PHOENIX – Usually it lasted a minute. Mark DeRosa's heart would dance the salsa instead of its customary waltz, and he would calm it down. Breathing worked. So did squatting. Sixty seconds, some concentration and it was over, no worries. Not even his teammates knew.
This one scared him. One minute turned into two, and then three and four, and by the fifth minute, DeRosa could no longer hide it. Meditation and stoicism were no match for this atrial arrhythmia, and DeRosa gave in and allowed the Chicago Cubs to call an ambulance.
"I tried desperately to talk my way out of that," DeRosa said. "But for, I guess, insurance purposes, I understood. The trainer's not going to put me in his own car and drive me to the ER."
De Rosa could joke about it Monday, because he was back on the field for the Cubs, showing no ill effects from the surgery 11 days ago that should correct the irregular heartbeat pestering him since high school. The doctor slipped a catheter through his leg, blasted away the defective tissue using electrical energy and told him to go home no longer fearful about another episode.
Perhaps eventually. For now, DeRosa, Penn-educated and one of the more nimble minds in baseball, knows the reality: Reggie Lewis and Pete Maravich and Hank Gathers and Yinka Dare died of arrhythmias, and, yeah, sure, they were all basketball players, but still. DeRosa is 33. He has a wife and daughter. An athlete is an athlete, and a defective heart is a defective heart.
But the game tugs at the heart, too. DeRosa spent 10 years toiling as a minor leaguer and utility player, so when he broke through the cloud of anesthesia, his mind leapt back to the Cubs camp he had left less than a week earlier.
"I was saying thank god I'm going to be able to play in a couple days," he said.
DeRosa didn't go all Disney on the crowd at Maryvale Baseball Park. He grounded out to shortstop, popped out to second and hit another routine grounder to third base in his final at-bat.
"I didn't strike out," he said.
Small victories and all. This was DeRosa's first time facing live pitching since the Cubs bombed out in the National League Division Series against Arizona. He knows his swing needs work. All the extra batting practice he takes was spent instead reacquainting himself with the comforts of the couch and trying to wrap his head around how, exactly, doctors can perform heart surgery through a leg.
DeRosa moved just fine, fielding a two-hop grounder to retire Abraham Nuñez and a pop-up on which he called off shortstop Mike Fontenot, who, under normal circumstances, might have fielded the ball. DeRosa jogged on and off the field, took his customary practice swings with a donut weighing down his bat, wore his white batting gloves and blue shirt and gray pants and behaved as though it was any other game.
He knew better. DeRosa has dealt with arrhythmias at the plate and in the field for his entire career, and to know that the likelihood of another is minimal – to have that burden excised – emboldened him.
"I felt completely normal," DeRosa said. "I really did. Actually, I feel better than normal, because what my normal used to be has been enhanced."
How about that. A performance enhancer everyone agrees is a good thing.
DeRosa has made a career of steady improvement, parlaying his breakout season two years ago with Texas into a three-year, $13 million deal with the Cubs. In 502 at-bats last season, he got on base at a .371 clip, drove in 72 runs and played all four infield and both corner outfield positions. When need be, DeRosa is the definition of a superutility player.
And it may need be soon. Cubs scouts continue to track Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts, and with Felix Pie's favor fading within the organization, you don't need Gene Rayburn to see a match. Roberts could lead off, DeRosa could shift into a do-everything role and the Cubs could position themselves as perhaps the scariest team in the NL.
No one invoked Roberts' name Monday, though. DeRosa was here, and he looked great, and he sounded great, and, most important, he felt great, something that no 0-for-3 showing could erase.
"Now," DeRosa said, "I'll have to start getting hits or people will start to wonder what's going on."
He smiled, hauled his bat bag over his shoulder and waltzed toward the Cubs' bus, just like he always has. Not missing a beat.