The fit of the glove felt natural, the release of the ball like second nature. Fifteen years passed before Rubby De La Rosa began playing baseball. It only took three for him to realize a dream.
The field was just a few blocks from home, but for most of De La Rosa’s life, the prospect of playing on it was out of reach. Education, then work, were top priorities. There was little time for games when he carried the responsibility to help support his family.
San Isidro in the Dominican Republic was, as De La Rosa described it, “poor … nothing big.” He estimates the population was no more than 200 when he was growing up. Inside his four-room house, six people lived together in close quarters. De La Rosa shared a bed with his paternal grandmother. His aunt, uncle, and two younger brothers slept on two beds in the second bedroom.
Finances were tight for as long as De La Rosa can remember. His grandmother sat him down at an early age and explained, "We want to buy everything for you but we can't. You know why? Because we're poor, so the little money we have, we have to take care of it."
De La Rosa understood. He told his grandmother he didn't need to be bought materials items as long as everyone was happy. He saw how hard his aunt and uncle worked hard to make sure the family had the essentials, no bells and whistles.
When Christmas time rolled around, De La Rosa had to skip neighborhood holiday parties because he didn't have the appropriate clothes to wear. He never questioned why they struggled; he appreciated the things they had and focused on enhancing their lives.
"One thing we could always say, we weren't rich but my family had food on the table every day," he said. "We never wanted."
As time went on he imagined more for himself and his family. De La Rosa would be successful, he told his grandmother. He didn’t know how, but he would find a way.
“I want all of you to be happy with everything you want,” he vowed to her. “I promise you, grandma, I want to be rich before 22 years old.”
De La Rosa didn’t have a grand scheme or a get-rich-quick plan. Instead he attended school and headed to work after his studies. There were times when he helped on home constructions. Other days he delivered bread products. De La Rosa made $10 a month from his deliveries. He kept half; the remaining five dollars went to his grandmother. She loved to buy lottery tickets.
His plan was to continue his education and attend a university. The idea of being an accountant appealed to him. It would be a solid career that wouldn’t involve too many additional years of schooling, he figured. This way he could provide more for his family.
A random afternoon changed all that when he was 15 years old.
“One day, one of my little brothers said he wanted to go play baseball,” De La Rosa recalled. “It was amazing. The first time I put on a glove, it was easy to throw. People said, ‘It looked like you've played all your life.’ I said, ‘No, it's my first time throwing a baseball.’”
De La Rosa’s interest was piqued. The field that he passed by for years became his new haven, an escape for the blossoming right-handed pitcher. Yet as his love for the game grew, his family started to think about his long-term goals. They lived close to an air base and offered a suggestion close to home.
“When I was 16, they asked me, ‘Why don't you go the Army?'” De La Rosa recounted. “They asked me that every single day. I said, ‘No, no, no’ because every single day I was getting better. I said no for a year.”
Playing a sport for fun is one thing, doing it for a career is another. De La Rosa’s family appreciated his new-found passion but they wanted him to pursue a seemingly more viable job path. De La Rosa estimated he would make $100 a month in the Army, however, and he wanted to earn more than that.
Give me more time, he pleaded, just a little more time.
“I want to go play baseball,” De La Rosa reiterated to them. “They said, ‘Ok, but you've only played baseball for a year.’ I said, ‘That doesn't mean anything. I feel like I can be good. My first time I threw a baseball, I felt like I had done it all my life. Let me do it two more years.’ And in a year and a half, I was signed.”
A scout from the Los Angeles Dodgers had taken notice of the teenager with the raw talent. De La Rosa says the first time he was clocked with a gun he recorded 92 miles per hour. The scout was impressed. He encouraged De La Rosa to work on his mechanics. In spite of being short and skinny by stature, he believed De La Rosa had potential to develop into a real athlete.
There was a hang up though. Practice took time, and that wasn’t a luxury De La Rosa was afforded.
“[I told him] I couldn't put my time into baseball all day because I had to work to take care of my grandma,” De La Rosa said. “He said, ‘It will only take you like three hours.’”
Dropping his responsibilities was not an option. De La Rosa rearranged his schedule to fit everything into his long days and evenings: wake up at 7 a.m., practice until 11 a.m., return home to shower, go to work at 1 p.m., return home to shower again at 6 p.m., and take night classes at 7 p.m.. He followed this routine for two years.
“We did three hours every day and I could feel myself getting better, better, better,” he said. “When I was 18, I went to 94 miles per hour. I signed with the Dodgers that year. When I was with the Dodgers I was throwing 100 miles per hour. Like that, boom. It was amazing.”
In 2007 he signed a contract with the Dodgers as an amateur free agent. De La Rosa received a $1,500 signing bonus, a fraction of what many players garner. A large percentage went to his manager. He saved $400 for himself and distributed the other $300 to his family members. It wasn’t a lot of money, but he was on his way.
De La Rosa moved to the United States, where he quickly encountered a new obstacle. Money was no longer the biggest challenge -- he didn't know how to speak English. The teenager who was used to finding ways to get by came up with a unique approach based on a suggestion he received: find English-speaking girls to help you learn the language. The idea could work, but De La Rosa would have to be inventive to strike up the first conversation.
"I took my phone, went to Google, put the words in Spanish and turned them into English and showed them to her," De La Rosa recalled. "It said, 'Can I be with you? I like you.' She started laughing and said, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'I'm not crazy, I like you.' She said, 'Ok."
Three months passed and the language barrier wasn't getting much easier with only limited conversations. De La Rosa purchased Rosetta Stone for more formal training and used the program daily for two hours, listening to vocabulary words, reading them, and reiterating pronunciations. As time went on, he and his friend spoke on the phone for nearly three hours each day so De La Rosa could practice. By the end of eight months, he said, his English was perfect.
â¨For every accomplishment De La Rosa achieved, though, he was also met with adversities. Three months before his Major League debut in 2011, De La Rosa's grandmother passed away. He had worked hard so she could have an easier life. The pain of her loss lingered.
"When I made it, that was hard for me, super hard, because she wasn't there," he said. "Everybody talked to me and said, 'It's fine, she saw you from the skies,' but I wanted her next to me. I wanted to see her to see me pitch behind home plate. I wanted to see her smiling like, 'Wow, my baby made it.' It was sad for me for like a year."
That same season, he suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and required Tommy John surgery. Two huge setbacks as a rookie. De La Rosa tried to put the severity of the injury out of his mind. He didn't let himself worry about how it could affect his velocity or his career. Instead he focused on getting better one day at a time.
He returned to the Dodgers toward the end of the 2012 season. That fall he was traded to Boston to complete the blockbuster Dodgers - Red Sox deal. In his fourth season, he has compiled a 2-2 record and 2.84 ERA during a call up from Triple-A Pawtucket. On June 16 he pitched seven scoreless innings and gave up just one hit against the Minnesota Twins.
De La Rosa, 25, is still in the early stages of his Big League career. Who he becomes as a baseball player will not change who he was growing up in the Dominican Republic. Home will always be in San Isidro. Before his grandmother died she requested the family stay close together after she was gone. To honor her wish, he kept her house, built one for himself next door and another for his aunt and uncle next to that.
"I don't think I want to move or leave ever," he said. "I feel good over there."
Long gone are the days of earning $10 a month delivering bread. De La Rosa has financial security, and with that comes a quality of life he dreamed of attaining when he pleaded with his family to give him the opportunity to chase his passion.
"It (money) changes everything," he said. "It changes my situation, life, the economic problems. My family is happy. They don't have to worry anymore, like, we have to find work to eat for tomorrow."
For 15 years De La Rosa walked by the ballpark and never thought all of his responsibilities would allow him to play on it. Today he fulfills his responsibilities by playing on ballparks throughout the Major League.
"(My biggest challenge) was my life; it wasn't easy," he reflected. "Growing up, I tried to move on and think from the front, not seeing out the back, what happened in the past. ... Sometimes during the day I think, 'Wow, look at me now and look at how I was.' It's a super big difference."