ST. PETERSBURG — Manny Navarro was paying a friend a favor when he assisted the Rays with a batting practice in 2017.
The team was in California scouting then-high schooler and future No. 1 overall draft pick Royce Lewis (by the Twins) and needed someone to throw to him. A friend of Navarro’s, who was shadowing the Rays’ scouts, recommended him for the job.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to get paid for it,” said Navarro, 36, who was working as a strength and conditioning coach at the time.
Just three weeks later, he ended up with a permanent position with the Rays.
As team interpreter, Navarro’s primary responsibility is communicating on behalf of the team’s Spanish-speaking players. He also throws batting practice and works with infielders on the field before games.
He translates English-speaking journalists’ questions into Spanish, then translates players’ answers into English. He facilitates conversations between the coaching staff and players. He also communicates on players’ behalf during meetings with manager Kevin Cash and other staffers.
“(Navarro makes me) feel more comfortable, more free,” outfielder Jose Siri said. “That’s what the players want.”
MLB has required teams to hire interpreters since 2016. Before then, the Rays only hired them for Japanese players. George Pappas, now working in minor league operations, was the team’s first interpreter in 2016. Beyond Navarro, other Rays’ staffers, including manager of communications and player relations Elvis Martinez, can translate for players.
Navarro grew up in a Mexican-American household in California, where he spoke Spanish as a first language. He was gifted his first baseball and glove as a baby, and followed in his brother’s footsteps playing T-Ball. He was a Padres fan and looked up to Roberto Alomar because they were both switch-hitters and infielders.
Playing in the majors was always a dream, Navarro said, but he wasn’t tall enough at 5-feet-5. As an infielder at Cal Poly Pomona, he began figuring out what an off-the-field baseball career could look like.
Navarro first decided to major in mathematics, because that’s what his high school baseball coach had taught, but he struggled in class. So, he started asking his teammates about what they were studying, and someone described kinesiology as “just working out.”
“(I thought), ‘I can do that,’” Navarro said. “I love working out. I went to the counselor the next day and changed my major.”
After graduating from Cal Poly Pomona in 2010, Navarro began work as a strength and conditioning coach in San Diego. He also coached with the MLB Academy in China for parts of 2012-15, where he learned the importance of translating as he needed an interpreter to communicate with players.
He was a strength and conditioning coach before the Rays hired him in 2017, working with players like Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove and Blue Jays outfielder Jordan Luplow. The experience made Navarro the perfect candidate to help with Royce Lewis’ batting practice in 2017, where Rays then-general manager Erik Neander spotted him.
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A week after connecting with Neander, the Rays reached out to ask Navarro if he knew Spanish. Two weeks later, they flew him to Tampa Bay for interviews. Three weeks later, he joined the Rays on a West Coast trip and started his job as team interpreter.
But Navarro had little experience translating. Why the career change?
“One, it was still in baseball,” Navarro said. “Two, it was in Major League Baseball.”
One of his biggest initial challenges: learning to say “I” when translating players’ answers to questions. With Rays players hailing from several different Caribbean and Latin American countries, Navarro also has had to pick up on differences in accents, speech and slang.
His first step as team interpreter? Building trust with players. It’s key to the position. Spanish-speaking players have to trust that Navarro is saying exactly what they mean in English, and what English-speaking journalists and coaching staff are saying in Spanish.
Navarro said he connects with players by asking about their lives and families, and staying in constant communication. But he bonds with them in other ways, too.
He spearheaded what the Rays call Hi-Chew rallies, where Navarro passes Hi-Chew candy down the entire bench during games.
It started in 2018, when the Rays traveled to Oakland. The Athletics had Hi-Chews in the locker room, so Navarro and then-Rays outfielder Rob Refsnyder brought them into the dugout. As they ate Hi-Chews on the bench, the Rays hit back-to-back home runs.
“They’ve broken up no-hitters, in my opinion,” Navarro said. “Bringing them out (is) a superstition.”
Navarro is also the unofficial team DJ, taking requests from players for music during batting practice.
“He tries to please everybody,” infielder Isaac Paredes said via Martinez. “If I want Mexican music, he’ll play Mexican music for me. He plays American music for the American guys, and if you’re Dominican, he plays Dominican music. It’s just keeping the team upbeat and happy.”
Several of Tampa Bay’s most prominent players –– including leftfielder Randy Arozarena, first baseman Yandy Diaz and shortstop Wander Franco — rely on Navarro to translate during interviews and team meetings.
Their stardom has led to greater demand for interviews, Navarro said. He said that just two players relied on him as interpreter when he was first hired in 2017. Now, the Rays have more Latin American players on their roster, many of whom feel most comfortable working with Navarro in interviews.
Navarro also attends team meetings and translates for Rays coaches who don’t speak Spanish. These meetings, which often discuss in-game strategy, help players understand how to perform during games.
“He doesn’t miss a thing,” Paredes said via Martinez. “He’s a really good translator. He gives us all the information we need for us to go out there and execute.”
What do players and coaches appreciate most about Navarro?
He’s the “all-staff MVP,” Cash said.
“He understands how challenging the game is. He appreciates what’s asked of players day in and day out. He’s always available. He’s always there to work. He’s a go-to guy.”
His consistency is important, Diaz said via Martinez. No matter whether players are excelling on the field or not, Diaz said Navarro treats them the same way.
“Our hearts are open to him because he treats everybody the same,” he said via Martinez.
The respect is mutual. Navarro feels the most rewarding part of the role is just being around the game he loves and the Rays’ players who love it as much as he does.
They’re just regular guys, Navarro said. And he is, too — one who gets to shed light on players’ opinions, throw batting practice to the best of the best and pursue a career in the game he’s always loved.
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