Mississauga's 'Tasmanian devil' kicking up dirt, having fun in big leagues - just like he always pictured it
Josh Naylor hopes his love, enthusiasm is infectious in the Cleveland clubhouse
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati, Josh Naylor has the chance to do what his baseball idols had done for so many years before: put a game to bed. It's what he has taken pride in and made a habit of doing in his journey from the ball fields of Mississauga, Ont., to the big leagues of North American baseball.
The 23-year-old walks to the on deck circle, closes his eyes and sees himself coming through when his Cleveland team needs him most. With runners at first and third and nobody out in the top of the eighth inning, Naylor gets his chance to add some cushion to Cleveland's one-run lead.
He steadies himself at the plate, performing his customary routine of tapping his heart twice and pointing skyward with his left hand, holding up his bat with his right before engaging in his lefty stance. He swings and misses on an 83 m.p.h. slider from Cincinnati Reds left-hander Amir Garrett, then goes through the same routine again before the next pitch, before history is made.
But not his history. It's not close to the result he envisioned.
Naylor lines the next pitch to Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, another Canadian, who in 2007 completed his own journey from the sandlots in Toronto and has established himself as one of the best in the majors, the National League MVP in 2010. With the skills and savvy he's honed over 15 seasons, the 37-year-old snares Naylor's hot shot, tags the runner at first and then throws to third to catch Naylor's teammate Amed Rosario unaware and off base for the rare triple play, just the 723rd time it has happened in the millions of plays executed over MLB's 145-year history.
The inning is over, but Cleveland still has the lead and so the opportunity for heroics now shifts to defence. Naylor takes his spot at first base and cleanly fields two balls driven to him for the first two outs, setting up what could be an ironic redemption for Naylor. The next batter, Cincinnati's Max Schrock, hits a third straight grounder toward Naylor but the 5-foot-11, 250-pounder misplays it. Schrock is safe, and scores on a hit by Nick Castellanos in the next at-bat to tie the game and Cleveland goes on to lose in extra innings.
So, how was your Saturday?
"That's baseball," Naylor said a few days later as he was being driven home from a regular chiropractor checkup. "The day before I got three hits and was feeling good and the next day the game humbles you right away.
"Yeah, it may hurt, it may suck, it's tough to lose a game like that knowing it's your fault that it happened, but it is what it is. I can't go back or take back that moment or else I would a hundred times. I just have to deal with it, I have to wear it and just work from there."
Baseball is a game of failing. Hit safely just three times out of 10 for long enough and you can fancy your chances of getting in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Enjoy the good days as they are fleeting, recognize the bad days for what they are and move on. Selected 12th overall in the 2015 MLB draft, Naylor has already been traded twice – from the Miami Marlins and the San Diego Padres, set an MLB record by going 5-for-5 in his first five post-season at-bats, and in just his third season is now looking to find the success he's always envisioned in his first full season with Cleveland.
A kid determined to have fun
Instilling the love of baseball for Naylor began with his parents, Chris and Jenice. Chris played both hockey and baseball growing up and so that's what he chose to introduce Josh to at an early age. Josh took to sports and competition like a duck to water, and any opportunity to get one over on someone was an opportunity he couldn't miss. This was a kid determined to have all the fun in the world.
"Ever since he was a toddler, he was a Tasmanian devil [of] energy," Jenice said. "That's what we nicknamed him — Tasmanian devil — because, honestly, it was non-stop with him. He was playful, he was interactive, whether it was in school, in the neighborhood, it was always go, go, go, go, go.
Ever since he was a toddler, he was a Tasmanian devil [of] energy.- Jenice Naylor, Josh's mother
"And baseball was one of those things he always wanted to play or it was hockey. He always wanted to play and get everybody to play with him. Myself, grandmother, his dad, his siblings, the neighbour, he was just a very energetic, good-natured young guy."
As parents, harnessing that energy to get the best out of Josh was always going to be the key challenge. With the Ontario Blue Jays — Canada's top amateur baseball program — providing a platform and resources, Chris coaching him at Mississauga North, and Jenice bringing direction to ensure her kids never got sidetracked, a master plan was in the works. In Chris's words, nothing could ever sneak by the goalie.
Jenice, a probation officer, always looked to ensure her boys were focused and disciplined. She wanted her kids to be goal-oriented from the beginning; it was one of her tenets of parenting. No matter how small, she wanted to make sure they were always chasing something. And by setting goals, the trickle-down effect took care of "the process."
If it was as simple as waking up early to take extra swings in the batting cage the next day, it was also understanding the need to get a good night's rest beforehand. Having plans in place and seeing them rewarded with the accomplishment of goals created belief in the work, and so there was never a need to get arrogant about success when it came because it was a result of work, not magic. And when failures came, it was that much easier to understand that there was no need to look anywhere but the mirror.
WATCH | Josh Naylor profiled on CBC's The National in 2016:
"Goal setting is really important for me and I try to teach them that," Jenice said, referring to Josh and his two younger brothers, Noah and Myles. "Just to be humble and to be respectful to yourself and to always have another goal will help you to respect the process."
Those early lessons bore fruit when Josh turned 14 and saw former teammates getting drafted to Division 1 colleges. He wanted that, and he recognized that those players didn't get there by just going to practice and calling it a day. It was going to take more than that. The young teen was ready to start making sacrifices to be the best baseball player he could be, get drafted one day, be the highest player drafted from his organization.
"I just put my nose to the grind," Naylor said. "I just worked and I loved every moment of it. It was, honestly, it sucks sometimes. But it was so awesome because every time you work, every time you do something more than once, you're going to get a positive result out of it if you keep practising.
"I figured if I just work hard, it's gonna be there. And all I have to do is work."
After accomplishing his dream of getting drafted straight out of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga's west end, Naylor was looking forward to making himself at home with the Miami Marlins. Playing with the organization's Class-A team, he built friendships and relationships he thought would be fundamental to his big-league career. But before the roots could grow deep he was traded in 2016 to the San Diego Padres.
Naylor admits the first time he was traded — as the organization's second-best prospect — hit hard.
'Evil and good' of being traded
"You make a ton of friends and you finally start to get comfortable, and it's your first season, and then all of a sudden just like that you're leaving everyone and everything you just kind of built in that city or wherever you're in," said Naylor, who has a one-year deal with Cleveland worth $577,500 US. "Starting fresh is sometimes tough, but in the end, you've got to understand — the second time I got traded [to Cleveland] I realized — this team really, really wants me and they feel like I can help them right away.
"It's an incredible experience to get traded because you battle both sides of the ball, the evil and the good. As you go on in your career, and in your life, you kind of realize everything happens for a reason."
One of the most telling moments of Naylor's young Cleveland career thus far actually came after his historic post-season batting run. Despite the scorching streak at the plate, acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. decided to play a game of matchups with Cleveland's post-season on the line in Game 2 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Series against the Yankees. Trailing 8-6 in the bottom of the seventh, with two runners on and two outs, Alomar Jr. pulled the lefty Naylor in favour of right-handed hitting Jordan Luplow.
Naylor's reaction is telling. He didn't sulk. He didn't make it all about himself. When Luplow drove a 1-2 pitch to deep centre field for a game-tying double, Naylor was the first to celebrate, caught on camera absolutely ecstatic for his teammate's success.
'Everyone deserves to feel special'
"Being a good teammate and showing everyone love and pushing positivity and pushing enthusiasm and high energy, people feed off that," said Naylor, one of 13 Canadians playing in the major leagues this year. "Others don't realize how much you want someone to feed you that positivity and that good energy that they have and the love and the support and just the push.
From his closely knit kinship with his brothers to his friendships with teammates old and new, Naylor's desire to make everyone around him feel like a hero travels. Swagger and confidence are characteristics Naylor is blessed with in abundance and it's no wonder he feels there's plenty to go around.
"Everyone deserves to feel special because there's so much negativity in this world daily and it sucks, but that's just the world we live in," he said. "If I can show you love and positivity and happiness for three hours out of the 24-hour day, maybe you'll go home and you'll pass it along to your friend or your brother or your grandpa or whoever. And then that person passes along and it's just a chain of people passing a lot of positivity and happiness and I've always been taught to pay it forward, always, always be nice and always pay it forward."
The history of Naylor being a great teammate goes back to his days with the Ontario Blue Jays, where he was known for doing everything to get his teammates loose and ready to go. As the best player on those teams, Naylor was still always accessible and the energy of the team. Conner Morro, one of his closest friends, teammate, and roommate during those days could still be caught off guard from time to time.
Morro remembers a high-level tournament in Atlanta in 2014. He and Naylor were two of four sharing a room and after their first morning game, the squad planned to head out to the mall for the day and hang out just like any other group of teenagers might.
Training by video
But after everyone had showered and changed, Naylor emerged wearing Morro's uniform, batting helmet, sunglasses and all. At 16 years old, Naylor already had more than 30 pounds on Morro and the buttons on the white uniform — replicas of the MLB Jays' 2013 version — were straining. He had decided instead of the mall, he was going to lock in for the next day's game by playing the video game MLB: The Show on PlayStation.
"Go figure, he goes up the next day and I'm pretty sure he was 3-for-4 with two doubles and a couple RBI," Morro said. "He likes to keep it loose, that's such a Josh thing to randomly do that. He had armbands on, too, so he had the full gear. Just completely random."
"It was just a way for me to relax my mind but still be involved in baseball," Naylor said of the incident. "I love this game so much, I love competing a lot and I love competitive opponents. When I'm playing video games, it's that baseball experience outside of baseball for me. And now that's how I still stay connected to the game because I never really want to leave the ballpark. So, that was my ballpark, in the hotel room."
The idea of Naylor getting warmed up for a big night with video games may sound familiar. In Game 1 of the AL Wild Card series against the New York Yankees in September, he went 4-for-4 and was a triple away from the cycle facing their ace Gerrit Cole. After the game he credited the game MLB: The Show for giving him some insight on what he could expect from a pitcher he hadn't faced before.
Competitive as kids
Of course, he was only kidding. And it hints at what makes Naylor tick. In the pressure cooker of a playoff environment, the bright lights of a nationally televised game and matched up against one of the best in the game, Naylor lets the outside noise be just that while keeping what keeps him centred dead straight in front of him. Literally living out the reality of the video game he's played with friends and family over the years, that's where his mind was.
"I honestly said it because there's more of an inside joke to me and my friends back home because we all used to play Road to The Show or the Diamond Dynasty together in that game," Naylor said. "So, it was more just a little inside joke to them so they would laugh when they heard me say that."
Josh is a PlayStation guy and currently hops on the PS5 with his brother Noah — himself a prospect in Cleveland's minor-league system — and Morro when he can. An hour of fun and trash talking is enough to sate the gaming appetite and it all boils down to satisfying that need to compete each and every day.
Growing up in Mississauga, Naylor lived the dream any young sports fan. Every day was Game 7 of either the World Series, NBA Finals or Stanley Cup at the Naylor residence. Noah is just a couple of years younger than him and the two built up their competitive spirits by going at each other in imaginary scenarios all day, every day. Myles, the youngest and also pursuing a baseball career, joined in when he was old enough.
"It was such a competitive environment with us three, and then specifically me and Noah," Naylor said. "Growing up, you never want the younger brother to be the winner since he would always have a one-up on you. So, I would make sure I always won, I would always work the hardest, find the best way to beat him, he'd get me sometimes, obviously, but, I always made it evident for me to win, that he was never going to beat me.
This process of imagining yourself coming through on the biggest stage in the biggest of moments when you're a child is looked at as kids running wild with their imagination but transforms into the buzzword called visualization as adults. Those seeds of envisioning success for himself planted as a child continue to bear fruit as it's become a part of Naylor's daily process.
You always want to see yourself be successful and putting that in your brain.- Josh Naylor
Sitting on the bench before games or even during the national anthem, Naylor imagines himself successfully tackling all that could be thrown his way during a game. Before an at-bat, Naylor closes his eyes for a few seconds in the on-deck circle, picturing the pitcher going to their go-to pitch and him responding with the hit the team needs. Whether a pitcher has two different pitches or five, Naylor imagines himself finding a way to be successful against each and every type.
"Visualization, I feel, is huge in sports and in life," Naylor said. "You always want to see yourself be successful and putting that in your brain and running that through your brain and you seeing it is important for yourself inside knowing you can do it and for confidence as well."
No matter how much the results of the previous day may diverge from what he envisions, Naylor's approach is the same on game day. Arrive at the stadium as early as they'll allow him, get his stretching routine in, head to the batting cages for roughly 20 minutes, and hang out for about an hour before practice. After practice, it's time for a hot tub/cold tub session to be game ready.
That routine is all part of his poker face, staying even keel through good and bad. He may have slapped his glove in frustration in that moment recently in Cincinnati, but Naylor isn't one to be weighed down by an error in one game out of 162, and the challenge of making his name a household one in Major League Baseball is one he embraces. His belief in the hard yards paying off is unrelenting and so is the belief in himself.
Just as Naylor looks to take every opportunity to be there for his teammates, he makes sure to be his own hype man as well. Beyond the pregame visualization, what happens between his final session in the tub and game time is a big secret. Naylor pumps himself up in ways that he would rather keep to himself, but he can confirm there is music involved and possibly some dancing. He recognizes just how important it is to have an unwavering confidence no matter what's happening around him.
Naylor was accustomed to being the best player on his team and at times even the entire tournament when he was an amateur. He was Ontario Baseball's Junior Player of the Year at age 13, he represented the Canadian national junior team soon after that and helped the U-18 team to a World Cup silver medal. Staking his claim as an everyday player in the big leagues is the biggest challenge he's faced yet.
"Being here, it's been a blessing," Naylor said. "Adjusting to things every day and, you know, learning new things every day from new coaches and new head office people or whoever it is, and I'm here to just absorb all the information I can learn from everyone because they've obviously been here and been such a successful organization for so long. Now, if I take little things away from each person or whoever comes up to talk to me, I feel like my game is just gonna kind of slowly evolve and become better.
"This life can humble you really quick," he said. "People can humble you really quick and it's just, you don't want to be humbled to be honest. So why not always try to be great?"