MILWAUKEE — Rocco Baldelli grew up on American League baseball. His favorite team growing up in Woonsocket, R.I. was the Boston Red Sox. He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and spent six of seven years in the majors with them. The other team he played for was… Boston.
After a rare medical condition forced him to retire in 2011 at age 29, he remained in the Rays organization in various roles before being hired as the Minnesota Twins manager last year.
“I didn’t grow up watching National League baseball, I didn’t grow up playing National League baseball,” he said. “It’s definitely a different brand of baseball than I’m used to. I do find it fun. I do find it enjoyable.
“But it’s definitely something where, you definitely don’t just sit there and just start watching the game. At any point, basically you have to stay locked in the entire game, and be aware of a lot of different things you don’t necessarily have to lock in on in the American League game.”
All those things that seem like a drag to people who watch the A.L. — pitchers hitting, the double-switch, etc. — are celebrated by fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs or the St. Louis Cardinals.
And while the “best fans in baseball” pretend to enjoy watching pitchers hit, the true upside is how it affects strategy. If a pitcher has run up a pitch count, and he’s up to bat in the sixth inning, should he stay in as practically an automatic out in order to pitch deeper into the game? Do you use the double-switch to move the pitcher’s spot further back in the lineup? What do you do with a player like Nelson Cruz, who at this point in his career is a full-time designated hitter?
“I find it challenging. It’s different than what you’re used to,” said Baldelli. “But when you come over and play these National League games, you definitely have to be of a different mindset, and you have to be ready to adjust and do things that you’re not necessarily used to doing.
“It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s a lot of different things. It also has your mind working in a lot of different ways.”
The 1981 ALDS and 1982 ALCS banners in left field are a reminder that they were in the junior circuit until 1998. But even then they were not in the same division as the Twins, which seems like a missed opportunity for MLB.
While it would be fun if the Twins and Brewers played nearly 20 times a year and competed for an AL Central division title, this border battle has the added wrinkle of being played by two different sets of rules.
Baldelli and the Twins got an early taste of N.L. play this season. They faced the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets five games into the season and went 2-3 on that trip. They entered the series against Milwaukee 6-9 in interleague play.
“You start to think about things beforehand,” said Baldelli. “When we rolled into Philly earlier in the year, we definitely prepared differently. We spent some time going through different situations, and mock went through some of these games.
“Because, like I keep saying, when you’re gonna be challenged to do something that you’re not used to doing, and you should probably prepare for in some way, I think those games have gone fine. But they force you out of your comfort zone for sure.”
There may only be 330 miles separating Minneapolis and Milwaukee, but for a manager who grew up in New England and played in Tampa, Target Field and Miller Park are worlds apart.