“You’re going to let him play?”
That was the reaction Mark DeRosa’s father had at a recruiting visit when longtime Penn baseball coach Bob Seddon mentioned his son’s potential involvement on the Quakers’ baseball team on top of his football commitments.
It may seem hard to believe that this is the campus welcome that a player who would go on to have a 16-year MLB career would have, but that career was never a sure thing.
By DeRosa’s own admission, football was why he got into Penn, but he stuck with baseball just to keep his doors open. Little did he know at the time that the hallway behind those doors would be gold-plated and deeper than he ever imagined.
“I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to be successful in life, regardless of whether that means playing in the NFL or the MLB, or maybe not getting the chance to do either,” DeRosa said.
After two years on campus, a career in the NFL was certainly looking like the more likely scenario.
Starting at quarterback as a sophomore, DeRosa led the Quakers to an undefeated record and an Ivy League title, in what is still one of the program’s best seasons in history. However, DeRosa maintains that he never heavily favored one sport over the other and kept a commitment to both when necessary. His former teammates echo these statements.
“While he was playing both, I don’t think there was a focus on one or the other,” Mark Fabish, former Penn wide receiver and DeRosa teammate said. “I think when he was doing baseball, he was doing baseball. When he's doing football, he's doing football.”
Fabish, who is now the offensive coordinator for Columbia football, has a unique lens into DeRosa’s trajectory as they were high school teammates at New Jersey powerhouse Bergen Catholic before being roommates for four years at Penn.
Fabish recounts how the football team would schedule its practices around DeRosa’s baseball commitments. Even if that meant starting at 6 a.m. or finishing at 1 a.m., the team was always happy to accommodate its quarterback. Fabish recalls the entire football team heading out to Penn's baseball stadium to watch the quarterback-turned-shortstop throw heaters across the diamond — an event that eventually became a longstanding tradition.
“That held true for his 16-year career. I don't know if there was a season where I didn't see him play live at some point,” Fabish said. “Whether it be in the minors, or when he was playing in the majors, [at least] one game a year I saw him play live.”
In addition to being a first-hand witness to his quarterback’s athletic prowess, Fabish also saw him display a more latent ability: singing. He recalls many nights of karaoke at Smokey Joe’s near campus, where DeRosa would embody Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam in a very “on-point” manner.
Perhaps to DeRosa’s dismay, the legendary grunge rock band was not in the market for a new lead singer, so he turned his focus to baseball for a summer. That was when his future started to take a more definite shape.
After a successful sophomore summer playing in the Cape Cod League, nearly half of all MLB teams sent scouts to Penn baseball games during DeRosa’s junior season. By that point, Seddon was more than happy to have him on the team, as he led the squad in RBIs while batting over .300, culminating in the Atlanta Braves drafting him after the season.
While this was great news for DeRosa, it did mean the end of his Penn career — at least on the field.
After a season in the minors, DeRosa returned to campus in October 1996 to finish his Wharton degree. DeRosa wanted to focus on his academics as a fallback, even if that was an uncommon choice for a professional baseball player.
“You’d hear comments throughout the minor leagues, like ‘If you were gonna end up here on the buses with us in the minor leagues, why'd you have to study so hard? My answer to that would be I didn't know I was gonna end up on the buses," DeRosa said.
School wasn’t the only thing on DeRosa’s mind that year though. Just as his football teammates had supported his baseball career, he supported their football careers that year as he would often throw to his former receivers in workouts as they chased their gridiron dreams.
Pearl Jam releasing a new hit album that summer may or may not have also played a role.
Flash forward 15 years, and with his playing career winding down, DeRosa was presented with a new opportunity: sports media. During the 2011 playoffs, DeRosa began providing analysis for MLB Network on television.
“I thought it would be fun, and I honestly wasn’t looking at it as anything more than that,” he said. “But I guess in their eyes, it was kind of a mini audition, right?”
By all indications, the audition was a home run. Within a few years, DeRosa had become one of the faces of the channel, co-hosting the morning show “MLB Central”. Given his extensive experience both playing and commenting on the game, it perhaps should not have been much of a surprise when he was named Team USA’s manager in the World Baseball Classic this year, even though he had no prior managing experience at any level.
“His ability to make those around him comfortable [prepared him for the role],” Fabish said. “He always set his teammates at ease, it was unparalleled and unique. You didn't have to do anything other than be yourself.”
While leading an Ivy League football team is certainly no laughing matter, managing a roster filled with superstars like Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt is a different rodeo. Still, DeRosa drew heavily on his experiences at Penn as he took on the job.
“I think that definitely goes back to football: being in the huddle, having to constantly communicate, having to constantly count on your teammates,” DeRosa said.
The experience certainly paid off for Team USA, as the team made it all the way to the finals, when it lost a thriller to Shohei Ohtani and Japan. Despite the loss, DeRosa thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to manage the team, even calling Trea Turner’s walk-off home run against Venezuela a “top-five moment” of his professional career.
As for his future, DeRosa remains open but not committed to future managerial roles.
“It's not something I'm like pounding the pavement to do. But yeah, I certainly would be up for the challenge.”
Three decades after “letting” DeRosa on the baseball team, Seddon couldn’t agree more.
“He’s a real player guy,” he recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s a people person, and he’s a guy that could someday be a coach or manager in professional baseball, if he wanted that, because he fits the mold. He just has it.”
Despite his self-proclaimed lukewarmness towards the idea of returning to the MLB, DeRosa has interviewed for coaching positions with both the Miami Marlins and New York Mets. Even if his managerial career never takes off, DeRosa is more than happy at MLB Network, which also allows him the spare time to focus on one of the few ventures in his life that he has not excelled at: fantasy football.
Almost three decades after sharing a field together, DeRosa and his closest Penn teammates still play in a fantasy league together every year and talk constantly in a group chat. However, Fabish says DeRosa’s personal biases often get the better of him come draft time.
“He goes with his heart. He goes with the Cowboys too much.”
So unless either the Cowboys rebound decades of mediocrity, or Eddie Vedder announces a surprise retirement, the next big step in DeRosa’s career might be back to the big leagues.