January. “You just get a feel for it, just watching it from afar, how exciting it is, the type of rivalry it is. In Tampa, we didn’t have anything resembling that.”

Certainly, no one was likely spending days on end on Tampa talk radio comparing and contrasting offseason moves by the Rays and Yankees. But with the Red Sox, Baldelli is already a key figure in the rivalry’s renewal.

While the Yankees got all the shiny toys around Christmas, signing free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Red Sox made less-heralded moves, bringing in Baldelli and pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz.

In that respect, the Yankees have already built a division lead.

“Obviously, I see it happening,” Baldelli said. “But you more just laugh. The things that go on in this game, what I do isn’t going to affect it. It’s not something I’ve gotten caught up in or cared about.”

All Baldelli cares about is staying healthy and on the field. Baldelli, 27, who is being brought along slowly by the Red Sox this spring, says he feels fine, but is starting to get somewhat sick of all the inquiries about his physical well-being.

“I was going to make a sign that says, ‘Feeling good, thanks for asking,’ and tack it to my locker, so I don’t have to answer that anymore,” Baldelli said. “I’ve been disappointed a lot at times, but as far as self pity, no one really wants to hear any excuses. No one feels that bad for you, no matter what you’re going through. I’ll be fine. I’ll manage no matter what’s going on.”

With Mark Kotsay out at least two months with a back injury, Baldelli is one more injury away from being an everyday outfielder. It is uncertain if Baldelli could handle such a load, but he has a better sense of his capabilities after re-learning his body last season. Despite his ongoing condition, Baldelli still made a significant impact with the Rays last October.

“I didn’t know what I was dealing with before,” Baldelli said. “Pretty much through trail and error is how I figured out what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I’m pretty comfortable with what I’m doing right now. I have a pretty good idea.“When my relative complete health gets back to me, I’d love to be an everyday player again. It would be great. I’ve never really set any goals as far as how many games I want to play or statistics or anything like that. Whatever they ask, I just want to be ready to do it.”

If healthy, Baldelli can help the Red Sox take one more step in 2009 than a year ago, when Baldelli's Rays ended the Red Sox's season in Game 7 of the ALCS.

“Playing against him his rookie year [in 2003] was like, man, this guy is going to be a good player for a long time, so you feel bad for that scenario,” Mike Lowell said. “It’s a relief when they re-diagnosed it and he can still play. I relate it to when they told me I had cancer, but they told me it was very beatable. He’s a really good guy and a guy who can really help us out. I’m actually really happy he’s on our team.

“I think the guys we signed, there’s more room for error. Without them, we were a really good team that almost got to the World Series. Now, if they’re healthy, imagine how good we can be.”

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