Kirk Wessler column on the Cubs' Mark DeRosa
Members of the klatsch that gulps 1908 vintage blue Kool-Aid straight-up never harbored a doubt.
The rest of the world, living in reality lo these 99 years, convulsed in laughter when the Chicago Cubs last November announced their first free-agent acquisition of the off-season.
Mark DeRosa? Three years and $13 million for Mark DeRosa?
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who made the offer and closed the deal, could not understand why some of us thought he should be committed.
Let’s explain. DeRosa was a career utilityman. He had lived his professional baseball life on one-year deals, showing up in training camps each spring with no guarantees.
Until last season, he had earned an everyday big-league starting job once since his first call-up in 1998 — and he had played his way out of that in a matter of months.
So in 2006, DeRosa had what we call “a career year.” He batted .296, which was 33 points higher than his previous best over a full season. He collected 154 hits, 40 doubles, drove in 74 runs; all more than double his personal records.
But DeRosa is no kid. He’s 32 years old. And yet, Hendry couldn’t wait to give him a contract that pays him more in its first season, $2.75 million, than DeRosa had earned in his entire career.
That was crazy.
Like a fox.
“Our scouts saw him play 45 games last year,” Hendry said. “His character we’ve known about a long time now. Good baseball men like Bobby Cox and Greg Maddux will tell you what kind of character guy he is. Our guys knew what they were doing.”
This was more than about stats and one solid season. This was about versatility, competitive spirit and attitude. On the surface, DeRosa’s signing looked like throwing silly money at a one-season flash to fill a void at second base. In reality, it was about bringing in a guy who fit what the Cubs desperately needed: someone who would fanatically do anything the manager asked.
DeRosa had started down this path as a matter of survival. A terrific athlete who played quarterback at Penn, he grew up thinking of himself as a born shortstop in baseball. After a couple of brief call-ups to the Atlanta Braves, he finally thought his time had come to stick as a backup to Walt Weiss.
“But Rafael Furcal blew through the system,” DeRosa said.
Furcal beat him out, took over for Weiss when the vet got injured and became 2000 National League Rookie of the Year. DeRosa went back to the minors, knowing his future as a Braves shortstop was over. So he started to learn other positions. Second base was toughest; hanging in there to turn the double play with the runner bearing down on his blind side. But he mastered it. Third base, too. And first. And the outfield.
None of it was enough to keep the Braves from letting DeRosa go, though, after he tore the ACL in his right knee at the end of 2003. He took a pay cut and a minor-league contract from the Rangers, just to score an invitation to training camp.
Doubt consumed him. And then, Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo got hold of him.
“He spoke to the depths of me,” DeRosa said, his voice changing to reflect the gravity of what Jaramillo told him.
“He told me like it was: ‘If you’re happy being a utility guy and playing once a week, keep swinging the way you’re swinging. But I see something in you, the way the ball comes off your bat. I see potential that is untapped, but you have to be willing to make a commitment to change.’”
DeRosa did not have to think about it. He immersed himself in Jaramillo’s instruction and waited for his chance. It came last April, when second baseman Ian Kinsler dislocated a thumb and DeRosa replaced him in the Rangers lineup. He was named the club’s player of the month in June and again in August, during which he won an American League Player of the Week honor.
Back then, most of us saw a career vagabond having a once-in-a-lifetime season. It happens all the time. Usually, guys vanish back into the mediocre hole from whence they came.
But playing and producing every day flipped DeRosa’s switch.
“Being counted on every day by my teammates to perform, to be an integral part of winning or losing, means everything,” DeRosa said. “When 24 other guys believe in you, and you’re coming through and getting the job done, it builds confidence.”
That’s what the Cubs’ scouts saw. That’s what Hendry believed when he tendered the offer to make DeRosa the Cubs’ second baseman. And never mind that DeRosa has wound up playing just 49 games at second. He has played 48 at first, short, third and in right field. He’s batting .284, with 7 homers, and is second on the team with 50 RBIs. He is a big reason the Cubs are in second place and charging in the NL Central.
“Things have a funny way of working out,” DeRosa said.
Those of us who laughed in November still might think three years and $13 million for a 32-year-old journeyman was insane. But there is no arguing with the results.
“Some might say,” Hendry mused, “that DeRosa was a pretty good buy right now.”
KIRK WESSLER is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.