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Not every athlete goes out on their own terms

January 31, 2011

I’m not a fan of his music, but Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” has been embedded in my mind ever since Rocco Baldelli announced his retirement last week. The ballad has long been viewed as John articulating his feelings for the song’s subject, Marilyn Monroe, through the power of song. Still, there’s one portion of the chorus that I feel best sums up Baldelli’s career – as well as other athletes who call it a career sooner than expected:

Your candle burned out long before —
Your legend ever did.
Rocco Baldelli will always be held in high regard around these parts because of what he represented. He was our emissary to the glitz and glamour that is professional sports; the hometown hero who because of his Blackstone Valley roots forced us to check the boxscores in the morning (Remember a few years back when this community-centered newspaper decided it would be a cool idea to run a daily update/highlight package?).
Baldelli may have gone big time, but he was still woven into local life, the fact that he spent a hefty portion of the offseason kicking back in his home state affirming as much.
Through all the highs and lows, Baldelli was still viewed in the same “he’s one of us” light. We jumped out of our seats and cheered when he hit a home run during the 2008 World Series. Our stomachs felt a bit empty upon hearing the news that his playing days were through. We wish him luck in his future endeavors because, well, Baldelli, 29, still has a lot of life to live.
Baldelli didn’t end up having one those fabled careers many envisioned upon getting selected sixth overall in the 2000 draft. His career was plagued with injuries, illness and countless rehab stints. As a result he was denied the chance to even have a prime, or reach his impending rendezvous with destiny.
If anything, Baldelli is the latest example of the unheralded side of pro sports, the kind that has nothing to do with wins and losses, or home runs, or larger than life salaries, or anything we’ve come to associate with athletes. Not all of them get to depart on their own terms. Sometimes the goodbyes come sooner than expected or anticipated – much sooner in cases like Baldelli’s.
All athletes who put on a pro uniform need nary a reminder that it’s not going to last forever. Even Gordie Howe, who is the only player to have competed in the NHL in five (1940s through 1980s) different decades, eventually hung up his skates for good. Mortality is something that every athlete must confront, the hope that they can enjoy the ride before it comes to a complete stop.
Baldelli wasn’t afforded such a luxury. Yes, he wound up spending seven seasons in the big leagues (six with Tampa Bay, one with Boston), but it was an injury-marred stay that comes equipped with one loaded question.
What could have been?
The same thing crossed our mind when Pawtucket native Jay Rainville announced his retirement a few years back. Like Baldelli, big things were projected for Rainville, once a number-one draft choice of the Minnesota Twins. Like Baldelli, Rainville endured a career that was short-circuited, a debilitating shoulder injury the culprit in his premature departure at age 23.
Baldelli and Rainville aren’t the first athletes forced to exit stage left, the lights turned out before the curtain is lowered. Tony Conigliaro is perhaps the poster boy of having a promising career derailed due to circumstances beyond his control, the sight of him being carted off the field after getting struck in the eye with a pitch going down as one of the most horrific images in New England sports history. Monica Seles was never the same force on the court after a frightening stabbing incident that cost her two years away from tennis. A bone-crunching hip injury on the gridiron ceased Bo Jackson’s days of double dipping as a professional football and baseball player. All of the aforementioned sustained their setbacks before turning 30. More importantly, none of them were ever the same after their bouts of misfortune.
Baldelli’s career had just too many starts and stops. When it seemed everything was kosher, another flare-up would ensue, causing him to go back to the drawing board and summon whatever energy he could. Retiring months shy of turning 30, though sad and unfortunate, tells us that in professional sports nothing is forever. Not everyone has longevity on their side, which Pawtucket’s Keith Carney clearly did during a NHL career than covered 17 seasons and 1,018 games played.
In the case of Baldelli, his candle burned out long before he could take his career down the path he wanted and achieve a more fitting ending.

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