Don’t stop me now: The recovery of Devon Rodriguez

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During his senior year of high school, Devon Rodriguez came to Berkeley on a recruiting trip. After walking on the field at Evans Diamond, he knew that he was coming to Cal.

“Berkeley was a little different,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted a change. Everything fit together.”

But his mom was not so certain.

“I walked on Telegraph, and I didn’t want him to come here,” says Natalie Rodriguez. “He said, ‘Mom, it’s just people trying to find themselves — just like me.’”

Undrafted out of high school, Rodriguez was offered a chance to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball.

After a solid freshman season in 2010, Rodriguez had an even better 2011 as the program fought for reinstatement after being cut. In one of the most exciting moments in Cal baseball history, Rodriguez hit a two-RBI walk-off single to right field to cap a four-run ninth inning and win the NCAA Houston Regional final.

“It was a real roller coaster ride,” Devon says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be around. I thought I was going to have to go play somewhere else. It was our rallying call.”

Rodriguez was named the Most Outstanding Player of that regional. He was set to be a star in the 2012 season, likely on his way to the MLB draft.

But before the start of last season, Rodriguez hurt his right knee. A life-threatening blood clot formed in his leg and forced him to take blood thinners for the remainder of the season, limiting him to only 11 at-bats.

With a medical redshirt year granted by the NCAA, Rodriguez prepared himself for a comeback year in 2013. But in the last scrimmage of fall 2012, he dislocated his shoulder while sliding into second base.

Unable to throw a baseball without causing inflammation in his shoulder, Rodriguez has been limited to the designated hitter role for most of this season. Surgery is no longer a question of if but of when. Instead of signing a professional contract this summer, Rodriguez will be recovering from arthroscopic surgery to the labrum.

Physically, Rodriguez should not be playing baseball right now. Yet he is the only Cal player who has started every game this season. If he had opted for surgery at the time of the injury, he would have sat out another season. But for someone whose favorite memories are all baseball-related, sitting out for two consecutive seasons was too much to bear.

“How do you take baseball away from someone who loves it?” Natalie says. “I was more concerned about his emotional happiness than anything else.”

Rodriguez was faced with a dilemma — emotional or physical pain. He chose the physical, risking his future in baseball for the chance to keep playing the game.

The game that he could not live without.

When Natalie was 31 years old, she finally hung up her spikes after a 16-year semiprofessional softball career. She was a tough catcher runners rarely dared to steal on.

But after years of wear and tear on her knees forced her to left field, she had to give it up. She quit a game she loved, but she did it on her own terms.

“I stopped playing when the game changed,” she says. “I kind of changed, too. I felt that it was my time. But when you love something, you can’t stop doing it.”

When her body wouldn’t let her play anymore, Natalie’s legacy continued. Less than a year after retiring from softball, Natalie gave birth to her second son, Devon. Devon exemplified the talent and love of the game that Natalie shared with him.

At only 18 months old, he would throw a baseball up and hit it. When he was 7 years old and playing in an all-star tournament against 8-year-olds, his mom promised him a bat if he hit a home run.

He hit a home run in his first at-bat — and another in his second.

When Devon was 13, he had one of his best performances at a travel-ball tournament.

“How do you do so well?” Natalie asked.

“Oh, because I can see the threads on the ball,” Devon replied.

Now a senior, Rodriguez is finishing up a degree in legal studies — just in case. It remains to be seen if a complete recovery is possible. But at least for now, he is taking his setbacks in stride.

“He’s learned to overcome adversity with his chin up and to do it with self-respect and humility,” Natalie says.

Rodriguez certainly has not forgotten what drives him. His goals of dogpiling after a win at the College World Series and hearing his name called at a Major League stadium are still at the forefront of his mind. He is not ready to give up on those goals any time soon.

“When someone I truly respect tells me that I don’t have much left, that will be one of the times that I would really have to sit back and think about that,” Rodriguez says. “At least I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing that I did everything I could to make it happen. But it’s not something I plan on thinking about for a while.”

If the day comes when the injuries and struggles are too much to bear and Rodriguez has to face the difficult decision of hanging up his spikes, as his mother once did, Natalie will be behind him. He hopes that he can, as she did, quit on his own terms.

“Whatever he decides, that’s what we support,” Natalie says. “When he makes a decision, you can’t sway him. Once he makes his mind, he’s set in stone.”

The dream has not changed for Devon Rodriguez, but the path there has gotten a little bit longer and steeper. If things go according to plan, he will rehabilitate his shoulder and come back to Cal next year.

Ideally, Rodriguez will be playing college baseball in 2014. It’s a far cry from the draft pick that seemed inevitable two years ago. He will try to get his swing back without the hindrance of a dislocated shoulder, adding power as he has in each previous year.

Maybe one day, he will finally realize his goal of stepping on the field of a Major League stadium and hearing his name called in front of screaming fans.

For Rodriguez, baseball is more than a game — it’s something he loves. And as his mom says, “When you love something, you can’t stop doing it.”

Warren Laufer covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].

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