De La Rosa's perseverance, belief finally pay off
Reliever endured odd jobs and demoralizing setbacks before finding his groove
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Imagine getting to work every morning, staring at a packet of names and numbers, and bracing for a day of calling strangers that will barely let you finish your first sentence before hanging up the phone.
That was Dane De La Rosa, circa 2006 -- at 23 years old, coming off playing for his first of six independent-ball teams and having no idea what he was going to do with his life.
"You should see these sheets," the Angels' power reliever said. "They're like, numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers, numbers. I had probably 200 pages of numbers. It was miserable."
De La Rosa was four years removed from being the Yankees' 24th-round Draft pick out of Riverside Community College, two years removed from getting released after 20 games as a pro and one year removed from a 67-inning stint -- and a 6.45 ERA -- with the Yuma Scorpions of the Golden Baseball League.
He took real estate classes with his mom in Temecula, Calif., passed the test in San Diego, got his license and landed a job at a nearby mortgage company -- although "job" isn't a very accurate description. De La Rosa would only get paid if he got a lead on one of the thousands of cold calls he made, and he hardly ever did.
"You wouldn't even get past, 'Hello,'" De La Rosa said. "I knew when I was calling that nobody wanted to talk to me."
For six hours each day, Monday through Friday, for three months, this was De La Rosa's life. It was by far the worst odd job he's ever had.
De La Rosa's best was working the cashier of a tanning salon in Southern California, for obvious reasons. He was also a construction worker. He helped plan corporate events for a local vender. And until two years ago, he fixed houses before they got flipped, installing drywall and applying a fresh coat of paint for a couple-hundred bucks.
"I've probably had the weirdest jobs of any baseball player," De La Rosa said, laughing.
It's funny to him now because he persevered, somehow. After four full seasons of independent ball, one whole year away from the game and three Major League organizations that didn't want him, De La Rosa -- at 30 years old -- emerged with the Angels this past season, posting a 2.86 ERA, appearing in 75 games and ultimately becoming the team's primary setup man.
De La Rosa is 6-foot-5 with a sturdy, 245-pound frame, a fastball that can reach 98 mph, a solid changeup and curveball, and a right arm that has never been operated on.
And so, the natural question tends to be: Why did it take so long?
"Because it was the perfect time," De La Rosa said. "All this was supposed to happen for a reason. The further it goes on, the more I realize that."
The low point came on July 18, 2009. That was the day De La Rosa got released from his last independent ball team.
The El Paso Diablos of the American Association -- representing his third independent ball team and league that summer -- had just come off a long road trip and De La Rosa had an 8.07 ERA in 35 2/3 innings. His arm hurt, and when he went into his manager's office, the two decided it'd be best to cut ties.
"That was pretty much it for me, because I had no idea what else I was going to do," De La Rosa said. "Being released from an independent team is pretty low -- especially a last-place independent team, because we were pretty brutal. Worst league, worst team."
De La Rosa went back to his parents' house and spent three weeks doing nothing.
Then he paired with a pitching coach, hired his first agent, and suddenly his career took off.
"At that point, guys figure that they're just not cut out to pitch in the big leagues," said Barton Cerioni of Full Circle Sports Management, still De La Rosa's agent to this day. "But I think Dane came to a point where there was a lot of people in his life that believed in him."
Dominick Johnson is a guy you've probably never heard of if you haven't pitched professionally. He has no website and doesn't rent out a facility. But in Johnson's quarter-acre backyard in Poway, Calif., are two bullpen mounds and a tower of lights that have taught the fundamentals of pitching to hundreds of professionals over the years. He currently works with 48 prospects and Major Leaguers. Some of them fly in for a six-week program that takes place between Christmas and Spring Training, staying with ex-pupils who now serve as host families and hardly ever getting charged a nickel.
"I'm a bad businessman," Johnson says, laughing.
Johnson met De La Rosa through Nick Martin, a former Cubs farmhand who had just played with De La Rosa on the independent-ball team that released him one month earlier.
De La Rosa had yet to grow into his body, had a hard time repeating his delivery, and oftentimes his velocity would fluctuate drastically. He always worked hard; he just didn't know how to work.
So Johnson took him on. And three times a week, De La Rosa made the 45-minute drive to his house, to learn about how the arm works and figure out how to maximize the potential that still loomed inside.
"Even though he's been kicked on and all that stuff happened, there was a deep-down belief in himself," Johnson said. "I think he was looking for somebody, or something, to validate that belief. And that's how we clicked."
The first thing Johnson noticed was a "long, exposed arm" that made it easy for opposing hitters to pick up the ball. They practiced generating arm speed and got De La Rosa to repeat his delivery with the help of a workout known as the base drill, which focuses on arm motion by having pitchers throw off the mound without ever lifting their back foot off the rubber.
After two months, Johnson had seen enough. He called Jake Wilson, an old friend who works as a West Coast supervisor for the Rays, and set it up so that De La Rosa could appear for a scout ball team that was playing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
Afterwards, scouts raced to the parking lot to introduce themselves to the tall reliever the industry somehow lost sight of.
"He's the reason I'm here right now, without a doubt," De La Rosa said of Johnson. "I always worked hard, but how do you work for something when you don't really know how to? Once I figured that out, since then, it's been a blur."
Relievers are a breed you can never overlook. They can come from anywhere, be great at any moment and flop when you least expect it. Some get by on one really good pitch, or one crazy arm angle, or one necessary niche. And some, like De La Rosa, figure it out a little late.
"They come from all over the map," said Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, a former reliever himself. "You have to watch where they're coming from. You have to watch the independent leagues, you have to watch the Minor Leaguer that you think is just a fair performer but has physical stuff, or the Minor Leaguer who's an extraordinary performer and you don't quite know how he does it. You have to pay attention to all those guys."
Each offseason, the Halos' six Major League scouts run through each of the organizations they're responsible for and compile a list of potential Spring Training additions that simply don't fit with their current teams. The list starts big, and gets whittled down as the winter months go on until it reaches a manageable number in March (this year, for example, there are five names on it).
De La Rosa found himself on the Angels' list last spring, after combining to post a 3.00 ERA with more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings in Triple-A the previous two seasons. Tim Schmidt, a Major League special assignment scout, knew him dating back to his Yankees days. And Tim Huff, a special assistant whose job is to basically scrape the bottom of the barrel for pitching, had followed him closely ever since the Rays signed him off that scout ball game three years earlier.
On Feb. 6, 2013, De La Rosa was taken off the Rays' 40-man roster.
On March 26, 2013, a 5-foot-9, 25-year-old, undrafted Buffalo, N.Y., product named Steven Geltz was taken off the Halos' 40-man roster.
The next day, they were swapped for each other.
The deal, as Dipoto remembers it, "took like seven minutes."
"It's a fun trade," Dipoto said. "We kind of came to the conclusion, 'We're going to trade you the little guy who strikes everybody out for the big guy who strikes everybody out.'"
Geltz had a nice year for the Rays' Triple-A affiliate in 2013, with a 2.82 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
De La Rosa started that season with the Angels' Triple-A affiliate, and he wound up pitching three games there the entire year.
"We could not have expected that he was going to deliver what he delivered," Dipoto said. "Our expectations were this is a big, physical presence, and we feel like he can run with it. It's a Major League talent. He took care of the rest."
De La Rosa walked in from the trainer's room in the Angels' clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium on Saturday morning with a big smile on his face. Nine days earlier, he made his second relief appearance of the spring and couldn't feel his fingertips on the baseball. He issued a walk and a wild pitch, hit a batter, gave up a single and a grand slam, and three batters later, he was removed with what an MRI later deemed a right forearm strain.
De La Rosa was fearful that it would develop into a serious injury, perhaps even season-ending Tommy John surgery. But doctors cleared him to start throwing again that morning, and now he may even be ready by Opening Day.
"I can't afford to lose more time," De La Rosa said. "I'm too old, with not enough time in the big leagues."
De La Rosa earned the nickname "Everyday Dane" last year, because he spotted the rest of the league a week and still finished tied for eighth in the Majors in appearances. As the season went on, and the Halos continued to put their trust in him, De La Rosa grew increasingly comfortable in the big leagues and his velocity picked up.
"He didn't just have a good year," Dipoto said. "He had a great year."
Now De La Rosa is a fixture on his hometown team, with a guaranteed spot in a bullpen that's a lot deeper. It's a destination he never lost sight of, even in all those times when it seemed foolish to keep going.
"But not until last year did I think it was really feasible," De La Rosa said. "All this was for a reason. If I had done anything different, I wouldn't be able to play at home right now and be here in Arizona. It's, like, beyond a dream."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.