Changes big and small are becoming common around the Twins, even to something as mundane as the Target Field press conference room. The Twins reconfigured it after the season, turning the chairs to face the long wall opposite the main entrance. A Twins official said they switched it up to showcase a different set of oversized magazine covers mounted on the walls.
Into this new setting Thursday stepped new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, prematurely balding at 37 but otherwise stylish in appearance. A closely-cropped black beard fit nicely with his dark blue suit, maroon tie and dark brown shoes. This was a new day, and baseball’s youngest manager certainly looked the part.
Formerly an outfielder with Tampa Bay and Boston, and later a scout and first-base coach for the Rays, Baldelli’s reputation as a low-ego communicator landed him the job as much as his baseball savvy. Right away, he showed he could take direction. Before joining Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine on the dais, Baldelli shook hands with 98-year-old Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman slouched in the front row, something Baldelli clearly had been asked to do. Dan and Michelle Baldelli, of the Woonsocket, R.I. Baldellis, raised a respectful young man.
It was a good start. Falvey and Levine took yards of heat for firing 62-year-old manager Paul Molitor one year after Molitor was voted American League Manager of the Year. They’re betting their careers on Baldelli being an upgrade. Levine said owner Jim Pohlad gave him and Falvey a critical stage direction: to handle this managerial hire as if it was their last. Not in an ominous way, Levine said, but with a nod to stability, a return to the Tom Kelly/Ron Gardenhire notion of keeping a manager for a decade or more. Baldelli is the first manager hired from outside the organization since Ray Miller in 1985, and the fourth overall since Kelly replaced Miller in 1986.
You hear a lot about communication and relating to players with first-time managers these days, and Baldelli fits the prototype. With his parents, three brothers and his longtime girlfriend beaming in the front row, Baldelli spoke at length about getting to know his players and giving them the freedom to absorb information, relax and perform. Baldelli seemed smart and approachable with a sense of humility. He speaks minimal Spanish, but stressed the need for a diverse coaching staff to relate to players of all backgrounds.
“Part of what got him on the board was his résumé, but I think what got him through the process was the person,” Levine said. “We did a ton of vetting of every single candidate. Everybody we talked to about Rocco just was glowing about his ability to develop relationships, to respect people, to both lead and follow. He’s willing to talk and to listen. That combination was extremely endearing to us.”
Baldelli grew up in a baseball town — Hall of Famers Nap Lajoie and Gabby Hartnett were born in Woonsocket, and former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Clem Labine lived there most of his life — and his family breathes baseball. Brother Nick, now a dentist, and Falvey were baseball teammates at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn; Nick cancelled appointments Thursday and Friday to attend the press conference. Dante, a junior outfielder at Boston College, was a 39th-round pick of the Phillies in 2016. And his mother Michelle, the daughter of an All-State baseball player at Woonsocket High, was named for Mickey Mantle.
“My boys growing up had bats when they were two years old,” Michelle Baldelli said. “Rocco was very competitive at a very young age. Nobody had to encourage him to do anything. It’s not a surprise where baseball took him. It’s amazing.”
Rocco was one of those too-good-to-be-true athletes who come out of working-class New England once a generation. His father Dan, known in Woonsocket as Rocky, was a teacher and a firefighter before opening a pawn shop, coffee shop and check cashing service in the same building. Rocky set up a batting cage in the basement, called the Dungeon, where Rocco showed off his swing for scouts. Rocco excelled in baseball, basketball, track and volleyball at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., got straight As, and chose Wake Forest over Princeton for college before signing with the Rays as a first-round pick. His nickname: The Woonsocket Rocket. But he never acted like he was better than anyone else.
“He always looked for the good in people,” Rocky Baldelli said. “It didn’t matter if you were the athlete, the smart kid in the class, the people who played the trumpet, the person who was in theatre and the arts. He was friends, and generally friendly, with everybody. I think that kind of translates over to what he’s doing in baseball, when you have so many different types of individuals. I think it works. He’s always accepted everyone and been very fair with everyone. That’s how he is. He’s one of those kids who never changed.”
Baldelli showed that in the way he answered questions. When a reporter identified himself or herself, Baldelli said hello and repeated the first name. He gave long, thoughtful responses, almost always beginning with “So…”, rarely resorting to buzzwords and cliches.
Baldelli is one of the baseball’s most well-liked people, much like Joe Mauer, and that came across repeatedly. He even disarmed one crotchety columnist (no, not Sid, the other one from the Strib) who groused about the new “opener” pitching strategy ruining baseball.
“So, I feel like open-mindedness and just curiosity are generally good traits regardless of what industry that you’re in,” he said, to laughter.
Still, Baldelli knows where he stands. He lacks Molitor’s Hall of Fame playing résumé. Multiple injuries, plus a muscle disorder that caused fatigue and cramping, forced him to retire at age 29. He doesn’t expect instant credibility. “Why would they have an exceptional amount of trust in me?” he said. “They don’t know me. You build that over time. That’s the part I look forward to, 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.”
To gain that trust, he said, “You talk to them. You don’t come out the first day and give your hopefully semi-interesting spring training speech to the whole team and think that’s going to do the trick. That’s not how it works. The way it works is, you hopefully in this off-season get to know them a little bit. Then you get to know them a little more. And hopefully, you show up to spring training and take an interest in them, not just in a baseball career.
“I like getting to know people. I like to know what makes these guys tick, and how to get the most out of them on the field and off. That’s really the answer.”
Communication helps if you’ve got good players, and the Twins enter this offseason with questions and deficiencies just about everywhere.
Earlier in the day, Baldelli said he spoke briefly by phone with Mauer, who still hasn’t decided whether to play next year. (Expect that announcement next week.) Baldelli needs to spend time with the oft-injured Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó before determining how to help the club’s two most important young players revive their careers. The Twins banked on them as stars, and Baldelli’s success may ride on getting more out of them than Molitor did — a task much more difficult than, say, rearranging chairs.
“I want to hear what they have to say,” Baldelli said. “That’s probably the best place for me to start.”