HAINES CITY, Fla. (AP) _ Rick DeHart was pitching for a Topeka,-Kan. semipro team last summer, but could be pitching in the majors again this year down Interstate 70 with the Kansas City Royals.
DeHart, a Topeka native who went to Washburn University and grew up a Royals fan, was a left-handed reliever for parts of three seasons, 1997-99, with the Montreal Expos.
He went to spring training in 2000 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but hurt his elbow.
``I got hurt pitching against Kansas City. Four days later, I pitched against Montreal in a night game and on my first pitch I felt a sharp pain through my arm,'' DeHart recalls.
``I was pumped up because I was pitching against the Expos. I wanted to show those guys up. It was the worst pain I ever felt. I lasted the inning, but I probably shouldn't have.''
Tests detected a small tear in a ligament in his elbow, and he had elbow ligament transplant surgery, which put him out for the entire year.
``When I had my surgery, it was a blessing in disguise,'' DeHart said. ``My arm feels stronger than before the surgery.''
He returned to spring training last year with the Dodgers, but was still recovering from surgery and was released. He returned to Topeka and threw a few innings to stay in shape. He also took some classes at Washburn, where he is working on his bachelor's degree.
``I was thinking about life after baseball,'' DeHart said.
DeHart auditioned for the Royals at Kauffman Stadium with pitching coach Al Nipper watching. The Royals liked what they saw and signed DeHart to a minor league contract. He appeared in five games with Class A Wilmington, allowing one earned run and five hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The Royals promoted DeHart to Class AA Wichita, where he went 2-2 with a 6.59 ERA in 13 games, covering 23 1/3 innings.
The Royals re-signed DeHart after the season to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. The Royals are looking at Brian Shouse, Jordan Zimmerman, Scott Mullen, Tony Cogan and DeHart for one, possibly two, left-handed spots in the bullpen.
Royals manager Tony Muser said it is too early to evaluate DeHart.
DeHart is used to being a longshot. He was not drafted out of Washburn, but signed as a free agent with the Expos.
``I went to a tryout camp to play in Taiwan,'' DeHart said. ``A Montreal scout saw me throw and pulled me aside.''
The Expos flew DeHart to Florida and signed him.
``My bonus was a pair of shoes, a jacket that didn't fit and a new glove that somebody stole,'' DeHart said. ``They stuck me with two other guys from the Dominican Republic in a hotel room. They were great guys, but they spoke very little English and I spoke very little Spanish, which made it fun to communicate. It was a rude awakening for a boy growing up in Kansas.''
DeHart defied the odds to make the majors, where he has a 2-1 record with one save in 52 relief appearances.
Now he's trying to defy the odds again and earn a spot in the Kansas City bullpen.