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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Navarreto's catching allows him to stay employed despite hitting woes

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Brian Navarreto turned 24 in December and probably would have been playing baseball for fun back home in Puerto Rico, maybe in Jacksonville where he graduated from high school, if not for the position that he commands on a baseball field:

Catcher.

There are always an inflated number of catchers in a major league camp, in order to join in sharing bullpen sessions with the sizable number of pitchers that are either on the 40-player roster or invitees.

When workouts started Thursday, there were 38 pitchers on the grounds. All were ready to throw, including Kyle Gibson, who lost 20 pounds during a January battle with an E. coli virus while on a missionary trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

There are six catchers in this camp, with a seventh, Willians Astudillo, hoping to arrive soon after a visa complication. A year ago, Astudillo was new to the Twins’ organization and when he had a visa problem getting out of Venezuela, it attracted minimal attention.

Now that he’s a Minnesota folk hero, Twins officials are being harassed hourly with the media demand: “For goodness sakes, do something. Free Willians.’’

Meantime, the presumed No. 1 catcher, Jason Castro, is being limited in his workload as he comes back after a season in which he played his last game on May 4. He underwent knee surgery a couple of weeks later.

That means Mitch Garver, a lock for the Opening Day roster due to his right-handed bat, and four invitees are on call if the coaching staff needs a catcher for a drill or a serious bullpen session:

Navarreto, prospect Ben Rortvedt and a pair of 27-year-old minor league free agents, Wynston Sawyer and Tomas Telis.

One of the first acts when Derek Falvey took over as the Twins’ CEO of baseball in November 2016 was to sign Castro to a three-year contract. The cliché became this was for his abilities as a pitch framer, although it was assisting pitchers in general that led to a three-year contract.

You can get numerous endorsements for Navarreto in that same category: outstanding in getting the best a pitcher has to offer in this particular appearance.

And that asset has been required to stay employed heading into a seventh professional season, since from the rookie Gulf Coast League to Class AA Chattanooga, Navaretto carries a career batting average of .218 and an on-base percentage of .269.

He’s 24, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, a strong-looking athlete and yet has a career high of four home runs and 28 RBI in a season.

Navarreto’s first invitation to big-league camp was in 2018. There were enough positive reviews that it seemed as if he had a shot to start the season at Class AAA Rochester.

He wound up back in Class AA, where he had ended the previous season, and the Twins admitted this was the reason: Navarreto was so good behind the plate that they wanted him working with the younger group of pitchers in Chattanooga.

Lewis Thorpe, Kohl Stewart, Ryan Eades and, later, Tyler Wells were among the prospects that benefitted from being teamed with Navarreto.

Stewart was the fourth overall choice in the 2013 draft. His progress was so spotty that he was unprotected for the Rule 5 draft in December 2017, went unclaimed for the $100,000 fee and made his way from Class AA to eight late-season appearances (four starts) with the Twins in 2018.

“Brian's extremely good behind the plate,’’ Stewart said Thursday. “He’s a big target, he’s mobile, he’s always on top of the game and he throws great. He’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen behind the plate.’’

Navarreto’s hometown is Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He became a catcher “at age 11 or 12,’’ when his Little League team needed one for the second game of a doubleheader. He volunteered, and took to it immediately.

One pitcher that he encountered in Bayamon in his early teens was Jose Berrios. “He was playing shortstop and also pitching,’’ Navarreto said. “The first time I was his catcher, I said, ‘Jose, do not worry about shortstop. You have to be a pitcher.’ ‘’

Berrios, also 24, has made 72 starts in the big leagues and was an All-Star in 2018. And his appreciation remains for his friend Navarreto, just across the way in this spring training clubhouse, but far away in career progress.

“He loves baseball, loves to play,’’ Berrios said. “He is what you need in a catcher. He is a leader.’’

Throwing arm? “Cannon,’’ Berrios said. “Always … a cannon.’’

This was demonstrated last summer in the Southern League, when Navarreto threw out 32 of 56 attempted base stealers (57 percent). This large young man has the goods as a catcher. If only he could hit …

“I played in Puerto Rico and Dominican this winter.’’ Navarreto said. “I changed some things and did better.’’

For instance? ‘’Patience,’’ he said. “I want to be more patient when hitting.’’

In other words, the opposite of this week’s lamented absentee, Astudillo.

“Yes … opposite,’’ Navarreto said. “There is only one Astudillo, who can swing at everything and still hit.’’

Reusse: Al Lang Field is now a soccer stadium and that's just not right

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – There were duties calling in this fine city on Friday morning, and I arrived with an hour to spare. This caused a detour toward the water to check on the condition of Al Lang Field, a favorite ballpark for several decades during visits to spring training.

What I always liked about the St. Pete ballpark was what players disliked about it. The average wind seemed to be 10-to-12 miles per hour, meaning even on hot March days it was comfortable. And there was very little roof over the grandstand, so you could sit out on the bench seats and get a full blast of sun.

Hey, if you’re from Minnesota and spending time in late winter in Florida, you have to take a good baking when it’s available. And doing so while watching a ballgame is perfection.

As for the athletes, and particularly the outfielders, the combination of wind and the highest of skies on what always seemed to be blue days with a few puffs of clouds at Al Lang – well, it was easier to corral a fly ball in that haunted area of Teflon in medium left-center in the Metrodome.

St. Petersburg first had spring training with the St. Louis Browns at a ballyard called Coffee Pot Park in 1914. The man leading the charge to make this happen was Albert Fielding Lang, a Pittsburgh transplant dedicated to convincing major league teams that Florida – and particularly St. Pete – was the place to conduct spring training.

Coffee Pot Park was supplanted by St. Petersburg Athletic Field on the waterfront. The Yankees also built a ballpark, Huggins Field, adjacent to the Crescent Lake area of St. Pete. It still stands and is home to high school and college games.

The Cardinals were the tenant at Athletic Field starting in 1937. Then, it was torn down after 1946 spring training, and replaced by Al Lang Field, and both the Cardinals and the Yankees played their home exhibitions there.

The Yankees were gone for a year in 1951 and replaced by the New York Giants, then returned in 1952 and remained through 1961 before moving to Fort Lauderdale.

The Mets moved in and shared the Al Lang exhibition schedule with the Cardinals. My first spring training was in 1974. The Twins were in Orlando, and there usually would be two trips to St. Pete – one to play the Cardinals, one to play the Mets.

Get there early, get a few pregame quotes, hack out half of a story, spend four or five innings in the wind and sun, then hack some more; yes, an afternoon at Al Lang was one of the reasons that, as I stated years ago, “Spring training is the greatest invention in the history of American sports writing.’’

The Mets left after 1987 and were replaced for five years by the Orioles early in the 1990s, and then the Cardinals left for a new ballpark across the state in Jupiter in the 1998. The hometown Rays took over Al Lang as the sole tenant in 1998.

You don’t get much of a spring training vibe when the ballpark where you play 81 games in the regular season is 1 mile from the ballpark where you’re playing exhibitions, which is the distance from the Rays’ dome – Tropicana Field – to Al Lang.

The Rays decided to go to Port Charlotte and have an actual spring training starting in 2009. The Twins and the Red Sox were happy to see a new occupant of that complex, since it’s now a short hop north from Fort Myers to play the Rays in exhibitions.

Spring training in southwest Florida will get more convenient next spring when the Atlanta Braves move into a facility in North Port, 15 minutes from the Rays’ ballpark.

We have digressed a bit from my advertised visit to Al Lang Field, but I didn’t want to rush right into the terrible news.

The saddest sight I had seen previously in Al Lang Field was in November 1989. The Vikings were playing the Bucs across the causeway in Tampa, and it coincided with early part of the schedule in the fledgling Senior Professional Baseball League.

Jim Morley, a 33-year-old real estate investor, had managed to put together an eight-team league in Florida. The teams would play 72-game schedules between November and February, with rosters of former major leaguers 35-and-over.

Over 2,000 former big-leaguers were contacted and an amazing number signed up, with suggestions of salaries of $5,000 per week and perhaps higher. Many of the willing players were from the first generation of free agents. They had gone from a little money to substantial money, and too many then were fleeced by slick-talking financial parasites.

Several Twins were ravaged financially by a bad guy named LaRue Harcourt. He wound up going to prison, but that didn’t do much to assist clients such as Bill Campbell.

“Soup’’ was one of my favorites when I covered the Twins, and to see him at 41, in uniform at Al Lang for the Winter Haven Super Sox against the St. Petersburg Pelicans, with maybe 250 people in the stands, and already knowing in his heart that the only thing he would get out of this pitching was exercise … that was distressing.

The Pelicans brought a championship in February 1990 to Al Lang Field, but the league shrunk and disintegrated early in season two.

On Friday, I drove up a road to a roadblock behind the right-field fence, then went to a parking lot on the third-base side. The grandstand structure looked more substantial than I remembered.

And then I saw this emblazoned above the entrance: ROWDIES.

It was spelled out, yellow on green, above a line that read “Al Lang Stadium.’’ I was aware "Rowdies'' was a traditional nickname for Tampa Bay soccer franchises.

Al Lang Field, named in honor of a man devoted to bringing spring baseball to Florida, basically a godfather of the Grapefruit League, has become a soccer stadium. Has been for a few years, apparently.

There remains a plaque that stands outside the entrance. It has a likeness of Al Lang and describes him as "Florida's Sunshine Ambassador to Major League Baseball.'' 

Inside, there are hooligans running around in their shorts, desecrating this baseball ground …and the only time they will look into a high sky is when they are rolling around, trying to convince the ref to give them a penalty kick.

Al Lang Field. Soccer. It's not right.