Behind The Scene: Minnesota Twins Manager and Live Music Enthusiast Rocco Baldelli
Trey Kerr, Dave Bruzza and Rocco Baldelli
“A big part of playing the game is improvising. It’s using your instincts and your awareness of what’s going on around you—how you’re feeling at that moment, and what you’re seeing and sensing,” observes Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
The avid music fan, who names Phish, the Grateful Dead, Greensky Bluegrass, JRAD and Spafford among his current favorite groups, then describes the role of preparation prior to the opening pitch, which is analogous to the process that allows those same bands to thrive in the live setting.
“In order to be able to perform when the lights come on, you need to have a response to so many different things,” he adds. “You can’t attack every ground ball the same way. The nuance that’s going on out there is subtle. There’s such a fine line between getting the job done on the field by just a hair and not getting it done in that particular moment. But, a lot of the time, the game is won and lost with the work that you put in beforehand. I think life works like that in a lot of different places.”
Baldelli has applied this approach to his career in professional baseball, which began when the Tampa Bay Rays selected the Rhode Island high school student with the sixth pick of the 2000 Major League Baseball draft. Baldelli debuted for the team in center field on opening day 2003 and, eventually, placed third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He enjoyed some successful campaigns with the Rays (and one season with the Boston Red Sox) before health compilations led him to retire at the age of 29. He then moved into the Rays’ front office in 2011, serving as a scout and, later, a coach. Baldelli remained with the organization through the fall of 2018 when the Twins named him manager. He guided the team to 101 wins (up from 78 the prior year) and an appearance in the ALDS, which resulted in an American League Manager of the Year award (making him the youngest recipient of this honor).
“I get to do baseball all day long and, when I’m not doing baseball, one of my other loves is being able to enjoy music and talk about music,” he reflects. “Music, in a lot of ways, is what keeps me moving along on my journey but it’s also about the people that the music has brought me together with. I think it works like that in sports, as well.”
While you were growing up, was there a particular artist, album or live show that resonated with you in a profound way?
In my younger days, I listened to a lot of classic rock with my dad. I have memories of listening to Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush and Jimi Hendrix. In my middle school and high school days, I listened to some hip-hop music as well. I went down some of those roads and, as I got a little older, I started to experiment with what I was listening to and, ultimately, fell in love with Phish and the Dead—for different reasons and because of the different things that they brought to my life.
The first live band that I went to see was Blues Traveler. It was more off the cuff, a chance to go to a show. The schedule that we keep in the game of baseball is a little crazy. It’s not like working in a lot of other industries. It’s not even like working in a lot of other sports. It’s seven days a week for eight months where you’re at the ballpark every day. That’s probably one of the reasons why I lean so much on music to inspire me and keep me going through the seasons.
Blues Traveler came to St. Petersburg in 2004 or 2005, and one of my teammates had a few tickets. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time, but it really was the beginning of something for me on a personal level, in terms of appreciating live music.
I started listening to a lot of different types of music and was really drawn to Phish. A lot of people pick it up from a friend who passes along a couple of shows to dive into. Ultimately, for me, it was really just kind of going out there on my own and hearing something, then researching and diving in. I was so impressed with the way that they functioned together and came up with different sounds. It blew my mind. I wanted to hear so much more. Luckily, I picked the right band because, if you want to hear more, then they have more for you, and it’s all so incredible.
That led me to meeting so many people who were so knowledgeable about Phish and what they do. This band has brought me so close to some very special people in my life— some exceptionally good friends of mine to this day—and they’ve introduced me to so much music through our discussions and passion for Phish, the Dead and other bands. They share that with me, I share my thoughts with them, and that back and forth is just gold—it’s life.
When did you see you first Phish show?
My first show was in Portland, Maine [on 11/29/09 at Cumberland County Civic Center]. I was playing for the Red Sox in 2009. That was my last full season of playing.
I was so geared up for the band to be back at it, but as a baseball player—and now as a staff member—it’s hard to catch shows in the summer and even going into the fall at times. So I was just kind of scouring dates. They actually played Fenway in 2009 but I couldn’t go because they planned the show for when we were on the road. I kept asking people how it went and stuff, when we got back off the road. I was just trying to get a taste of it all.
I finally had it all dialed up for Portland. I drove up with a friend of mine named Matt Cline. He’s a musician and very good friends with Brad Penny, a teammate of mine.
We caught an incredible show and my mind was blown. I didn’t know that I had been waiting for this my whole life but, once I experienced it for the first time, I knew I’d be back as often as I possibly could.
Over the next few years, I would find myself traveling the country a little bit while I was scouting and working in player development. If I had a day off, then I’d get on a plane and I’d fly to different spots around the country. If I had an opportunity to meet a friend of mine there, I would meet him. If I didn’t, I would just grab a ticket and go by myself. Then, I would have three of the best hours that I could imagine before I was back to work for the next game.
To this day, I’m still working my schedule just to be able to find a way to do it. I think during the All-Star break, I’m going to find a way to get to Philadelphia for a 24-hour hit-and-run trip and catch Phish at the Mann.
These days, Major League players select their own walk-up song for when they approach the plate. Can you talk about the role of music in baseball?
You’ll see guys stand in the on-deck circle, waiting for a song to hit the right moment so that they get the right feeling before they walk up there to swing the bat. It’s a beautiful thing. I am just so glad that music is such a big part of our game.
You get a really good snapshot of people’s loves and preferences and what gets them locked in for their performance. As a nod to my dad, I came out to Led Zeppelin when I was a player. These days, you’ll catch a lot of hip-hop and some country music—that’s the music that the players use to get ready to play.
I guess what we are doing is a live performance as well, and I’m glad that it’s actually intertwined with music every single time we walk out there on the ball field because, without those sounds, a baseball game isn’t a baseball game.
Recently, some of our guys were looking for some music to add. I suggested “Tweezer Reprise,” which I thought would play real nicely for someone. None of our players grabbed onto it, so we’ve added it as something that gets mixed into our rotation when our players are either getting ready to go out there on the field or in between innings. Our PA people will throw it on there for me in Minnesota at Target Field.
Josh Kantor, the organ player for the Red Sox, will mix in a lot of Phish and Dead and a lot of other great music at Fenway Park. You’ll go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute…” You don’t even know what you’re hearing until it’s already gone. I’ll look up there and give him a nod sometimes when we’re out there on the field. He likes to have fun and he knows what he’s doing up there. He’s great.
Do you think that baseball fans infuse the players with energy in the same way that a live-music enthusiast has a reciprocal relationship with an artist?
For the players and everybody involved out in the field, it can bring you almost anything. A lot of the different things that you feel in your life, you also feel out there on a baseball field, and the players feed off of everything around them. When you have that connection with your fan base, as a ballplayer and as a staff member, there’s a heightened sense of focus and a heightened sense of responsibility. It becomes very intense. When both parties are feeding off of each other’s energy, that’s when truly great things happen.
We play at Target Field, a beautiful ballpark with the backdrop of downtown Minneapolis. There are sandstone walls inside the building and a juniper-covered batter’s eye, which the hitters are seeing. So there’s a beauty there to start with for us and then you add in people who care about you and care about what you’re doing and are inspired by you. In return, you’re inspired by them. That is really what it comes down to.
I think everyone involved in this environment is looking to lose themselves somewhere. It works in both directions. If you’re going to the game, you want to get lost. You want to be a part of something bigger than yourself and pull with the person next to you. You want to pull in the same direction as players out there on the field. The players are looking to the crowd in the same way. So there are these open channels that are certainly part of what we do, but the overall energy that’s in the ballpark is something that I love being a part of on a regular basis every time I show up to the ballpark.
I wouldn’t want to speak for musicians, but when you give your heart and soul and all of your emotion to something, it’s not just a livelihood anymore. It’s your life. You live and operate and practice and perform the same way that you do everything else. It all means so much.
While you don’t want to speak for them, I imagine that you’ve heard that sentiment from some of the musicians you’ve met with over the years who share a passion for baseball.
I feel pretty lucky to have become friends with people like Dave Bruzza. I met Dave through another good friend of mine, Trey Kerr [Phish’s longtime video director]. I got a chance to know Trey by going to Phish shows—basically just showing up by myself, enjoying the show, and then going to the Waterwheel tent and spending some time talking with the people who were there. Trey Kerr is very busy and he’s doing a lot in the music world, but he’s a big Cardinals fan. Whenever I go to a show, I’ll find him and say hello.
So that was my initial connection, and he introduced me to Dave Bruzza and Greensky. It became a group connection there. They love the game of baseball and Dave is a Cubs fan, while Trey is a Cardinals fan. So they go at it back and forth and it’s hilarious. They’ll go to each other’s games and spend time with each other while enjoying baseball, but they still have this connection to music. Every year, they try to make a trip together to spring training to catch some of our games, kind of in the same way that, when I have time, I try to go meet up with them and catch some fantastic music.
We’re in different lines of work, but I think we share the same passion for what we all do. I think we’re in it for the same reasons. It’s been fun getting a chance to really dive into Greensky’s music. Dave is a phenomenal musician and Greensky’s doing some really great things. They are another band that I try to catch whenever I can.
Phish’s Page McConnell is not only a baseball fan but he’s gone so far as to name one of his projects after legendary Oakland A’s pitcher Vida Blue. Have you had a chance to speak with him about any of that?
I met Page in Providence at the Civic Center—now it’s called the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Trey Kerr brought me over to meet Page and he was so gracious and friendly. He’s a big Mets supporter, and we talked a little bit about baseball, too. I knew Page was a pretty big baseball guy, and he sounded like it; he was pretty dialed in when I spoke with him. The Mets are doing a lot of big things right now, so Page probably has a fun summer ahead of him.
I haven’t seen Page play with Vida Blue, but I take a picture of the framed, blown-up Vida Blue baseball card at the Oakland Coliseum every time I walk by it and send it to my buddies. I can’t even tell you how many Vida Blue pictures I have in my photo album right now. [Laughs.]
You mentioned your plans to see Phish at the Mann this summer during the All-Star break. Are you typically able to catch any other shows before or after the break?
Sometimes I’ll get lucky. For instance, I was able to see the Baker’s Dozen “Powdered” show. We happened to be playing the Yankees, and we had a day off, which was right in the middle of the Baker’s Dozen.
When all the tours start coming out, I’ll pull up the Twins’ schedule online, and in the corner of my tabs, I’ll see who’s playing where and when. I haven’t been able to catch too much live music recently with the pandemic, but I’ve been trying to get to as many shows as I can. Last year, I caught two shows outside all summer. The schedules kind of matched up, and I was able to see Wilco in Queens at the tennis venue, Forest Hills, and JRAD in Boston at the pavilion by the water. I hadn’t been to either venue and it was pouring both times, but they were both great shows.
Those were the only two shows that I was able to catch until the off-season, when I saw Phish at Ak-Chin. My buddies met me out there because they had been able to catch a lot of shows, and this was finally a chance for all of us to gather together. So we all went out to Ak-Chin, caught a very nice show and called it a day. But I’ll tell you this: I am greatly looking forward to this year being an even more interactive year with all of my favorite bands. I really need it, just like a lot of people really need it.