As is usually the case when the Tampa Bay Rays play the Boston Red Sox, even in spring training, there's a lot of red in the stands at Charlotte Sports Park today, and hearty cheers greeted Boston's hitters as they stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning.
Red Sox stalwarts Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie and Kevin Youkilis each got a nice hand from a good chunk of the assembled masses. But when the fourth man in Boston's lineup, Rocco Baldelli, stepped to the plate, everyone cheered.
Joining in with applause were some in the Rays' dugout, including pitcher Andy Sonnanstine. As intense a rivalry as the Rays and Red Sox might have, there was nothing but warmth before the game as the Rays' players, coaches and staff welcomed back one of their own.
"I got more hugs today than I have in a long time," Baldelli said before the game. "It was really nice."
Baldelli didn't specifically ask to make the trip north from Fort Myers for the first of many meetings with his longtime team this season, but he said Boston manager Terry Francona broached the subject a few days ago just to give him a heads up. Baldelli served as the designated hitter today - the role he filled in most of his appearances for the Rays last season after he returned from a debilitating mitochondrial disorder that sapped his energy and ability to recover from exertion.
Though he remains on his own individual conditioning program separate from teammates, Baldelli said he has been able to participate in all the usual baseball activities this spring. He started in left field for Boston's Grapefruit League opener Wednesday and is likely to see more time in the outfield than at DH simply because the Red Sox have David Ortiz entrenched at the latter position. Still, the process of figuring out what Baldelli can and can't do is ongoing for the player and his new team alike.
"We've tried real hard to get a read on him, and the idea is to get the most out of him on the field and not wear him out before he gets to the field," Francona said. "We've tried a lot to make sure he understands that - because he is a really conscientious kid - OK, you don't have to lead the rundown drills. We understand."
Baldelli is doing his best to fit in, but he made time today to make sure he said hello to everyone. Especially considering what he went through just to put on a Rays uniform again last season, he didn't have to apologize for that.
"They're all still my friends even though I'm competing against them now," he said.
Based on the reaction from the home side today, the feeling is certainly mutual.