PORT CHARLOTTE — They found themselves alone in the dugout, the baseball player with the mysterious muscle ailment that not only threatened his career but, for a time, was thought to have threatened his life, and the trainer who helped nurse the player through the ordeal, sharing a mountain of medical evidence and evaluations, theories and tears. Lots of tears.
The celebration last September after the Tampa Bay Rays clinched their first playoff berth still raged in the clubhouse, but team trainer Ron Porterfield returned to the dugout to collect his gear. At the end of the bench was Rocco Baldelli, the Rays outfielder who a year earlier thought he might be dying.
Baldelli played that afternoon, entering the game in the fifth inning as a pinch-hitter and forced home a run with a bases-loaded walk. The man who once thought at best he would never play baseball again was in right field when the game ended and the Rays, the worst team in baseball for most of Baldelli’s days in Tampa Bay, had clinched a spot in the postseason.
The two locked eyes.
Only one word was necessary.
Baldelli spoke it.
“Thanks,” he said.
Porterfield returned to his home in Parrish that night and cried.
“If I didn’t tell you I shed tears I’d be lying,” Porterfield said. “Just being excited for him, we shed many tears together.”
Porterfield fought back tears Friday morning when recounting that moment. He stood outside the Rays clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park. Behind him was parked the Boston Red Sox team bus.
Baldelli was in town with his new team.
“It kills me to see him in another uniform, but I wish him the best,” Porterfield said. “I think anybody who would have gone through or seen him at his rock bottom would have done the same for him.”
Rock bottom came in August 2007 when Baldelli had to take himself out of the lineup of a Class A game at Vero Beach. He was there on a rehab assignment, hoping to play his way back to the major leagues.
The pain in Baldelli’s legs was too much. He called Porterfield from the dugout at 4:30 in the afternoon. Baldelli was crying. Aside from the times Porterfield hung up to call a doctor, the two spoke on the phone until 7:15 p.m., when Porterfield had to hang up for good because the Rays game at Tropicana Field was about to start.
“He was on the other end of the phone, probably not knowing what to do,” Baldelli said. “I didn’t know what to do, and he wasn’t sure what to do either, and that’s when all this pretty much started.”
The Rays flew Baldelli around the country during the next few months, seeking opinions from the top specialist in every walk of medical life.
The eventual diagnosis was a mitochondrial disorder, which slows muscle recovery and causes fatigue and burning in the muscles.
Just running to first base could force Baldelli to miss days.
But knowing there was an answer was comforting.
“I think the best day was when he came out (last March) and told everybody,” Porterfield said. “That was number one. That was kind of the first step in, I think, getting the monkey off his back, if you will. When he came out and said, ‘This is what I got, this is what we believe is going on,’ from there it kind of released the tension off him, I think. We started to get into a little bit of a recovery time. He could start doing things again.”
Baldelli’s strength returned little by little last summer. The Rays hoped he might return by September. Baldelli was back on the field in August. He couldn’t play on consecutive days, and Rays manager Joe Maddon wanted to limit Baldelli’s time on the artificial turf at Tropicana Field, but Baldelli made contributions during the stretch run. He beat the Baltimore Orioles with a ninth-inning double, reaching base that day a career-high five times.
He homered at Boston during the American League Championship Series and at Philadelphia during Game 5 of the World Series. In fact, Baldelli’s last at-bat for the Rays was that seventh-inning home run.
As for his best memories as a Ray? It would be his last weeks as a Ray.
“I think playing in the playoffs, clinching games and celebrating on the field,” Baldelli said. “I mean, celebrating at Tropicana Field. I never thought there’d ever be a celebration at Tropicana Field.”
The Rays had bought out the option on Baldelli’s contract for the 2009 season, making him a free agent this past winter. On Jan. 8 the 27-year-old native of Woonsocket, R.I., signed with the Red Sox.
“I’m happy he’s near his home,” Maddon said. “The people of New England will really appreciate him.”
Baldelli received a big hand from Friday’s sellout crowd when he was introduced before the Rays’ 12-4 victory. Serving as the Red Sox designated hitter, Baldelli had an RBI single and drew a walk in three trips to the plate.
“I got more hugs (Friday) than I have in a long time,” he said before the game.
It felt strange seeing Baldelli wearing the Red Sox red. Baldelli said it felt a little strange to not be in a Rays uniform.
“I’ve been in one place my whole career,” Baldelli said. “The reality of this situation is I play for the Red Sox now. (The Rays) are all still my friends.”
Baldelli didn’t want to delve too deeply into his health issues Friday, but he knows it’s one question that will follow him for the rest of his career.
“Everything is going well, everything has been good in camp so far,” he said. “I’m doing everything on the field. I don’t take part in some of the conditioning stuff, as far as extra running, but as far baseball, I take care of all of that.”
Porterfield met with the Red Sox medical staff in the offseason, briefing them on everything the Rays knew about Baldelli. What the Rays knew took up more than 3,000 pages.
“What he went through, there’s not a quick fix,” Porterfield said. “There’s really no cure. It’s a how to deal with it.”
And you learn to deal with it by trial and error.
Trying to find the answers were the most frustrating moments of Porterfield’s 22 years as a trainer, the last 13 with the Rays.
“He was the toughest I had to deal with, without a doubt,” he said.
Porterfield spent so much time working with Baldelli and his doctors the Rays hired a second assistant trainer.
“I learned a lot about him. I know as much about him as I do my kids. What he’s been through since the time he was born until now,” Porterfield said. “My wife (Barbara) always kind of ridiculed me, asking, ‘Are you married to me? Or are you married to him?’ ”
But Porterfield knows it was worth it. Seeing Baldelli return to the field, seeing him on the field when the Rays beat the Minnesota Twins last September to clinch a playoff berth was worth every second spent, every tear shed, while they searched for answers.
“It was a chore,” Porterfield said, “but I would do it all over again.”
There were plenty of hugs for Baldelli on Friday. One came from his former trainer.
“Well, I think I can say that I don’t know for a fact if I’d be out here playing if he didn’t put in the effort that he did,” Baldelli said. “I don’t know any other way to put it. It boils down to that. The guy gave it everything he had.”