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SARASOTA, Fla. – Rocco Baldelli and Nelson Cruz have not yet talked about it. For now, just a look suffices.
At 37, Baldelli is entering his first season as manager of the Minnesota Twins. His designated hitter is Cruz, author of 360 major league home runs and proud recipient of a one-year, $14.3 million deal in Minnesota.
Cruz is 38.
“So far, it’s been an assumed thing,” Baldelli says of being younger than his DH. “We both know. I know that he knows that I know that he knows.”
Baldelli is not the first manager younger than his players. Heck, current Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch was younger than three of his players when, at 35, he took over as Arizona Diamondbacks manager in 2009.
Yet, Baldelli’s dugout debut, while far from a moon-landing moment of import, does mark a juncture in baseball history worth noting.
The Millennial Manager has arrived.
The generation that has vexed its elders perhaps more than any before it now can count a major league skipper among its population.
Baldelli was born Sept. 25, 1981, the first year of a millennial generation that stretches to 1996, according to Pew Research Center. Perhaps it means nothing, no more or less than whomever was the first Generation X – or Y – manager, or the first Baby Boomer to make the Hall of Fame.
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But millennial scorn is among our most popular parlor games, even seeping into baseball when Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, 65, quipped at the winter meetings that he was reading “Managing Millennials For Dummies” after a season in which the coaching staff struggled at times to connect with its younger players.
Perhaps Maddon didn’t realize that this job-ghosting, fast-casual dining, experiential generation also counts management in its ranks.
Baldelli does not run from his status, even when faced with one of the greatest tropes associated with his people.
“I actually do like avocado toast,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “I eat it on a semi-regular basis.”
Sure, Baldelli is the gateway to a generation already taking over baseball’s upper ranks. But he also represents a connection to an era that seems more distant every year.
Nicknamed the “Woonsocket Rocket” after his Rhode Island hometown and his sublime athleticism, Baldelli rocketed to the big leagues at 21. He was socialized into the game playing on some terrible Tampa Bay Devil Rays teams, laced with no shortage of salty veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Al Martin, Tino Martinez and even, for two games, John Rocker.
Baldelli’s first manager was the irascible Lou Piniella, who was eventually replaced by Maddon. He played a season in Boston under Terry Francona. There were no participation trophies.
“These are people with different backgrounds and experiences that have all influenced him,” says Derek Falvey, the Twins’ 36-year-old executive vice president and chief baseball officer. “He has a healthy respect for the new information in the game and what’s available to him. He came up in an organization that required that.
“But he also has a tremendous amount of respect for the tradition of it and guys that came before.”
You could say Baldelli lived through baseball’s revolution.
Baldelli himself was a scout’s kind of player, a high schooler drafted sixth overall in 2000, boasting a near five-tool skill set. He was drafted under the regime of original Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli and GM Chuck LaMar, who did not have books or movies written about their innovative baseball operations tactics.
Baldelli remained in the organization long enough for Naimoli to sell the team to Stuart Sternberg, who ditched the “Devil” in the name, hired Maddon and new GM Andrew Friedman and charted a course of innovation that has had the Rays punching above their low-revenue weight for more than a decade.
Baldelli absorbed a lot, from Piniella’s not-so-slow burns to Friedman’s decision sciences.
“I feel lucky to have spent the time with one of the last waves of that time period, and that style,” Baldelli says of his early playing days. “And then having the time I’ve had in Tampa Bay, seeing all the changes in the game.
“When you are exposed to different things, it conditions you to stay open-minded, and understanding that you have instincts, and thoughts of your own, but it’s still good to reexamine things on an everyday basis and continue to grow and learn.”
Perhaps the best preparation for the manager’s office was his own career. Baldelli finished third in 2003 Rookie of the Year voting, but missed the 2005 season and much of 2006 with a crippling double whammy: A torn ACL, followed by Tommy John surgery after blowing out his elbow coming back from knee surgery.
His health saga took a far more serious turn in ensuring years, when a series of health woes eventually led to a 2009 diagnosis of mitochondrial channelopathy, which affects cells and leads to severe muscle fatigue. His one season with Francona’s Boston Red Sox was injury-plagued, and he joined the Rays as a special assistant in 2010. Baldelli eventually got on the field, though, even making the club’s AL Division Series roster, but was removed after muscle cramping returned.
He announced his retirement in January 2011, his arc spanning bonus baby to instant phenom to star-crossed player out of the game by 29.
If there’s a baseball struggle facing one of his players, he can probably relate.
“I think we all apply our own experiences,” he says. “The way we approach every day, every conversation, every interaction, it all matters. There’s a lot still that I’ve not experienced, not seen. You learn from the next thing that happens every day.
“As for as empathy and things of that nature, I hope I’m able to do that in a positive way to help our guys.”
Baldelli has no shortage of people pulling for him. His eight years with the Rays following his retirement included roles in the front office, player development and ultimately four seasons on manager Kevin Cash’s staff.
He texts daily with Cash and Charlie Montoyo, the Rays’ former bench coach who’s also a first-year manager, with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Sitting next to him all those years, and listening to him talk, for someone who never managed before, he has the instincts,” says Montoyo, 53, who said Baldelli expressed relief to get his preseason speech to the Twins’ full squad out of the way. “Players love him. He’s going to have a loose clubhouse, and he’s going to do well.
“He’s done everything in baseball. I’m not just saying it because he’s my friend, otherwise I feel like I’d be lying – but he’s going to be really good.”
If he fails, it won’t be for lack of outreach.
Baldelli kick-started that effort this winter when he traveled to Georgia and the Dominican Republic to meet two of the Twins’ promising but unfinished young players, outfielder Byron Buxton and slugger Miguel Sano, on their turf. He’s holding five-minute meetings with every player in Twins camp, working his way first through pitchers and catchers.
“The fact that you make time to talk to someone sometimes means a lot more than what’s said,” he says. “Two people coming together and spending time with each other means a lot in and of itself.”
Funny, that doesn’t sound like a member of a generation that supposedly abhors phone calls, communicates most effectively through GIFs and considers a voicemail an act of aggression.
Perhaps it’s not so hard to understand kids these days, after all.
“I think Rocco will actually be himself,” says Erik Neander, the Rays’ 36-year-old GM, “and I think he will have a wonderful career as a manager.”