Ray Navarrete walks into The Cove wearing a casual, blue button-down shirt, jeans and a black “DIGMI” baseball cap. With a Starbucks coffee in hand, he pulls out a Mac laptop plastered in stickers from various companies.
Navarrete looks like your typical college student. But he’s not.
The 37-year-old is a former Seton Hall baseball player who went on to play professionally and is now back in South Orange to complete his Bachelor’s degree. Navarrete started his career in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, which is where he earned the nickname “Digmi.”
He then went on to join the Houston Astros’ and New York Mets’ organizations, making it as high as Triple-A with the latter. He retired from the game following a 2013 season spent with the Long Island Ducks, an Atlantic League team he called home for eight seasons.
A recruited walk-on, Navarrete was one of the greatest hitters in Seton Hall history, sitting third in the career record book with 51 doubles while batting .344 during his time at SHU. He led the Pirates to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years during his final season for the Blue and White in 2000.
Navarrete never took the easy way out, according to Seton Hall head coach Rob Sheppard, who said that Navarrete’s work ethic is what defines both the man and the player.
“Ray was a relentless player in that he always wanted to get better. He always strived to be the best at his position,” Sheppard said. “We played at West Virgin- ia and he had a bad day handling the ball and fielding bunts at third base. We came back and the next day all he wanted to do was get extra work on that one play.”
Navarrete began to show professional potential during his sophomore year, according to Sheppard.
“The jump he made from freshman to sophomore year, you could see that Ray was not going to be denied,” Sheppard said. “Every year he just kept getting bet- ter and better. He was one of the most feared hitters in our conference.”
Navarrete started a business venture while pursuing his dreams of making it to the big leagues: a clothing line called DIGMI Nation. Today, the line is sported by MLB stars like Noah Syndergaard, Jose Bautista and Jacob deGrom, as well as 29 other current and former big leaguers. Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith wears DIGMI, too.
As far as his academic career went, Navarrete still had six classes to complete entering the 2015- 2016 school year. He completed three in the fall semester.
“His personality is very engaging, but his work ethic is what sets him apart,” Sheppard said.
That same work ethic that Navarrete had on the field has come with him into the classroom, where he prides himself on his academics.
Coming into Seton Hall in the fall of 1996, Navarrete was a business major but soon changed to communications, which he will graduate with in May.
“When I left, I didn’t leave with the intention of never graduating,” Navarrete said. “Even though I was an athlete, graduating college was extremely important to me and important to my family.”
Navarrete’s professional career began in the summer of 2000, where he went from one Pirate team to another. That is where he came up with the idea for his DIGMI Nation clothing line.
“I guess I wore colorful hats and sneakers and I was in big league camp in spring training of 2003, and a bunch of my teammates started calling me Ray Digmi. I actually thought they were making fun of me,” Navarrete said with a laugh. “After a few days, I realized they were calling me Ray Digmi because of my sense of style.”
Navarrete put the nickname on a T-shirt in the beginning of 2004, which was “one of the craziest ideas” he ever had.
“I always felt that if you wear your uniform right, you had the coolest cleats and the best batting gloves—if you looked the part—it helped your confidence,” Navarrete said. “I think in life, if you look the part, it’s more professional.”
As Navarrete’s professional career began to take off, he decided to put his college career on the backburner.
“Just because it’s called the ‘fall semester,’ school sometimes starts in September and professional baseball goes until the end of September,” Navarrete said. “Right away I started putting two and two together, like, I can’t show up to campus four weeks late. I’m not that kind of guy. I’d be stressed out, I don’t want to come back and just get a C or a D.”
Navarrete’s academic advisor in the athletic department, Matt Geibel, said that many stu- dent-athletes at SHU, especially from the baseball team, return to complete their degrees. Geibel agreed that Navarrete’s situation was extraordinary because he had the ability to play professionally.
“He was here from 1996 to 2000 and didn’t finish [his degree] because he was playing professionally for a while,” Geibel said. “I know there were different points along the way that he wanted to finish up, but his circumstances just didn’t allow him.”
Navarrete began the process to apply for a NCAA scholarship known as the “Degree Completion Award” at the end of the 2015 spring semester. The award is open to former student-athletes who were on aid at their academ- ic institutions provided that they have fewer than 30 credits remaining, according to Geibel.
“It’s a pretty extensive application process,” Geibel said. “It’s documentation that you need to get from your academic dean, information from the financial aid office, you need to prepare as an individual. You need a personal statement and there also has to be the endorsement from the athletic director.”
Navarrete is currently in what he hopes will be his final semester as an undergrad at Seton Hall, as he plans to graduate this coming May.
“Do I look forward to this being over? Yes,” Navarrete said. “I don’t say that meanly. I enjoy my time on campus and I enjoy class.”
Though he is far from the average college kid, Navarrete, like most students, seems to be looking forward to bigger and better things after getting his degree.
Kevin Huebler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Hueblerkevin.