Mark DeRosa was never immodest enough to predict the long, prosperous career he would end up having in the major leagues. As far back as his Bergen Catholic days, when he was a larger-than-life two-sport star, DeRosa wasn't thinking he would someday be pushing 40 and still be sought after by the Washington Nationals.
But there he was last winter, picking up the phone to hear manager Davey Johnson's request to give it one more shot, one more year.
"That's the kind of call you don't say no to," DeRosa recalls. "When someone like Davey says he wants you on his team, you pretty much drop everything."
Johnson picked DeRosa for the same reason every other league manager has enlisted him since 1996, the year DeRosa was drafted in the seventh round by the Atlanta Braves. DeRosa, a Carlstadt native, was one of those rare combinations of brains (University of Pennsylvania grad), versatility (he could play four different positions) and experience that could turn him into Johnson's de facto coach, not unlike Derek Jeter's role as Joe Torre's lieutenant in the Yankees' clubhouse a decade ago.
DeRosa couldn't hook on fast enough with Washington, beginning his 15th season in the majors. At 37, DeRosa is much closer to the end of his career than to his prime, but he's still got unfinished business as a ball player. He spent most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons on the disabled list with the San Francisco Giants, nursing chronic wrist issues that limited him to just 73 games.
It was a bittersweet ride out west, where DeRosa was part of a world championship campaign in 2010 but was kept out of the World Series because of his injuries. DeRosa's contract with the Giants expired before he ever got to show his worth, which is why the Nationals' interest in him was so special. DeRosa knows this could be his last chance at winning a title, which would be a nice finishing touch, considering where it all began.
DeRosa is still one of Bergen Catholic's most accomplished athletes, and he says the ties to the school are mutual.
"There was a kid from my town, Tom Kearney, whose footsteps I wanted to follow in," De Rosa says. "I wanted to go to BC, like him, to see if I could compete with the best in the county. Coming from Carlstadt, southern Bergen County, I wanted to go to a Group 1 school because of the competition and the academics both."
DeRosa knew he was setting the bar high – Kearney, a running back, was voted to the Star-Ledger's all-state team in 1986 – but DeRosa's legacy was even more lasting. He was named all-state in both baseball, as a shortstop, and in football, as a quarterback. DeRosa actually enjoyed life on the gridiron more – studying film, the relentless preparation and structure – but was just as drawn to baseball's randomness and unpredictability, which he calls "the beauty" of the sport.
DeRosa glimpsed his calling after his sophomore year at Penn, when he played in the prestigious Cape Cod League with the nation's top prospects and "held my own."
"That's when I started thinking, 'if this is the standard, then I can do this,'" DeRosa says. "This is an attainable goal."
Like any other up-and-comer, DeRosa had visions of becoming not just a professional athlete, but a superstar, a trendsetter, just as everyone back home was rooting for.
"It was my dream," DeRosa says. But he quickly learned about the majors' harsher realities. Even though he was drafted as a shortstop, DeRosa's career path took a sharp detour when the Braves signed the more athletic Rafael Furcal.
DeRosa realized the only way to keep drawing a paycheck was to expand his horizons – so he became the ultimate utility player, playing all seven positions other than pitcher and catcher. That explains why DeRosa has won a roster spot on seven teams and has totaled more than 1,100 games in the big leagues. Every manager has found something to like on DeRosa's buffet table. For Johnson, it was DeRosa's unique combination of power (he hit 44 home runs in 2008-2009) and willingness to accept a secondary role.
"I'm the type of manager who likes offensive-minded players on the bench," Johnson says. "When I saw Mark was available last winter, he was my first phone call."
The two had actually crossed paths during the World Baseball Classic in 2009, when Johnson managed the U.S. team and DeRosa played three different positions. The two got along then, as they do now, although injuries once again kept DeRosa from making a significant contribution.
This time it was an oblique strain in late April that required a lengthy stay on the disabled list. The Nationals were hoping to have DeRosa back in the lineup by June, although by this point in his career, having endured so many setbacks, he knew better than to count on a pain-free summer.
That's the life DeRosa never saw coming – the endless, subtle injuries that are never discussed or understood by fans, the ones that have such a corrosive effect on a career. Ask DeRosa if he's thought about starting a second life after baseball and his eyebrows arch instantly, as if to say, "Are you kidding?"
"I'm very close to retiring," he says. "It gets harder and harder to do this, not just on the field, but in terms of my family. It just drains you. I have two young kids, an 8-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy, and being away from them is difficult for me."
DeRosa is flirting with the idea of a post-retirement TV career; he did some work for the MLB Network last October and was surprisingly comfortable on camera. But first things first, DeRosa says – he isn't the only one who thinks the Nationals are on a magic carpet ride to the playoffs.
"There's a lot of talent in this room," he says. "We all thought, coming out of spring training, there was something special about this team. That's why I want to be part of this. I don't know how much longer I'll keep playing, but while I'm here, I want my teammates to say, 'He's someone we can count on.'"