As he embarks on his fifth season as manager, Twins’ Rocco Baldelli feeling more comfortable, confident
The last four years included what Baldelli describes as “some of the most turbulent” times in his life, as well as some of the best
MINNEAPOLIS — Rocco Baldelli was irate.
His most animated ejection to date had included a tossed hat and kicked dirt, and the Twins manager was still simmering during his postgame media session after a 3-2 home loss to the Toronto Blue – the byproduct of an overturned call that Baldelli did not agree with.
“One of the most (expletive) things I’ve ever seen on a baseball field,” he said amid a profanity-laced rant – deviating for once from the stoic demeanor that disguises his emotions.
As the Twins get set to open their fifth season under Baldelli, the 41-year-old manager says he feels like the same person he’s always been — but feels very different in a lot of ways, too.
The last four seasons featured what Baldelli described as “some of the most turbulent” times of his life. Yet they’re times that reflect growth and double as some of the best.
He has gotten engaged and married. He’s started a family with his wife, Allie, welcoming a baby girl in 2021. He’s also lost a close friend unexpectedly and navigated the waters through the anxieties and uncertainties of a global pandemic and a lockout.
But as he kicks off his fifth season in charge of the Twins, Rocco Baldelli feels he is where he is supposed to be.
“It feels like not very long ago where I was just starting here, but I think it’s actually so much better now for me here just because I’m more comfortable with myself as I sit here right now than I was when I took the job,” Baldelli said. “… I’m just finding more and better ways to really enjoy what I get a chance to do. I consider it a gift and I do consider it a privilege to be here, and I think I always will.”
In many ways, Baldelli’s first season was the one that provided the fewest challenges.
He was 37 at the time of his hiring, the youngest manager in Major League Baseball and while he had plenty of prior coaching experience with the Tampa Bay Rays, he had never managed before.
With no ties to Minnesota, Baldelli was hired to take over for a local legend, St. Paul native Paul Molitor.
Everything was new, and Baldelli wanted to dive into as many things as he could. As he got settled into his new role, the Twins built a staff around him that could lend support to the first-time manager. That included bench coach Derek Shelton, one of Baldelli’s close friends and a finalist for the manager job.
“There were times where he leaned on me almost to the point of almost letting me make the decision,” said Shelton, now the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. “… I think his biggest strength at that time was, ‘OK, I don’t know certain things and I’m going to lean on people.’ ”
Things really couldn’t have gone much smoother that year for Baldelli and the Twins. The Bomba Squad set a single-season home-run record, slugging its way to the playoffs. The pitching staff was the best the Twins’ have had in Baldelli’s first four seasons.
One hundred and one wins later, Baldelli was named the American League’s Manager of the Year.
After the season ended, Baldelli faced his first major hurdle: many of his coaches were poached by other teams.
Shelton left for Pittsburgh. Hitting coach James Rowson got a new job with the Marlins as their bench coach/offensive coordinator. Bullpen coach Jeremy Hefner became the Mets’ pitching coach.
All of a sudden, some of the people whom he had relied upon the most were gone.
Rocco Baldelli, Shelton said, likes to be prepared, and if he’s not good at something, he’s going to “ultra prepare” to get good at it.
“I think the unknown stresses him out,” Shelton said.
And 2020 sure brought plenty of that. As the season approached, COVID-19 was spreading through the country, eventually grinding spring training to a halt.
Baseball shut down for months. When it returned, there was a quick, three-week ramp-up period and a whole host of new restrictions to navigate.
In between those things happening, George Floyd’s death in police custody led to a social reckoning around the country, and Baldelli, as a leader in the Twin Cities, used his voice to speak out on civil injustices.
“The world threw some things at everyone and then we had some things out of our control happen, that made it even more painful and more challenging,” Baldelli said. “But everyone that went through it in one form or another is going to be strong. You’re going to come out of it strong. And I think a lot of our people did.”
A big part of his job, whether those around him know it or not, is looking after everyone in the Twins’ environment and giving players everything they need on and off the field to minimize distractions.
A simple life, he says, makes a better ballplayer.
But in 2020, there were distractions everywhere, and as fear and uncertainty gripped the nation, Baldelli had to guide the Twins through it.
On the last day of the truncated 2020 season, the Twins repeated as divisions champions, only to have the same playoff fate as the year before — defeat a first-round sweep — befall them.
“Having lived, managing through a pandemic, then magnified further by managing through the George Floyd crisis, I think we became a lot more than baseball guys. I don’t think any of us were perfectly prepared for that,” Twins general manager Thad Levine said. “The leadership challenges associated with that had to have been immense.”
When Shelton left the Twins, Mike Bell was hired from the Arizona Diamondbacks to be Baldelli’s right-hand man. The two quickly bonded. Bell traveled to Baldelli’s home state of Rhode Island before the 2020 season and hours spent in the car, traveling to spring training games, and sitting beside each other on the bench, helped the pair forge a strong bond.
Nobody was ready for the news that came in January 2021: Bell, 46, had kidney cancer. Just months later, on March 26, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey had to deliver to news to Baldelli that Bell had passed.
But baseball marched on, affording little time to grieve. Baldelli gave a eulogy at Bell’s funeral one day. The next, he was back in the dugout as the Twins began the 2021 season.
“Our game is not built to actually do those things, to take physical or mental breaks,” Baldelli said. “… Normally you’ve got to wait to decompress in the offseason and do whatever’s necessary and whatever you can in the moment to carry on and be strong for the people around you, too.”
Coming off back-to-back division titles, many believed the 2021 Twins would make the playoffs again or at least compete in the division.
Instead, they finished 73-89, in last place in the American League Central, coming undone by their pitching and selling off top talent at the trade deadline.
Things still weren’t back to normal in the clubhouse with many COVID-19 restrictions still in place. An outbreak during a trip to California forced the postponement of games and required the Twins to make an unplanned trip back out West later during the season.
But more than anything, Bell’s passing left a void, both physically, on the bench, and in the hearts of those who knew him. The Twins were once again forced to reshape their coaching staff — this time on the fly.
A challenging year for Baldelli at work was accompanied by some of his life’s biggest milestones away from it.
During the all-star break, after more than a decade together, Rocco and Allie wed in a small ceremony attended by their canine companion, Bowie.
Their family grew in September, when Louisa Sunny Baldelli was born, and all of a sudden, Baldelli’s life changed in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
“His sense of purpose, I think, has expanded significantly,” Levine said. “Not subtly, but significantly, and I think it’s always kind of top of mind.”
In the best way possible, during a difficult year at the park, baby Louisa provided an outlet to escape the stresses of the relentless grind of the baseball season, taking his mind away entirely.
“I can’t spend time with her and think about baseball at the same time,” Baldelli said. “Thank God that she’s there to help. She doesn’t maybe know it at the moment, but it’s a way to completely disconnect from everything and something that I think we all need.”
Louisa is now 18 months, and has started to develop an interest in baseball, her proud father says.
Nights in Fort Myers this spring were spent savoring time as a little family. Louisa has started finishing sentences as her parents read to her. “Baby Beluga,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and “The Very Busy Spider” are among her favorites books. When the baseball season starts, there’s nothing Baldelli misses more than being home every night for reading time.
As he became a father, Baldelli invested in copies of “Goodnight Moon” that he now gifts to his players when they, too, become fathers.
“It made him a little more of a teddy bear,” third base coach Tommy Watkins, who has been on Baldelli’s Twins staff from the beginning, said of parenthood.
The 2022 Twins were consumed by injuries — and so, too, was much of Baldelli’s time.
Following a lockout that plunged the sport into uncertainty throughout the winter, an avalanche of injuries sidetracked a season that the Twins spent much of in first place. At one point in September, the Twins and Guardians were tied for the division lead.The Twins finished the season 14 games back.
Forget platoons and matchups — during parts of the season, just trying to find a lineup of nine healthy players became a challenge for Baldelli.
On top of that, the abrupt departure of pitching coach Wes Johnson, who bolted midseason to take a job at Louisiana State University, required Baldelli to throw more of his time into that space, too, as the Twins elevated now-pitching coach Pete Maki and now-bullpen coach Colby Suggs into their new roles.
By the end of his first four seasons, Baldelli had had two pitching coaches, three hitting coaches and a different bench coach each season.
“The last three to four years, he really had to focus attention while managing, yes, but also meaningfully in other spaces,” Levine said. “He has a chance in 2023 to get back to principally being the manager and secondarily being a mentor whereas that seesaw was probably closer to balance over the last three years.”
Though the Twins crumbled near the end of the season and Baldelli took a fair share of flak from the fanbase, particularly for his handling of the pitching staff, Falvey through his support was full-heartedly behind him.
“When you have a couple of tough seasons, that can get a little shaky sometimes in a room,” Falvey said. “That’s never been the case for him and so I think that’s a testament to the way he leads and his growth and development.”
Carlos Correa heard from Rocco Baldelli a handful of times this offseason.
Sure, Baldelli would mention that the Twins would like the star shortstop to return. Of course they would. But as Correa’s rollercoaster free-agency process unfolded, Baldelli was mostly reaching out to check in and see how he was handling everything.
“It just speaks of the relationship that we have that it’s not only a business relationship,” Correa said. “It’s also a personal relationship.”
One of Baldelli’s best traits, those around him will say, is his ability to build relationships and connect with everyone around him.
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since the day he was hired.
“He knew how to deal with everyone,” said right fielder Max Kepler, one of three players who has been with Baldelli since 2019. “I’ve had managers in the past that would kind of just deal with the team as a whole, but I think Rocco is very genuine in each interaction.”
Most things, Baldelli said, he handles by listening and processing before voicing his opinions. But four years into the job, his players say he’s more vocal, too.
“I wouldn’t say he didn’t really say much, but he was more observant. And now you can tell he knows what he’s doing, what’s going on, what he’s wanting to do,” center fielder Byron Buxton said.
That’s only natural — everyone is more comfortable with a job four years down the road than the day they started.
And as he heads into his fifth season, Baldelli is more comfortable with himself, too.
“My dad basically used to tell me: The older you get, the less you give a (expletive) about what other people think,” Baldelli said, before taking a long pause. “And I think he’s right.”
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