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PREP SPOTLIGHT ON BASEBALL

Lifestyle Changes Give De La Rosa Purpose

April 15, 2002|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was a time not so long ago in Jose De La Rosa's life when you were more likely to read about him as a troublemaker or as the victim of a violent crime than as the top player on the North Hills Monroe High baseball team.

De La Rosa carved out a humdrum existence his freshman and sophomore years, associating with gang members and seemingly attending more funerals than classes. The only regular appearances he made in school were in the office of counselor Julie Kovacs, who chided him for indiscretions ranging from truancy to apathy.

Kovacs recently called De La Rosa into her office to reminisce.

"Do you remember three years ago when you would get mad?" she asked.

"I just started cussing," De La Rosa recalled. "I didn't really care."

"And now?"

"I just walk away."

De La Rosa smiled shyly. The senior who speaks in short, choppy sentences has come a long way since those dim days when he had to walk straight home from school with his friends for fear of being beat up if he stuck around for baseball practice and walked home alone.

Now, as a shortstop and team captain batting .357 in his second year with the Vikings, he is on track to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school. If everything falls into place, he might even attend a junior college.

De La Rosa attributes much of his turnaround to baseball, the sport that has captivated him since age 5.

"I love baseball," he said. "That's my thing."

The sport has kept him in class--and in school, for that matter. It has pushed him to study even after a long day at school, practice and his job as a go-cart attendant. And it has made him consider college, even though he had long figured he would go straight to work to support his toddler son.

"That's what baseball is about, to help [kids] become productive in life," Monroe Coach David Muskrath said. "It's a super long shot that any one of them is ever going to go to the major leagues, but if they have fun and learn how to be productive in life--how to get things done on time, be responsible and show good work ethics--that's what matters."

Muskrath looks at De La Rosa and sees a little bit of himself. The first-year coach was once headed to a junior college with no grand plans but two years later enrolled at Cal State Northridge and went on to become an English teacher.

But Muskrath never had to contend with the obstacles confronting De La Rosa. The teenager spent his first few years of high school in a gang-infested neighborhood, where he hung out with the rough crowd but somehow resisted the temptation to join a gang.

"We'd go out and drink and act dumb," De La Rosa said.

Sometimes, the fallout was more serious than a hangover. De La Rosa attended the funerals of three friends who were shot and killed. Another friend was shot in the mouth but survived. De La Rosa has relocated to a more peaceful neighborhood in Panorama City.

De La Rosa was thrown another curve in September of his junior year, when the girl he had been dating for about a year gave birth to a boy. Yet, De La Rosa didn't look at his little Anthony as a burden but a catalyst for change.

"When I had my kid," he said, "I knew I had to do good in school if I wanted a career."

So De La Rosa went to class regularly and did his homework. He found that when he put his mind to it, a funny thing happened: He succeeded.

When baseball season rolled around, De La Rosa was eligible to join the team for the first time. He started making new friends such as Alex Reyes, an infielder with an ebullient personality and a penchant for doing the right thing.

Everything was going well until his grades slipped late in the season and he had to sit out the last couple of weeks. But that wasn't the rest of the story.

De La Rosa returned to school last fall even more determined to keep his grades up so that he could play an entire season and not make his mom regret her decision to pre-order his graduation ring. He also wanted to succeed for the twin brother he never knew.

"Jose tells me, 'Mom, I have to do good, I have to make something out of my life for him,'" Emma, Jose's mother, said in Spanish of the boy who died during childbirth. "Jose says he feels as if he has a guardian angel looking over him."

De La Rosa showed a tremendous work ethic in fall-winter league, prompting Muskrath to designate him as a co-captain along with Reyes.

"He's not giving a lackadaisical effort," Reyes said of De La Rosa. "I see him studying and sometimes he'll call me because he needs help. I'll give him some insight on the project he's doing or math class. In baseball, he doesn't need any help."

The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder has a sweet swing but his at-bats have been limited recently by a lower back injury suffered about a month ago on a throw to first base. He expects to be in the lineup today when Monroe (6-6-1, 0-2 in Valley Mission League play) plays at Van Nuys.

De La Rosa's turnaround isn't complete. He must take a few extra classes in May and June to complete his graduation requirements, but with the continued support of Muskrath, Kovacs and his parents, De La Rosa is well on his way.

"I'm in good shape," he said.

The kid still pops into Kovacs' office occasionally, but now it's only to say, "Hi."

"He's not sent to me anymore, which is nice," Kovacs said. "He knows that I'm really proud of him, and he's really proud of himself because he knows how much he's accomplished.

"He knows now that he's going to make it."

Staff writer Valerie Gutierrez contributed to this story.

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