Naylor feeling good, all smiles following lengthy recovery

Cleveland outfielder sustained right leg/ankle injuries in collision last June

March 14th, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Josh Naylor could feel a pop all the way in his throat.

It was an ankle injury. He knew it was a right ankle injury. Yet somehow, it was so excruciatingly painful that the feeling he felt in his lower right leg radiated up into his throat, almost as if it was trying to escape through the top of his body. He had just collided with second baseman Ernie Clement in shallow right field in Minnesota last June 27, and he knew the journey he was about to go on would be daunting.

Maybe it’s become cliché for athletes to explain how injuries have taught them lessons they otherwise wouldn’t have learned. But it’s rare for an athlete to use his experience to change the perspective of everyone in the room for the better.

Naylor allowed himself to be “selfish” for a few moments after hitting the ground, screaming for someone to get the bone in his ankle back in place.

“I was going to do it on my own, but I couldn’t feel my upper body in a way,” Naylor said. “I remember it vividly. I couldn’t get enough strength to pop it in on my own.”

As the wait grew longer for an ambulance to arrive, doctors rushed to Naylor’s aid. Someone got his ankle set in a position that almost immediately relieved the pain. But as Naylor relived those moments in telling the story, the only thing he could focus on was how much he was yelling at a doctor.

“I need to apologize to him,” Naylor said. “I need to send him a message or something. … It was upsetting how mad I was in the moment, and I kind of took it out on him and I shouldn’t have. I should’ve controlled my emotions a bit better.”

When Naylor was reassured that he had the right to be frustrated in that moment and demand help, it was then clear the 24-year-old had a much different perspective throughout this journey than many would have.

“That injury right there, it was bad and all, but there are so many worse things going on in the world,” Naylor said. “Like I’m off my foot for a month. There’s people who haven’t eaten in a month. There’s worse things in the world that could happen.”

Naylor was immediately transported to a local hospital and when he was laying in his bed, all he could think about was how Clement felt.

“I’m very thankful that he wasn’t hurt,” Naylor said. “Like I was super, super upset at myself that I hit him. I was at the hospital and I was like crying because I was so upset that I hurt him in a way.”

Other than a few bumps and bruises, Clement walked away from the collision unscathed, but that didn’t matter to Naylor, who had hours to replay his decision-making in his mind. He should’ve called Clement off. He should’ve been able to catch the ball and get out of Clement’s way. Everything should’ve gone differently. But if it would have, he wouldn’t have had the time to get his mental state to the place it’s reached.

After Naylor underwent surgery to repair fibula fractures and torn ligaments, he kept all weight off of his right leg for the next month or two. He was stuck at his place in Cleveland, and his mom and other family members rotated through to take turns helping him recover. But it didn’t take long for him to get the itch to return to baseball.

“I got my mom to throw to me with some socks, just to work on my hand-eye [coordination], keep it tight,” Naylor said with a grin. “It was crappy being that vulnerable and having that much help needed. … It gave me an opportunity to get help from other people, to sit back and realize what happened, how I can come back from it stronger.”

Naylor has always had kindness and positivity levels that are unmatched. Now, they've reached yet another level. He talked about the demons he had to face within himself -- especially after he was back to living on his own -- that were constantly pushing him to relive the memory, though he’s never watched the replay of the incident.

Every time it would pop into Naylor's head as he’d go to sleep, he had to force himself to be even more positive than he already was -- something that was evident when he sat down with the media on Monday afternoon.

“I learned to be positive on my own whenever I was in my room, and all of a sudden, those negative thoughts came up with what had happened, or the play reran in my mind,” Naylor said. “Just had to use that as motivation to inspire myself to come back stronger.”

Naylor headed to Cleveland’s facility in Goodyear, Ariz., toward the end of September. Within a month, he was back to swinging and getting in the batting cages. Powered by his positive outlook, Naylor cruised through his rehab program over the winter and reported to Spring Training with only two wraps around his right leg that he says are precautionary.

There’s nothing left for Naylor to accomplish before moving into game action. And if it was up to him, he’d be ready to go for Opening Day at any position the Guardians need him. It’s just up to the team to evaluate him over the next three weeks of camp to make sure his leg is ready for the regular season.

“I think I'm right about where I want to be,” Naylor said. “Close to 100 percent, if not 100 percent.”

The one thing that undoubtedly is at 100 percent is Naylor's morale.

“I feel like every opportunity you get in life is a blessing,” Naylor said. “It’s always a blessing in disguise, so take it and run with it and be happy with it. That’s why I try to give the best vibes ever. I try to be the nicest person in the world. I try to be the happiest person ever, because I don’t know what you’re going through that day. If I can make you smile, it can change your whole day and you can go home and call your friend and make him smile. He can go home and call his grandma and make her smile.

"That’s how we make this world a better place: Smiling.”