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Sometimes it’s the struggle that makes the fan

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Josh Naylor could be good; the path to that is what makes a fan favorite

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not a Josh Naylor scholar. I don’t know every little intricacy and factoid of his career as a baseball player and can’t know for sure where Saturday’s game ranks in the history of his playing the game. But I’m willing to bet that, all things considered, it was one of the worst days of his baseball-playing life.

Lining into a triple play is an unfortunate incident, driven by happenstance and opportunity. He did that. Adding that to the awful play at first that allowed the Reds to take a win from the jaws of defeat, that’s a recipe for utter misery. All this, mere days after his team was held hitless by a division rival.

It’s been a tough week for Cleveland baseball, and at its heart sits a young slugger. It’s moments and days and weeks like these, watching a guy struggle through the worst the game can bring him, that make me like a player that much more.

A year ago, Naylor was nowhere near my radar. I read about him in the Baseball Prospectus Annual probably, but he was a prospect on a team that didn’t figure much into my mind except as one of many that Cleveland has fleeced in some way or other over the years. His coming to Cleveland in the Clevinger deal along with six other prospects forced him upon my thoughts, but with all the players that the team has churned through over the last couple of years during this stealth rebuild/retool, it’s hard to give them, and Naylor specifically, the attention and focus that makes a fan grow to like and enjoy a player. Ultimately, it was on him to make himself known, otherwise he’s another Zach Walters or James Ramsey.

He did that, as we all know and remember well, becoming a one-man wrecking crew against the Yankees in last years’ ALDS. It’s hard not to remember 5-for-7 with three doubles and a dinger, and it put Naylor very much on the map. More than that though, watching his interviews with his brother Bo during spring training, that’s where the emotional attachment, the endearingness, whatever you want to call it — the humanizing, I suppose — that’s where that kicked in. He took a firm step from just another player to someone I wanted to root for.

It’s players like Naylor that make fandom a fulfilling exercise — if you can call it that. I never got all that attached to Francisco Lindor, even if I appreciated his play, simply because he was a guy you could tell was going to play for Cleveland as little as possible before he found bigger money and a bigger stage. He was just too good, more baseball’s star than just Cleveland's — which is fine. He was, and is, wonderful to watch, a shining beam of light of a player that makes you feel the innate joy that he feels for the game. It’s great to watch, and you could see from the outset that it was going to be a short relationship, like CC Sabathia before him or Manny Ramirez in the ‘90s.

It’s why we, or I at least, grew so attached to Carlos Carrasco, and why that part of that trade hurt so much more than Lindor leaving. One of those was assumed, but Cookie leaving, that just stunk. Lindor never struggled in Cleveland, not really. Carrasco went through everything, coming back from arm injuries, maturity problems, and goddamn cancer to continue to be great. The fans loved him for it. It wasn’t always easy to watch Carrasco, and sometimes you just had to worry about him more than anything. His success was easy to celebrate, though, because it felt like he earned what he got — like he fought tooth and nail to get to where he did.

WIth Naylor, it’s hard to tell right now what he’ll be. He hits the ball so goddamn hard, and he’s a big goofy dude who plays super hard, wears his uniform like he woke up in it, and maybe could be really good in the future. He’s also incredibly flawed as a baseball player. He loves to swing, he seems to have no arm at all — or just loves to throw the ball into the dirt — and he’s far from what anyone would consider fast. And that’s fine. Nobody’s perfect.

Watching him biff a seemingly simple play that could have won the game for Cleveland sucked big time. You could feel something shifting in the game, even with Emmanuel Clase still heaving 100 mph cutters. Baseball is a bastard like that, where the seemingly innocuous, 99% play getting flubbed can daisy chain its way to a miserable loss. That happened. Naylor was the scapegoat of the game. For another day, Cleveland looked feckless and miserable, a team destined for an October without baseball.

I don’t care about that last part, not now. It’s not like anyone else in the division, much less anyone other than one or two other teams in the AL, has made any kind of real statement of dominance. Not like the Dodgers have at least. I resigned myself to the idea that this was going to be a year full of growing pains. After all, Cleveland has a bunch of young guys getting their first or second full run through a full season, and a couple others who are on their last chance before the team cuts bait. The rough edges will be smoothed out eventually, that’s the fun of 162 games.

It’s days like Saturday that just make you want to root for Naylor, to become what he could be and smooth over his rough edges.

He’s still just 23 and has played only 148 major league games. He blew it on Saturday, no doubt about that. He wasn’t able to help with his bat and probably feels like the whole loss is his fault. I hope that’s not the case. Cleveland isn’t wanting him to be an MVP caliber bat, not right now. They just want him to be comfortable and let his talent do the talking.

I hope that Saturday — or the no-hitter, or other struggles he’s having — doesn’t weigh too hard on him. This is the kind of guy that can become a heart-and-soul type of player if everyone lets that happen. He likes playing the game, he seems to have fun, and he wants, as so many young players surely do, to find a home that allows him to be his best self. I think Cleveland has been that for a great number of pretty damn good players over the years. I hope this weekend is a blip, a shadow of memory on a great career for Naylor.

Wherever that career might end up, I’d love for Cleveland to be the launching pad for that, and for everyone to think of him as the guy who won six or seven Silver Sluggers and helped this offense become something special in the 2020s.

I can’t predict the future. I just hope the recent past doesn’t weigh too heavily on the kid’s shoulders. There’s too much good in him for that to be allowed.