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Baldelli joins 'hometown' Red Sox

Baldelli joins 'hometown' Red Sox

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BOSTON -- The unveiling played out in true storybook fashion for a kid who grew up smashing baseballs in Cumberland, R.I., dreaming of one day doing it about 50 miles to the north at Fenway Park.

There Rocco Baldelli was on a makeshift stage late on Thursday afternoon, celebrating his official signing with the Boston Red Sox. The cap was right below him, as was the white Red Sox jersey with No. 5 on the back. General manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona flanked the team's newest player.

The Red Sox needed a fourth outfielder; Baldelli, a Tampa Bay Ray his first six Major League seasons, needed a new home.

The fit was perfect, if not for all the uncertainty regarding Baldelli's health.

But the Red Sox were willing to take that risk because they saw and heard the commitment, openness and character of Baldelli. And Baldelli decided to come home, not just because it was an enviable thing to do, but because he could feel the Red Sox's commitment to him.

"Theo and the Sox, they pursued me not only as a player, but also to understand me as a person and to help me out any way they could on the field and off the field," said Baldelli. "I think, first of all, that's one thing that appealed to me. Also, obviously my family and all my friends are just as pleased as I am to hear the news."

Baldelli played just 28 games during the 2008 regular season because of what was diagnosed at the time as mitochondrial disease. But after the results of those extensive tests finally came back a couple of months ago, there was an update on his condition, one that offers additional hope in the way of medication and other treatment that will make the ailment far less severe.

"Going into last year, in dealing with the media in Tampa, I would always say, 'I'm having tests done and I'll have the results later,'" Baldelli said. "But the tests that I took way back when did come back, eventually. It took more than the length of the season to come back. But they came back. It was more of a rediagnosis than a misdiagnosis. I wouldn't call it that at all. At the time, that was the best thing we had to go with. That was the consensus among all the specialists I was working with. The results were positive. The results we got back were something I was excited about, both for my personal health and my ability to get on the field."

There are no guarantees, which is why the Red Sox and Baldelli reached an agreement that was more than fair to both sides. Baldelli will earn a base salary of $500,000, but there are several performance incentives, many of which are built around plate appearances. For example, that salary doubles if Baldelli winds up making 350 plate appearances, which is certainly conceivable.

"One factor for us was, right from the beginning, in our first meeting with Rocco and [agent] Casey Close, how open they were with the things that Rocco has been through," said Epstein. "They didn't hide the ball on anything. They were sort of looking for a partner in this process. As Rocco said, it's an ongoing process and we feel that, as a person and as a player, he's someone we want to invest our time and energy in. He has a really high upside, a high return, and he's a great fit for the organization in a lot of different ways, off the field and on."

Just because he is switching teams doesn't mean he will change uniform numbers, too. He'll be the first Red Sox player to wear No. 5 since Nomar Garciaparra departed on July 31, 2004.

"It was brought to my attention that, obviously, this is, and has always been, a very special number in this town," said Baldelli. "I recognize that as much as anybody. It was brought to my attention that there was a possibility I'd be able to wear it, it being the number that I wore my whole career. I accepted it. I think it's great, and I'm happy about it."

So, too, were the Red Sox, who have long been fans of Baldelli.

"There's a definite fit on this club for Rocco," Epstein said. "It seems like every offseason we've been looking for a really talented right-handed-hitting outfielder to complement the core of outfielders that we have. Rocco obviously is talented enough to start for many clubs. Due to circumstances the last couple of years, and the evolution of his career, this seemed like the right time, and the right fit, where he could help us out as an extra outfielder and be a pretty dynamic one."

Not that Baldelli, who is still just 27 years old, has lost hope of one day reclaiming his place as a mainstay in the outfield, be it with the Red Sox or another team.

"Absolutely, just the competitive nature of being an athlete, I don't think anyone wants to reserve themselves at the age of 27 to not playing every day," Baldelli said. "I do have hopes of getting on the field as much as possible. I don't know what that number is or what it could be, but it's something that I do think about. I think it's probably a positive, healthy thing to think like that rather than being resigned to playing once out of every X amount of days. It's something I hope for."

Francona, though he didn't much appreciate the prodigious homer Baldelli knocked over the Green Monster in Game 3 of the 2008 American League Championship Series, is looking forward to having him on board.

"He can play left, right and center," Francona said. "He can catch the ball. He can run the bases. He can hit a home run. And he's a great kid. But there are some risks. It seems like it's kind of worth it from our side, because he's very accountable as a player and a person, so that makes us feel good."

Hot Stove

To make room for Baldelli on the 40-man roster, knuckleball pitcher Charlie Zink was designated for assignment.

Shortly after holding court with the media, Baldelli -- as had been scheduled all along -- received the Tony Conigliaro Award at Thursday night's Boston Baseball Writers Dinner.

The Tony Conigliaro Award -- named after the late Red Sox star of the 1960s and '70s -- is given to a player who overcomes adversity through spirit, courage and determination.

While Baldelli is known for his strong character, his bat also packs some wallop.

He came up a potential star, finishing third in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2003, when he hit .289 with 11 homers, 78 RBIs and 27 stolen bases.

After another solid season in 2004 (.280, 16 homers, 74 RBIs), injuries became a huge problem for Baldelli. He missed the entire 2005 season with a torn ACL in his left knee and a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Baldelli looked poised to get back into form when he hit .302 with 16 homers in 92 games during the 2006 season. However, he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on May 15, 2007.

Then there was the frustration and uncertainty of 2008.

Now, Baldelli is hoping that things are ready to go his way again. And he will be in familiar surroundings.

"This is a very exciting day for the organization," Epstein said.

But far more exciting for the entire Baldelli family.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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