27th of May | Story

A gold standard


SALT LAKE CITY | More than any other game so far this season, one stands out for Efren Navarro. Before Navarro and the rest of the Salt Lake Bees were introduced in front of a Saturday night game against the Tucson Padres, he was called from the dugout and presented with a 2011 Rawlings Gold Glove — one of nine that Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner hands to players every year.

“It’s something that I always dreamed about having,” Navarro says. “Hopefully, I’ll have one one day when I’m in the Major Leagues. To have one now just shows the accomplishments, shows the hard work that I put in. Pretty much, defense is my pride. If I can make a good defensive play, it will lead to a great hit.”

Last season, Navarro’s first at Triple-A, he set numerous career, team and Pacific Coast League highs. He batted .317 with a dozen homers and 36 doubles. He drove in 73 runs and scored 76. He even finished with twice as many triples (six) as errors (three). That last fact contributed to his .998 fielding percentage, a Bees defensive record and tops among all PCL first basemen.

More impressive, the validation of his skills as a first baseman arrives six years after he moved from the mound to the field.

“I couldn’t pitch. I knew that I could barely throw. I remember trying to come back and trying to be a reliever and trying to help the team out. I just couldn’t do it.” — Salt Lake first baseman Efren Navarro

A Lynwood, California, native, Navarro signed a scholarship with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as a left-handed pitcher. During what he recalls as a practice game his junior season, he threw a pitch and heard his elbow pop.

“I though, ‘Oh, this isn’t good,’” he says. “I tried throwing the next pitch and that one was a changeup and it landed not even halfway to the mound.”

He tried to extend his arm and couldn’t. His elbow was fractured.

“I just walked off the field,” he says. “I thought I was done.”

His options included allowing the elbow to heal and redshirt, or undergo surgery and hope to come back at some point during the season. He opted for surgery and a pin in his elbow. Three weeks later, before the season even started, he was back at practice.

“I couldn’t pitch,” he says. “I knew that I could barely throw. I remember trying to come back and trying to be a reliever and trying to help the team out. I just couldn’t do it.”

But his elbow didn’t bother him when he swung a bat. There was no discomfort, so he kept swinging.

Navarro had been a pitcher since he was 7, when fellow lefty Fernando Valenzuela served as his baseball idol. He played first base occasionally during high school and for the Rebels. His older sister Lupe played first base on teams in high school and college and, for one season, a professional women’s baseball team in Long Beach, California. “She could pick balls like no other,” Navarro says. “I learned from her, and she helped me out a lot. We have the same tools as first basemen.”

Of course, those lessons came when Navarro played in little league and high school. In college, he was on his own. 

“There were drills I had to do, just knowing who’s throwing and knowing the situation of a ball game,” he says. “There was a lot that I had to do just to feel comfortable as a hitter. It just clicked.”

Day after day — and still to this day — he would throw a tennis ball off a wall and practice fielding it with one hand. He practiced his foot work, practiced his hitting, worked on the emotional grind of playing every day and making adjustments. He went from the Rebels’ ace, to an injured pitcher, to a starting first baseman before the season even started.

Then he went out and batted .325, good enough to be drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 50th round — 1,450th overall, the fourth player from the end of the draft.

Since then, he has played in Orem, Utah; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Rancho Cucamonga, California; North Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and, last September, Los Angeles, where he played in eight games, batted .200 and fielded 1.000. This year, stuck behind Albert Pujols, Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo, is the first time he has repeated a level.

Still, Navarro sees an advantage in being a left-handed first baseman. He says he can turn double plays more easily and field like a shortstop. “To get a Gold Glove, you have to be able to hit, as well,” he says. “I’ve come a long way since being drafted, playing first, coming up through the system, just learning every day how to hit. To this day, I’m still learning. I think as a hitter overall, you just never stop learning how to hit.”

Navarro’s glad he picked up a bat after coming back from elbow surgery. “If you asked me if I could pitch in Triple-A with the skills I have now, I think I wouldn’t last,” he says. “My stuff wasn’t as good as these pitchers. I had an OK fastball, my breaking ball was decent and I had a changeup. I was just an average left-handed pitcher.”

A freak accident moved Navarro from the mound to first, and the Gold Glove has confirmed for him that struggles and hard work can lead to success.

“It’s a nice award to have, it really is,” he says. “I’m going to have it for the rest of my life.”

For now, he’s going to share the Gold Glove with his parents, even if he isn’t quite sure where it is these days. The glove, painted and mounted, is somewhere in Spring Mobile Ballpark, in the front office, maybe, on display. When he does take it home for good, his parents have cleared a spot among all his other medals for that coveted right-handed glove with his name. 

Of course, Navarro couldn’t wear it even if he wanted. He wears a left-handed glove.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com  @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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