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Navarro: Dirt-poor, talent-rich

Yamaico Navarro’s rise to the majors at 22 is remarkable. Yamaico Navarro’s rise to the majors at 22 is remarkable. (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 17, 2010

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SEATTLE — It wasn’t the first time Johnny DiPuglia walked into such a house, one with dirt floors and without electricity, one with stunning deprivation and stunning promise. The story is old in the Dominican Republic, the boy making it out because of baseball, a whisper of a bonus leading to the allure and hardship of the minor leagues.

That was all in the future for Yamaico Navarro that day, as DiPuglia walked into the house in San Pedro de Macoris. Navarro, then a budding shortstop with a third baseman’s body, stood in the backyard, showering under a bucket of water. It wasn’t an uncommon situation in a country full of disadvantages, but there was even less than DiPuglia had come to expect.

“He was from a very, very, poor, poor, poor, poverty-type family,’’ said DiPuglia, the former Latin American coordinator for the Red Sox. “He had to pretty much fight for everything that he had in life. So he was in survivor mode all the time, as far as baseball and life.’’

Signed in 2005 for $20,000 — perhaps three years’ salary for his policeman father — after just three games in front of the organization’s international scouts, Navarro had not been an easy study. The talent was there, but maturity was not — not unexpected in a kid of 17 with his background.

That was why DiPuglia was there that day, to talk to his parents about Navarro’s ability to deal with failure.

“I sat the family down,’’ said DiPuglia, now director of international operations for the Nationals. “I tried to make them understand that the kid had a lot of ability, and he was going to lose it because of some of the issues that were occurring, as far as the off-field stuff.

“I know where he came from. He was always fighting, always in fight mode. When I went in there, there was obviously no running water, no plumbing, no electricity. It was a rough neighborhood. Everybody was in survival mode there. That answered a lot of questions.’’

Showing that he cares
Questions remain about Navarro, and not only because he has looked overmatched at the plate in his brief time in the majors. Maturity issues have followed him from his first days with the organization, though over time the concerns have lessened.

The kid had to learn just about everything, after all.

“We started taking this kid in like one of our sons, teaching him just daily things like learning how to eat, where to get food, how to shake hands, how to become a young man,’’ DiPuglia said. “That’s hard to ask for somebody at 17. He’s 22 now, he probably still has a long way to go, but he’s come a long way since we first saw him.’’

The past two years have been significant for Navarro. Gary DiSarcina, his coach with Single A Lowell in 2007, recalls bringing his son into the PawSox clubhouse this summer. Navarro, who had never spoken a word to the kid, remembered him and came up and gave him a hug, talked to him in English. He was more outgoing, laughing.

“I walked out of Pawtucket smiling,’’ DiSarcina said. “All that time and energy does help out a kid eventually. He’s grown up a lot.’’

The story is echoed by DiPuglia, who said Navarro suddenly started showing outwardly that he cared.

“At some point he would shed a tear, which Yamaico would never shed a tear,’’ said DiPuglia. “He started showing some emotion, which was a positive. You’re letting some of that stuff out.

“I know he had scars from his past, living in that type of environment. Who knows what he’s seen? But the biggest key for me this year when I saw him, he would actually hug you.’’

When Navarro arrived in Lowell, his baseball skills far outpaced his maturity and his English skills. Because of the language barrier, his coaches needed to devote more time to teaching him. And for that one-on-one instruction, they were rewarded with a player who didn’t always give his full effort.

“When he didn’t get a hit, he kind of felt like he was letting his family down, so he wouldn’t run hard,’’ said DiPuglia. “Or in the field he wouldn’t give you a good effort on a ground ball. Mentally he couldn’t accept that failure.

“Every time he failed, he thought he was letting his family down. He needs to get his family out of the poverty hole that they’re in now, so there’s a lot of weight on this kid’s shoulders.’’

So he was benched, seven or eight times that season.

“I learned from it and I knew that the next time I couldn’t do that,’’ Navarro said, with Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan interpreting. “I made sure that the next time I hit a ball and I was upset with myself, I went ahead and ran hard the next time.’’

“I think I was hard on him because I really didn’t understand his background, where he came from,’’ said DiSarcina. “Somebody can tell you as much as they want: ‘He comes from a poor background, he comes from a house with a dirt floor.’ You [go] and say, ‘Oh my God, he really comes from nowhere.’

“In retrospect, I probably would have had more patience with him.’’

Picking it up quickly
The talent has always been the draw with Navarro, especially the whip-quick bat.

Said Sox director of player development Mike Hazen, “The talent, all the building blocks are there to be a very good major league baseball player. It’s that consistency on and off the field that needs to be harnessed. And when he does, he’s going to be probably playing in the big leagues for a long time.’’

Having come up as a shortstop, Navarro spent time at third base this season, his spot taken by Jose Iglesias. He picked it up immediately, and might be better-suited for that position in the long run. Coaches rave about his baseball instincts.

“He has so much natural ability,’’ said Red Sox infield coach Tim Bogar. “When we’re working on it, he picks it up and applies it quickly. Athletically-wise, he’s going to be able to do some things that normal players don’t do, going to be able to make plays that other players can’t.’’

He has listened, taken advice, and shown the major league staff something. Bogar has seen the hard work. He also has seen the way Navarro acts when he doesn’t come through.

“He wants to do so well that when he doesn’t, his body language comes across as — I wouldn’t want to say moping — but just that he’s disappointed in himself,’’ Bogar said. “At the major league level, when you walk around looking like that, it doesn’t look like you have confidence. He has confidence in himself; it’s just his way of being displeased with how he’s done something.’’

Dreams within reach
Navarro’s face lights up when Dustin Pedroia’s name is brought up. The smile deepens and he says, “I like Pedroia. Funny.’’

It’s perhaps not surprising that the introverted Navarro would be drawn to the extroverted Pedroia. It’s not only him, though. Navarro has taken his cues from Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz and Marco Scutaro and Victor Martinez, all respected Latin players.

“I look at the veteran guys, see how they carry themselves and how they go about their business,’’ Navarro said. “I realize that I’m only 22 years old, but I feel like I’m a guy that’s worked hard to get here.’’

That’s not to say there haven’t been issues. Beltre, who has commanded respect in the Sox clubhouse, calls Navarro “definitely immature in the head, no doubt about that.’’

But, from all accounts, he has been improving. And that is partly why he has gotten this opportunity, coupled with the desperate need at the major league level.

DiPuglia spoke about his hopes for Navarro back in the offseason. At that point, he said his great hope was that one day he might flip on ESPN on a Sunday night and see Navarro play.

Navarro already made that happen, in his fourth game in the majors, Aug. 29 against the Rays.

But while that dream was realized for DiPuglia, there are many to go for Navarro.

“I want to play baseball,’’ he said. “I want to do well for my father and mother. That’s not the only reason. I understand that the organization has given me an opportunity and I want to play well for the organization, too, and for my teammates.

“There’s a lot of reasons I want to do well.’’

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