PORT CHARLOTTE — Sitting in the Rays clubhouse — oh, by the way, just across from Manny Ramirez and a dozen lockers down from David Price — Dane De La Rosa isn't quite ready yet to ponder the actual possibility of pitching in a major-league game.
"That'd be awesome, but I really try not to think about it," De La Rosa said. "That's a little too high over my head right now."
De La Rosa's caution is understandable given the way he has gotten here. And if the whirlwind rise from unknown minor-leaguer who began last season at Class A to legit candidate for a big-league bullpen job this spring isn't enough cause, consider what it took for the 28-year-old just to make it to Port Charlotte last spring.
"It's been a crazy little ride the past six years," De La Rosa said.
He already had been released from the lowest levels of the Yankees and Brewers organizations, and having previously been a Yuma Scorpion, Orange County Flyer, Victoria Seal and a presumably proud member of the Long Beach Armada, he decided in July 2009 to become an ex-El Paso Diablo. The game was no longer fun, and the prospect of the fourth 25-hour A/C-less bus ride of the season was the tipping point.
He already had quit baseball once, spending 2006 in the real world selling real estate (well, technically trying to sell real estate, since he didn't make a single sale), before getting back in, and now he was headed home to Southern California contemplating his future again at age 26.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," he said.
But, as baseball sometimes works, what looked like a bad move actually turned out good, albeit somewhat convoluted.
A friend he was riding home with, Nick Martin, brought him along when he went to see a pitching coach he knew, Dom Johnson, who literally in five minutes significantly improved De La Rosa's mechanics then called to tip off a scout he knew, the Rays' Jake Wilson.
Re-energized, De La Rosa went back out to pitch, signing with the Atlantic League's Southern Maryland Blue Crabs — his sixth team in his third different independent league — and the improvement was obvious. Wilson took it from there, lobbying his bosses, and the Rays, after checking De La Rosa out, agreed to bring him to minor-league camp last spring for a look.
They saw enough in the 6-foot-6 right-hander, including in one big-league exhibition, to keep him, sending him first to the Class A Stone Crabs then to Double-A Montgomery. And that's where he really showed them, using dazzling stuff (96-97 mph heavy fastball, curve, splitter) to post daunting numbers (9-3, 1.97 ERA, 75 strikeouts and 26 walks in 73 innings).
"Really good stuff," Biscuits catcher Craig Albernaz said.
The difference wasn't only physical. De La Rosa realizes now he didn't take things seriously enough after being drafted and signed by the Yankees (24th round, 2002), then given a second chance with the Brewers (2007), and that he did just enough work to get by in the indy leagues.
"Just an immature little kid," he says now. "I didn't know the opportunity I had, and just kind of squandered it. … Now I know where I'm at."
He got a lot help — financial, emotional, strategical — from a lot of people, and he got that one last shot with the Rays. And now he has a chance to pitch in the major leagues.
"A year ago, no one knew who Dane De La Rosa was, and now he's on our 40-man roster," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said.
"What a great story, huh?"
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.