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Dean Nevarez is beating the odds

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Less than 10% of players drafted higher than the 12th round ever make the major leagues. But Dean Nevarez has beaten tougher odds.

Nevarez catching on the backfields at Spring Training 2019

Dean Nevarez is insistent.

“That was three,” he calls.

“Four,” replies catching coordinator Tony Arnerich, calmly loading a ball into the pitching machine for the next batter.

“Three,” insists Nevarez, holding up three cigar-sized fingers. His tone is playful but persistent. Finally stepping out of the cage, he seeks out the hitting coach leaning on the batting turtle and begins pleading his case in rapid-fire Spanish. The coach laughs, shooing him away, but a few batters later, Nevarez is back in the cage, this time trying to wheedle an extra pitch out of Arnerich. “Come on, that one was outside, give me a good one,” he entreats.

Sighing, Arnerich grabs another baseball. By this point, he’s learned that it’s quicker to just give Nevarez what he wants. Nevarez pounces on the pitch and laces a solid line drive into the outfield. Coming off the field, he beams. His coaches roll their eyes, but they’re smiling too.

“I had to work and work and work”

To Nevarez, his work ethic is one of necessity. Growing up in the baseball hotbed of Southern California, Dean saw other kids—like current Mariners prospect J.P. Crawford—starring on the showcase circuit from an early age. As someone who came to baseball later than his peers, Nevarez recognized he would have to work a little harder. “I’m not a talent and skill-based player,” he says bluntly. “Ever since I started, I’ve had to work harder and put in the extra effort to keep my game’s level within the same range of my peers. I knew I wasn’t as good as the other kids, so I had to work and work and work.”

Part of what slowed Nevarez down was the opportunities before him. Born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico, he would routinely wake up at 4 AM to be driven across the border to attend school on the US side. Sometimes he’d stay over at a friend’s to avoid the drive—“on a couch, if I was lucky, but usually on the floor.” His father, Dean Sr., was insistent that his oldest son be granted a solid education. “I just wanted to learn to speak English, make some friends,” says his son, laughing. “But my dad wanted us to have an American education. The number one goal was always to go to college.”

By the time Dean was in middle school, he was mostly living in the States full-time, often with Bertha Reyna, a friend of the family. Dean’s own mother wasn’t around, and so Bertha filled that role, picking Dean up from school, feeding him dinner, inviting him to spend the night while his father was away working. (To this day, Nevarez considers Reyna his mother, to the point where he declared himself the “son of Dean Nevarez and Bertha Reyna” on his bio page at San Diego State.) “She’s the strongest woman I know. She’s an angel,” Dean says.

Dean with his father, Bertha Reyna, and her son Jovan Bayless

In the intervening hours, there was baseball, always baseball. Dean Sr. had played in Mexico, along with some of Dean’s uncles, and they instructed him both on the field and in the gym. The gym provided a respite to Dean, a chance to get away from negative influences in the neighborhood. “He wanted to keep me busy, keep my attention and efforts elsewhere, outside of the streets and avoiding the bad influences. So I got into weightlifting, just practicing, practicing, practicing all the time.” It became such a habit that in later years Dean often had to be kicked out at closing time, performing a now-familiar ritual:

just one more rep
just one more set
just five more minutes

The hours in the gym paid off for a burly Nevarez as he focused more on baseball in his later high school career, and after getting some invites to showcases, he started to attract some interest from Division-I programs. “I started to realize that baseball could be a way to further my education,” he says. After initially struggling to learn English, Nevarez was now completely fluent in both, a valuable skill for any player, but especially a catcher. The Aztecs of San Diego State came calling, and Nevarez jumped at the opportunity to further his baseball career—and all-important education—close to home.

As a freshman at SDSU, Nevarez, who had originally been recruited as an outfielder, was relegated to a backup catcher/part time DH/pinch-hitter role. Playing alongside teammates in a D-I program showed him the gap between his natural skills and experience. “I’ve always had the raw tools, but I was almost...naive to having a feel for things, that in-game knowledge. So that’s something I had to learn, and that was a struggle for me, working to really understand the game and be aware of everything, every pitch. Because as the catcher, you’re pretty much the leader out there.” Nevarez had been taught “how to play the game the right way” and “build good habits” by his father and family friend/trainer Juan Velasquez, a former Yankees farmhand, but he didn’t play on the same elite travel ball teams as his peers until the very end of his high school career. Even as a teenager, Nevarez recognized his shortcomings and what he needed to do to overcome them. “I came in to college physically strong, but I lacked the baseball skills the other kids had. And honestly, I embraced that. It made me work harder. To this day, I embrace the struggle and knowing I’m not as good as one of my peers who was a three-year starter, an All-American, whatever. That’s never been me. I’ve always been an underdog, I’ve always had to work to get a little bit of recognition or to get someone to keep an eye on me.”

Dean with his father and trainer Juan Velasquez, far left

With 50% more playing time as a sophomore, Nevarez slashed .301/.363/.521 with 9 home runs. Understanding that his path to more playing time was success behind the dish, Nevarez devoted himself to learning the intricacies of catching. Nevarez came into SDSU naming Bryce Harper as his favorite player; now he says he most admires Yadier Molina and Willson Contreras, not only for their skills behind the plate but also for the passion and leadership they bring to the field.

Soon, teams started to show some interest. Nevarez was named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list, an award given to the best college catcher. Suddenly, the game that kept him out of trouble and gave him an education looked like something that could become a career. It was a future Nevarez hadn’t dared to dream of, back as an eight-year-old just hoping to master the language, make some friends, and get an education.

And then, in one night, everything changed.

A 1% Chance

Dean Nevarez was about two months into his junior year of college when the phone rang at 2:30 AM one weekend. It was his father’s wife. She needed him to drive across the border to a Tijuana hospital. His father had been shot, things didn’t look good, and he needed to get there, now.

The concert had been a reward for Dean’s younger sister for getting straight A’s. His father and stepmom drove across the border, dropped his sister and an uncle off at the concert, then went to a nearby Applebee’s to wait. While Nevarez Sr. sat there, a group of men, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, entered the restaurant, fired twelve rounds at Nevarez, and fled. Dean’s father was rushed to the hospital in Tijuana and given emergency surgery, at which point his stepmom called Dean. Google says the drive should take thirty-five minutes. “I was there in twenty,” says Dean.

When he arrived at the hospital, his father’s wife was in shock, traumatized, and the waiting room was full of crying family members. But that wasn’t the grimmest scene. “It was like a third-world country,” Dean says of the hospital. “The beds had no padding, no pillows, no linen. There were no bandages, medicine, nothing. We had to go to the CVS and bring in the supplies so they could do the surgery. There were bullet holes in the windows in the room he was in, police officers with assault rifles walking around the hospital, and no doctors. Not a doctor in sight. I kept trying to find someone to talk to after the surgery, for two or three hours.” Pushing his emotions aside, Dean snapped into action mode and started planning next steps. Clearly, his father couldn’t stay here. He had to be transported across the border for the proper care.

But there was a problem. Doctors told Dean that if he moved his father, there was a 99% chance he would die in transport.

But there’s a 100% chance he dies if he stays here, thought Dean, looking at his father’s broken body in the barren hospital bed.

It was his decision, said his father’s wife, one she didn’t feel she could make. He was the oldest son, which carries a special set of responsibilities in Mexican families. What did he want to do?

What would my dad want? Dean asked himself.

“I just put my emotions aside and put myself in my dad’s shoes. And I knew he’d want me to give him a shot to live, not stay in here to die slowly.”

His decision made, Dean called Bertha, the woman he considers his mother, for help. She showed up the next morning and walked the 21-year-old through navigating the paperwork to transfer his father across the border, leaning on a family member who works for a hospital in the States. She took care of the US side of the transaction, leaving Dean to deal with the Mexican side...and the family members in attendance.

“It was chaos, everyone was yelling at me, telling me my dad was going to die and it was going to be my fault,” he says.

“I just had to ignore everyone and do what I thought my dad would want me to do.”

Dean followed the ambulance across the border and to the hospital, where he presented the medical staff with the discharge papers he was given in Mexico: a single sheet of paper, half-filled. “They looked at me like I was stupid and asked me where the rest of it was,” recalls Dean. “I was like, ‘that’s all they gave me.’”

The US doctors repaired some of the internal damage and sent Nevarez Sr. to the ICU (with, Dean says, “like an eight-inch binder of all the stuff they’d done”), but Dean’s father remained in a coma. After about a week, doctors warned Dean his dad might not ever wake up. Around the two-week mark, they handed Dean consent papers and told him he’d have to make a difficult decision. Another one.

Again and again, Dean tried to push his emotions to the side in order to make an informed decision while the doctors continued tests. The CAT scans seemed to indicate his father’s brain, while suffering some mini-strokes, was still active; he just wasn’t awake. Why wasn’t he awake? Would he ever be again?

Eventually, the dam holding back Dean’s feelings broke. “I just got this really desperate sense of urgency, where I was mad, but also sad, but also pissed.” Despite having treated his father—his teacher, the man who taught him his craft—with respect for his entire life, Dean went into his father’s room, got in his face, and yelled at him to “wake the fuck up.”

“And when I yelled”—his voice, for the first time, is a little unsteady—“when I yelled at him like that, he opened his eyes.”

This is where the Hollywood movie would end. In reality, the next few days and weeks were a tedious balance of monitoring his father’s time awake and asleep, sleeping in a hard hospital chair, and fielding calls from relatives. With the high drama over, the loneliness of the everyday set in. Meanwhile, fall practice had started for the Aztecs. Dean called his coaches and asked to be excused from the team. His father was awake, but there was still extubation, a blood cleanser for sepsis, dialysis for kidney failure (one of Nevarez Sr.’s kidneys had to be removed after being destroyed in the shooting), and physical therapy for the shattered forearm suffered as his father had held up his arm to shield himself from the hail of bullets.

“I wished I could take that pain away from him,” Dean says, looking down at his own forearms, as if he could retroactively will away the thing that helps him handle 95-mile-an-hour fastballs and smack home runs.

The weeks at the hospital did take their toll. Nevarez dropped thirty pounds while essentially living at the hospital, and fell behind in the workout schedule to which he’d faithfully adhered for years. Instead of practicing his framing techniques, he was working on physical therapy exercises with his father, a metalworker who depends on his hands to make a living. “It’s funny because my whole life, he was the one who would push me all the time. I’d be like, ‘no, dad, I’m tired,’ and he’d tell me to get my ass to the gym and do my workouts, and now he’s the one who’s like ‘I’m tired, my arm hurts,’ and I’m the one who’s pushing him, like ‘I don’t care, you have to do this, get your ass up and walk.’”

Beyond caring for his father’s physical well-being, Dean also found himself entrusted with his dad’s mental well-being. Like many people who have suffered a potential life-changing injury, Dean Sr. had frustrating days on his road through rehab, days where he felt he was useless, a drag on the family. He’d go sad and quiet and far away, and it was the son’s job to bring him back. “I was the adult at the time,” Dean says. “I just told him, this is how it’s going to go down.”

Dean didn’t return to a baseball field until late that winter, and found it hard to keep up, not only because he missed fall practices, but also because “I was just drained. Mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. Not in a good place. Mentally, mostly.” In those long weeks in the hospital, baseball had been the furthest thing from his mind as he and his father struggled to adjust to their new realities. What if baseball, and the education he’d worked so hard to earn, didn’t fit into this new life? The oldest son has a special set of responsibilities.

On the day the doctors gave the all-clear signal, Nevarez jumped in his car and drove to a scrimmage, where, fueled by adrenaline, he went 3-for-3. Baseball, his path to an education, now provided also a comforting routine, a return to normalcy as he feverishly worked to get back into baseball shape. Nevarez would finish his junior season with an almost-identical slash line to the near-.300/.400/.500 line he’d put up his sophomore year. Sure, some of his home runs from the previous year turned into doubles. But considering what he’d been through leading up to the season, even that was an accomplishment. “It all goes back to the type of person I am, the type of people my family are, how I was raised, the strong woman who raised me.” he says. “We prevail.”

“I’m just the kind of person who beats the odds.”

Putting himself in the best situation

Somehow, the sharp bend his life had taken straightened out, and Nevarez was drafted by the Mariners last spring in the 19th round. This spring Nevarez earned an invite to big-league camp as an NRI (non-roster invitee) thanks to winning the Mariners’ Productive Team Plate Appearance award, a system-wide tournament among all minor-leaguers at all levels to see who can log the most productive plate appearances--hits and walks, yes, but players also earn credit for things like sacrifice flies, moving the runner, or working long at-bats. Nevarez, who played his first pro season last year in rookie ball, is the lowest-level player to win the award yet.

“I was fortunate enough to have good at-bats, win the tournament, and my first spring training, I get to get into a big-league environment, a big-league clubhouse, be next to big-leaguers, learn from big-leaguers, get to spend time with big-league coaches.” He punctuates each “big” by pounding his fist into his palm. “That’s such a blessing. I’m so grateful and thankful for the opportunity to be surrounded with that environment.”

Nevarez threw himself into learning everything he could, taking the opportunity to ask players like Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnacion, and Omar Narvaez about their routines. “I was in the same locker room as those guys,” he says with a mixture of pride and awe. “It was shocking and I was very startled, but they were so approachable and welcoming, they made me feel like I was just another person. It was a very positive environment. They made things very comfortable for everyone. I grew more in that three, four-week span I was up there as a baseball player and as a person. I’ve gotten ten times better.”

It wasn’t just current players who extended a hand, says Nevarez; he also sought help from some Mariners legends. “Ichiro, Edgar, Dan Wilson, Al Davis really took me under his wing,” he says, ticking the names off on the same fingers he used to indicate he was owed another round of BP. “The biggest thing I learned was confidence and routine, how to have a solid routine that works for you.” In college, a player can have several days between games; not so in pro ball, where if things start going sideways, they can stack up in a hurry, like the world’s worst Tetris game. To that end, one of the most useful things Nevarez says the Mariners organization has given him is an understanding of the mental skills aspect of the game and how to train his brain just as he trains his body in the gym: to shut out the negative influences and focus on controlling all he can control. While players are free to buy in to the mental skills program to the extent with which they’re comfortable, Nevarez is all in, noting the success of such programs for players like Mitch Haniger. He uses his app, called Vision Pursue, every night before bed, focusing on guided meditations, journaling, and mindfulness. “Whatever they offer I’ll try,” he says. “Someone like me, you have to be open to everything.”

Nevarez with his father at the Minor League Awards Ceremony at Safeco Field, September 2018

Nevarez was drafted along with two other catchers: third-rounder and top prospect Cal Raleigh, and seventh-rounder Jake Anchía, a D-II Gold Glove winner who broke J.D. Martinez’s home run record at Nova Southeastern. Ostensibly, Nevarez is the low man on the totem pole in a crowded class of college catchers. But that doesn’t bother him. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, he says, and can learn from each other. He praises both Anchía and Raleigh—Raleigh especially, since they were in big-league camp together—as great teammates. “It’s a competition, but at the end of the day, I just feel like if you’re a good human being and you’re doing the right things, you’re going to get rewarded.” Nevarez is grateful to the Mariners, but he’s also pragmatic. “Everyone always needs a good catcher.”

Every time he takes the field, Nevarez does so knowing he’s walked a path few other players on the diamond have walked. He’s been tested by things much more frightening than a triple-digit fastball and found his way back. He doesn’t feel pressure. He feels gratitude.

“The goal was college, and here I am playing professional baseball. How can I have pressure? If I were to get released today or ten years from today, I wouldn’t look at anything with regret. I did everything I could to put myself in the best situation.”

In difficulty, opportunity

A few days after our conversation, Nevarez is playing in a backfield game with the A-ball squad. From behind the plate, he coaches up a parade of young arms. “Respira, respira,” he advises a young fireballer from the team’s Dominican Academy whose last pitch required Nevarez to leap like a firecracker from his catcher’s crouch. “Calma.” Another pitcher, one who would be released just weeks later, labors through his inning, becoming visibly discouraged on the mound. Nevarez peppers him with encouragement and affirmation. “C’mon, c’mon. Another one, just like that.” He’s part player, part coach, part cheerleader. He helps out his struggling pitcher by nailing a runner trying to steal second with a strong, accurate throw, and later gives up his body at the plate to tag out a runner dashing home, who collides headlong with the barrel-chested Nevarez. The two Mariners coaches watching from the sidelines put their heads together.

“So, is this a possibility?” one asks the other in a low voice, inclining his head towards Nevarez.

“Definitely, definitely a possibility” murmurs the other, nodding and scribbling notes on his pad.

A possibility. Una posibilidad.

It’s all Dean Nevarez has ever had. It’s all he’s ever needed.