Rocco Baldelli didn’t always know he wanted to be a manager.
Sure, it was something he’d thought about, but it was just recently that he realized he’d like to be the head man of an MLB team.
That wasn’t on his radar when the Tampa Bay Rays ended their season a little over three weeks ago. “I was ready to head back home to Rhode Island and start getting ready for the 2019 season with the Rays,” Baldelli admitted following his introductory press conference at Target Field on Thursday afternoon as the 13th manager in Minnesota Twins history.
That press conference was the end of a whirlwind stretch where Baldelli interviewed for as many as five teams — he was hesitant to confirm the number, but rather went with the word “many” to describe it — before settling on his new digs at 1 Twins Way.
LISTEN: Brandon and Tom break down the Baldelli hiring on the latest Midwest Swing
It all started with the Twins making the perfunctory phone call to the Rays to show interest in Baldelli — one of roughly 30 candidates the team looked at by chief baseball officer Derek Falvey’s estimation.
Baldelli got a call from within the Tampa Bay organization, and it wasn’t necessarily one he was expecting. The voice on the other side of the line told him the Twins were interested in looking at him to be their next manager.
In today’s game, Baldelli as a manager isn’t really that strange of an idea. As was humorously noted on Twitter earlier Thursday, one could make an entire lineup of current managers on MVP 2005, arguably the finest baseball video game ever made. Each of those players were active in the big leagues when the game came out that spring, and while it’s a lineup short on firepower, there’s no shortage of brain power.
Saw this on Reddit, you can make an entire lineup now out of current MLB managers on MVP Baseball 2005 pic.twitter.com/wbVE7lLeKL
— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) October 25, 2018
Baldelli checks off the boxes of what a lot of teams want in a modern manager — youth, communication, experience and an understanding of analytics if not an outright devotion to it.
But for the Twins, a team slowly but surely adjusting to the modernization of the game in recent years, the managerial hire definitely qualified as out of the box.
- Paul Molitor: St. Paul native, former Twin, Hall of Famer, already on Gardenhire’s staff when hired to manage prior to the 2015 season.
- Ron Gardenhire: Hired before 2002, was already in the organization as the third-base coach.
- Tom Kelly: Hired in late 1986 at age 36, was already in the organization as the third-base coach.
Replacing Molitor — a manager a lot of fans feel got a raw deal — won’t be easy. Baldelli is keenly aware of that.
“Actually I do feel that way, like deep down,” Baldelli answered when asked if he thought it would be a challenge. “Paul is a very important person. He’s huge up here in Minnesota. He’s huge everywhere else, maybe in a different way. He’s an icon. Everyone knows him and respects him very much. I’d have a hard time finding too many people in the game of baseball who do not respect Paul Molitor through and through. I’ve thought about that a little bit. That does come into play and in my mind. But I can only be me and, at the end of the day, be who I am.”
Who Baldelli is can be a bit confusing — through no fault of his own.
He’s the oldest child of Dan and Michelle Baldelli, and was a phenomenally talented player coming out of Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, Rhode Island following his graduation in 2000. Baldelli reached the big leagues in 2003 — the first of what’s now three players (Jeff Beliveau and Thomas Pannone are the others) to come out of his high school and get to the MLB level — and hit the ground running by slashing .289/.326/.416 in 156 games while playing almost exclusively in center field for a 99-loss team under the direction of legendary manager Lou Piniella.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) October 25, 2018
Baldelli finished third in that year’s Rookie of the Year balloting — behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui — but stumbled out of the gates the next season. At the end of April, he was hitting just .244/.306/.321.
At some point early that season, Piniella called him into his office for a brief chat. Baldelli smiled when recalling the story of dealing with the famously-gruff Piniella, who more or less told him to relax and just be himself.
One thing that became evident with Baldelli is his polish when answering questions. Rather than meaningless platitudes or flowery answers full of empty calories, the 37-year-old — by the way, the youngest among MLB managers — Baldelli attacked each question like a pitcher trying to fool him with a 2-0 changeup.
“So of all the managers I’ve been around, Lou was very particular,” Baldelli recalled. “He had his specific way of interacting and doing things. That moment taught me a lot. That actually did happen. My first year I had some success. I came into my second year and didn’t initially. It was very difficult and you start thinking a lot of different things. Then those start to affect what you do on the field. They tangibly affect your performance. And the mind is incredibly fragile at times and incredibly durable and strong at times. That was the time that I needed what Lou gave me.
“He called me in the office and he said, ‘Listen;’ well he probably said like, ‘Son,’ and then said something else (likely an expletive). He said, ‘You’re our guy. I don’t know what you’re doing out there. Just relax and go play. You’re going to be out there every day. Go.’ That was basically it. That was essentially the message. And just hearing that allowed me to sleep at night and know that I was going to have the opportunity, and even if I went 0 for 4 the next day, I didn’t have to worry about anything.
“All I had to worry about was doing better and making adjustments and making improvements. That did everything for me.”
Baldelli hit .312/.359/.440 in May. From May 1 on, he hit .286/.329/.457, and it appeared as though brighter days were on the horizon for the 22-year-old Baldelli and even the Rays, who lost eight fewer games in 2004 than the year before.
It wasn’t meant to be.
The 2005 season was Piniella’s final year at the helm of the Devil Rays. The team slumped back to 95 losses, and Baldelli didn’t play a single game in the big leagues that year. It was a sign of things to come, as he never again played 100 games in any season and totaled just 222 MLB games after his age-22 season.
Baldelli was stricken with a disease termed a “mysterious cell disorder” in a post dated Aug. 8, 2008, which currently appears on mitoaction.org. The disorder causes muscle weakness, and was later called mitochondrial disease. Fox’s Ken Rosenthal even went as far as to wear a bowtie bringing attention to the disease back in 2015.
Today's bow tie: MitoAction (mitochondrial disease). Rocco Baldelli had a form of this. More: http://t.co/lmiLMmYenY
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 18, 2015
Nevertheless, Baldelli was never able to regain enough strength to play on a full-time basis, and retired from MLB action at age-28 following a brief stint back with the Rays in 2010 after playing for the Boxton Red Sox in 2009.
That’s — at least until 2019 — the only year in Baldelli’s 20-year baseball career he’s spent outside of the Tampa Bay organization.
Baldelli immediately went to work for the organization, and held various roles throughout the front office, scouting and on-field coaching ranks.
“(Current Dodgers executive) Andrew Friedman, who was the general manager with the Rays, offered me a place in the organization when I was done playing,” Baldelli said. “I thought about it and said, ‘This is what I know. I love going to the field. I love the people I’ve been with. I’m going to just go for it.’ And at that point, I didn’t have any real personal ambition. It was more ‘I want to work with these people and I want to win and I want to have a great experience doing it.’
“That’s really the way I approach everything. Even to this day that’s the way I approach everything. I don’t think very much about myself and personal benefit as much as I actually want to show up with people that I like to work with and people that challenged me every day and people that I can go out there and enjoy this experience. That means more to me than anything.”
After working in various roles off the field, Baldelli was added to the MLB staff under current manager Kevin Cash for the 2015 season. He served as first-base coach and ultimately moved onto the major-league field coordinator role, which is a lot like what Jeff Pickler has done for the Twins the last two seasons.
When Baldelli agreed to start the interview process with the Twins, they vetted him thoroughly and found that he was highly respected among virtually everyone the came across in the process.
“Everybody we talked to about Rocco just was glowing about his ability to develop relationships, to respect people, to both lead and follow,” said Twins general manager Thad Levine. “He’s willing to talk and to listen, and that combination was extremely endearing to us.
“When we got to spend time with him, one of the things that stood out to me was his humility. He was one of the candidates who was comfortable telling us what he didn’t know, and how he was going to go about trying to ferret out information by talking to people who were very knowledgeable. And his wealth of relationships was exceptional.”
But while the relationships helped his cause, it was his resume that got him initially noticed, Levine said.
“I think part of what got him on the board was his resume, but I think what got him through the process was the person,” Levine said.
So the Twins were clearly sold on Baldelli; how was he sold on them?
“First and foremost, it was the feel that I got just from the conversations that I had when I came up here,” Baldelli said. “It’s the people involved. I got the opportunity to meet the Pohlad family, Jim and Joe; I got to spend a lot of time with the guys on the stage with me right now.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) October 25, 2018
“But I also heard just as much as I sat there and responded to questions, I also heard a lot about what the organization and the community stand for up here, and it gave me just a tremendous feeling when I left. I’d say that’s the main reason why I was so excited about it.”
There’s no shortage of Rays connections in the Twins organization, which helped play a key part in bringing him to Minnesota. In addition to Derek Shelton and pitching guru Josh Kalk, the Twins also acquired right-handed starter Jake Odorizzi from Tampa Bay prior to last season, and he made sure to give the team his two cents about the manager.
Odorizzi appeared on MLB Network Radio’s “Power Alley” program on Thursday morning and spoke in glowing terms of his new manager. Falvey also noted that Odorizzi made himself available early in the process, telling the Twins he was willing to help however he could.
“He’s a very knowledgeable guy,” Odorizzi told Mike Ferrin. “He’s a little quiet to begin with. I think he’ll overanalyze everything, and really want to get to know the guys, but he’s going to think about what he says before he says it. He’s a great people person. There’s just a feeling out process as the new guy. But once I got to know him, I loved him. He’s a relatable guy. That’s just how he is.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) October 25, 2018
“It’s almost like you’re talking to a player. He’s about as down to earth as they come. He’s everything you’re looking at in a teammate, but he’s your manager now. Take that and put him at the top running the ship. He’s going to get along really well with guys. I’m really looking forward to seeing his philosophies as a manager, because I’ve seen him in just about every other role.”
Another player familiar to Twins fans but certainly not from his relationship with Baldelli is Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe spent 42 games with the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2017 season, and had an opportunity to see Baldelli up close and personal in his element on the coaching staff.
“He’s an inherently cool person,” Plouffe told Zone Coverage. “The kind of guy who doesn’t try hard but people want to be around him. You mix that with his intelligence and overall knowledge of the game and you can see why he’s a leader.”
Plouffe added that it never really mattered to him what kind of manager he played for — like Baldelli or Molitor, who in their own ways were accomplished players as opposed to Gardenhire, who by his own admission was a “futility infielder” — but rather what kind of leader he was for his team.
“It never mattered to me,” Plouffe said. “I wanted coaches who were ready to work and could see each player as an individual. Passion is also very important, because it’s a grind as you know. I think Rocco checks those boxes.”
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) October 25, 2018
Baldelli didn’t go too deep into the woods on his philosophies as a coach — and now as a manager — but did seem to emphasize relationships and most importantly, listening.
“As I sit here right now I want to learn as much as I can about these guys, talk to people who have spent a lot of time around all of them and also meet them and actually talk to them before I feel like I have any ability to help them,” Baldelli said. “As I sit here right now, I don’t have any answers.
“I can only say it’s a process and I’m very much looking forward to connecting with these guys and talking with them. Just as much as I would be able to share with them, I want to hear what they have to say. I think that’s probably the best place for me to start when talking with the players.”
There will be some influence from well-known managers when it comes to Baldelli, however. He played for Terry Francona and Joe Maddon and worked for Cash, and he admitted there will be some of that rubbing off on him.
“Joe is definitely an influence on me, and so is Tito and so is Kevin,” Baldelli said. “Truthfully, I’ve spent the most time and the most intimate time with Kevin. Those are three very different people — well, Kevin and Tito are tight, so maybe it’s like two different people — but they actually are similar in some ways. I’ve seen this approach work well when you support these players and give them some freedom. They actually respond very well to it and they like it.
“Does that open up other avenues where maybe, you know, you might want to keep an eye on certain things when you give people extra freedom? Absolutely, but I actually think that when they came to the field, they show up to work. They take ownership of what they’re doing better than when you’re just regulating everything that they do. I prefer this approach to the other.”
Baldelli doesn’t expect to have to fight for respect, but he’s not going to take a hard line. Communication is a two-way street, and he wants to travel in both directions.
Again, Baldelli showed depth and breadth when delivering his response.
“I think you talk to them,” Baldelli said of gaining the respect of his team. “You don’t come out the first day and give your hopefully semi-interesting spring training speech to the whole team and hope that’s going to do the trick. That’s not how it works. The way it works is you hopefully talk to them this offseason and then you get to know them a little bit, and then you get to know them a little more and then you show up to spring training and you take an interest in them. Not just in baseball careers but get to know them.
“I like getting to know people and I appreciate the people that I work with. Not just for the players that they are and what they do out on the field, I like to know what makes these guys tick and really how to get the most out of them on the field and off. That’s really the answer. When you have a good relationship with people and I know people, when they walk into the room and it makes me happy to see them and I’m actually looking forward to hearing what they’re going to say, that’s going to work out well. When stuff like that starts happening, it’s going to work out well. That’s, really, at the end of the day, what I’m looking to hopefully create. It takes time. It does not just happen overnight.
— Twins Photography (@TwinsPics) October 25, 2018
“Someone I don’t know or have never met, why would they have an exceptional amount of trust in me? Well, except for Derek and Thad hiring me, I guess. Besides that – they don’t know me. You build that over time and that’s the part I look forward to, the interactions that I have and in building the trust and relationships with these guys. You don’t know how it’s going to end up, but that’s the only way I know how to do it.”
Baldelli put on his philosophy cap one more time at the end of his presser, suggesting that while he served very different roles on and off the field with Tampa Bay, the lines are blurry at best when it comes to what and how he learned in those capacities.
“I don’t really look at it as being different,” Baldelli said. “I look at it as what I was exposed to. That’s generally the way I look at a lot of things. I’ll get abstract on you for a second. I’ve always believed traveling, and going and seeing how other people live and meeting other people and observing what goes on in other places teaches you a lot. It gives you an idea that maybe what you’re doing might not be the end-all at the end of the day.
“I think it relates really to all aspects of life and really to baseball. When I was playing, I was exposed to certain things. When I stopped playing — even toward the end of my career — we were already starting to talk about some new ideas. It doesn’t mean every idea is right. It doesn’t mean it’s going to help you have success in any way. But I started thinking about a lot of things, and I was exposed to a lot of things with our front office when I went to work with them. That gave me a really good foundation of a completely different way of looking at certain things.
“Now, I actually do believe that when you take a lot of traditional aspects of the game and teaching methods and things like that, and general good baseball knowledge, and you combine it with some good information and good people to convey that information, that’s when things can really work out well. That simple equation is what I would hope we end up getting going here.”
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