Should i stay or should i go?
As I headed to the stadium on June 8th 2008, I was both excited and super sad at the same time... You see, I had just made the decision to accept a contract offer to play the remainder of the season in Mexico 🇲🇽 It was a chance to play internationally, a chance to earn a lot more more money 💴 It was the best decision for my career at the moment, or at least I thought. Although this seemed like a great opportunity, I was super sad to have to leave the Long Island Ducks. After working hard for years, I had finally found a team that would give me a chance to play everyday and show what I could do. After six plus seasons, I found that on Long Island. While playing for the Ducks, I had earned an opportunity that I have always wanted. An opportunity to play with incredible teammates in a league full of incredible talent, in an awesome stadium in front of amazing fans. And on top of all of this, I was able to do it all in front of my family. (Side note: after growing up proudly down the Jersey shore, my parents ended up moving out to the east end of Long Island a few years before I signed with the Ducks). I was super happy there. Truth is, I never really did want to leave. I showed up at the stadium 🏟 with the intention to say goodbye to my teammates and clean out my locker. I had agreed to my contract following Friday nights game, and missed Saturdays game due to a family engagement. So Sunday was the day to show up, clean up and then hit road. And that's exactly what I intended to. Ironically, while packing up my things and cleaning out my locker, my manager at the time asked me to come into his office. He informed me that the team had suffered a couple of injuries during the week and they would be playing with a short handed roster. He asked if I wouldn’t mind suiting up one last time before I headed out of the country and play one more game.
A beautiful summer Sunday afternoon on Long Island - 80 degrees and bright blue skies in front of a near sell out crowd. As you can guess, he didn't have to ask me twice! SoI headed back to my now empty locker and put on my uniform on. I laced up my cleats and headed down the tunnel to the field. As I headed down to the dugout, I kept looking around at everything. The stadium, the fans looking for their seats, the scoreboard, everything. I remember saying to myself..”Man, I’m going to really miss this place” Looking back to that day over 10 years ago, I can honestly say that I felt as good as I ever have playing baseball. I felt strong, confident, relaxed. I felt as close to perfect as you could probably feel before playing a game of baseball. Little did I know that this game would turn out to be as close to perfect of a game I would ever play. A game any player would dream of having. It was a game that would make any player ask...."Why am I leaving?" I got 4 at bats that afternoon on Long Island.The Long Island Ducks legendary PA announcer "Bullet" Bob Ottone announced my name 4 times that game. And each time, I walked up to to the plate with Kanye West's "STRONGER" playing as I dug into the batters box.The first at-bat was double off the wall. When I stopped at second base, I heard one of my teammates yell at me..."Are you sure you want to leave?". I smiled into the dugout. I knew the answer. My second at-bat, I got into a hanging slider or something with a wrinkle in it, and hit a home run to left center field. The smile got bigger and so did my teammates jabs about me deciding to leave. The pitcher tried to get me with an outside fastball in my third at-bat, but he left it out over to much of the plate and I was able to drive it over the right center field wall for my second home run of the afternoon. I couldn't believe it. After that second home run, one of my coaches told me that there had never been a Ducks player to hit 3 Home Runs in a game. I remembering saying back..."Don't hold your breath" haha. You see, I think I may have only hit 2 home runs in a game once or twice before in my career. The odds of hitting 3 in a game were nearly impossible. But this day was different. It was perfect.
I walked up the plate for my fourth at-bat with the most confidence I have ever had in my career. I can still hear the fans cheering loudly. I can still see the pitcher on the mound. I still remembering asking myself..."Why am I leaving again?". I dug into the box and looked up ready to jump on the first fastball I could candle. What did I have to lose? This day was already unforgettable. So with no worry, no hesitation, no doubt, I took one of the best swings of my career. He threw the fastball I wanted and I sent it over the double wall in left field for my third home run of the game. It was my Roy Hobbs at Wrigley Field moment from the movie THE NATURAL. A sunny, summer Sunday afternoon...The perfect day to go a for a jog, or three, around the park.
I got 4 hits that day. A double off the wall and 3 Home Runs...Yeah, you read that right! In what would be my last game as a Long Island Duck - I went 4 for 4 with a double, 3 Home Runs and 8 RBI. Everything I saw I hit. And everything I hit went really far. It was better than any game I ever dreamed of having (well besides the game winning walk off-grand slam I used to imagine hitting out in the middle of my street when I used to take out the garbage back when I was in middle & high school haha).
The fans cheered louder than I have ever heard them. My teammates were pumped. We won the game. It was the most perfect game of my career. It was the most perfect day....It was perfect until I had to say good bye and leave for Mexico...
Leaving the stadium that day was even harder than I thought it would be when I got there that morning. You see, before that game, I had already fell in love with this place. The team, the league, the stadium, the fans, all of it. It had become a second home for me. And now it was time to go...again. For any one out there reading this that has ever played professional baseball or you know a loved one who has, you know how many good-byes there are. How many flights and long bus rides there are. How many nights in hotels in big cities and even smaller towns. And just like that, after the most perfect game of my career, it was time to hit the road again.
I caught my flight to Mexico City the following morning. Passport in hand and sadness in my heart. Most players would have been pumped for this opportunity. It was an opportunity to showcase your skills internationally in front of more scouts. And it was chance to earn more money. A lot more money. And for me, there lied the problem.
I promised myself a long time ago I would never just take a job because of money. I had to love the position. I had to be inspired by the work. I had to love where I would be. Those were always my values. I never wanted to play professional baseball or make it to the Major Leagues because it could make me wealthy. Don't get me wrong, it sure would have been nice. Trust me, it would have been awesome. But I dreamed of playing professional baseball because I loved the game. Simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less. It was my passion. It was my first love. It was the greatest mystery I tried to solve on a daily basis for nearly my entire life. It never had anything to do with money.
BUT THIS TIME IT DID. AND THATS WHY I CAME RIGHT BACK HOME!
You're probably thinking that I never did catch my flight to Mexico City. Well, you would be wrong if thats what you think happened. I did catch my flight and I arrived in Mexico City where I was taken to their Olympic offices for my drug tests, etc. From there I would head out to meet my team, who was currently on 10 game road trip. Luckily for me, one of former winter ball teammates was on the team, which made me feel a little better. I was welcomed warmly by my new coaches and teammates who couldn't stop talking about my 3 Home Run game. They were happy to have me. And for a short amount of time, I was happy to be there.
As I played my first few games, I realized that I had made a mistake. I realized that I should have never left. Not because of the comfort and support of being somewhere familiar, but because I had sold myself out.
I had left a place that provided me the one opportunity that I was still playing this game for. Of course for the love of the game, but also for the opportunity to earn one more chance to get resigned by a Major League Organization. That's why I played for the Long Island Ducks. Thats why I played in the Atlantic League. For the love and for one more opportunity. I didn't play for the money. I never played for the money.
I know some may read this and think of me as a fool. Some who were on that Long Island Ducks team that still question my decision. But I never have. Even knowing the money I left on the table, the opportunity of earning a chance to play in Mexico for years and make even more money. I know, I know. But that's not who I am.
As each game passed that week down in Mexico, I realized that I was in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. I had chased the money and not the love of the game. I had made the wrong decision. I had broken my promise to myself.
And just like that. Almost in the middle of night, after a full of week of playing in Mexico, I left. I went to Mexico for the money. But soon found out that I had to return to Long Island for the love of the game. Without almost no one knowing, I caught a flight back to New York, where I quickly headed back to Long Island. I arrived just before my teammates got back from a 7 day road trip. Ironically, when I left, the Ducks hit the road as well. I missed 7 games while I was gone, but was luckily enough not to miss any home games.
As you can guess, some of my teammates busted my chops about coming back. Some said I wasn't tough enough to handle a new league or country. Some said I loved Long Island to much. Some said I was an idiot for not making the money. Others said I would regret it.
I ended up hitting 27 Home Runs and driving in 103 RBI's (the most RBI's by and Ducks player in history at that point) that 2008 season playing for the Long Island Ducks. We made the playoffs. And although we didn't win the Championship, it was a memorable season for sure.
I left Mexico because I promised myself I would never play the game just for money. I came back to Long Island for the love of the game and one last shot at getting signed and fighting my way to the Major Leagues.
Believe it or not, my best seasons playing for the Ducks were still in front of me. I would have the great privilege of playing for Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter ('09), being named Atlantic League MVP ('09), be selected to numerous All-Star teams ('07,'08,'09,'10,'12), and win back to back league championships ('12,'13). They made a couple of bobbleheads of me, haha. And whats even crazier, the Long Island Ducks retired my #16 jersey after my playing days came to an end.
Looking back, I have to admit that it seems like I accomplished some cool stuff out on Long Island. Some of those accolades even put me in the conversation of getting one more shot. But it ended with me just being in the conversation.
I NEVER DID GET ANOTHER SHOT WITH A MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM!
To be completely honest, I believe I was deserving of one more shot. But for whatever reason, it just didn't happen. And thats ok. I'm proud I came back and gave it my all for that one more shot. And knowing I gave it, the Long Island Ducks and the game of baseball, everything I had...I have no regrets. None whatsoever!
SOME WILL SAY I CAME BACK FOR NOTHING. I SAY I CAME BACK FOR EVERYTHING.
- Ray Navarrete #16
Long Island Ducks