I remember that spring like it was yesterday. It was my third spring training in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. I was living my dream as professional baseball player, working my way up the minor league ladder. I just came off what turned out to be a break out year in my career; my first All-Star selection and championship while playing for the Lynchburg HillCats of the Carolina League (Class High A). I had just held my own in a league full of prospects and slowly started making a name for myself in the organization. So I headed down to Bradenton, Florida feeling good about the upcoming 2003 season and the opportunity to play at the Double-A level. As I headed down south that February, I had no idea that it would be a single word, not a hit like or home run, that would change the direction of my life.
I was extremely fortunate to be asked to participate in many “Big League” camp games that spring. An exciting time for any player, but especially for me. You see, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. Well, thats what most people thought at least. I was a recruited walk-on at Seton Hall University who was once told that “You’re probably never going to be a starter in this program” to going undrafted after my senior year. Yet here I was, walking in and out of Mckechnie Field playing some ball with “Big Leaguers”. Yeah, guys like All-Stars Kenny Lofton, Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez. Not bad for a skinny kid from Jersey. Like any young player looking to make a name for themselves in any MLB organization, you work hard, perform at a high level, show up early, leave late, and whatever you do, you keep quiet and know your role. And thats exactly what I did, to a tee. Except I did it with a big smile on my face and a different hat and colorful pair of sneakers everyday. Damn, I forgot the part about not drawing attention to yourself! Those colorful sneakers…I knew it.
Before long, some of my new teammates and coaches started calling me “Dig-Me”. To be honest, I wasn’t really happy about this. I mean c’mon, I’m trying my best to make a good impression by working hard and following directions and now all of these accomplished players were calling me something other than my real name, Ray Navarrete. This couldn’t be good I thought. All of these guys must not like me, or they just couldn’t remember or know how to pronounce my last name. Turns out, I was wrong, thank god. They did remember my name and it turned out that I was liked by my fellow teammates and coaches. But it was the sneakers and hats that got them to start calling me “Dig-Me”. Now I got it, “Dig-Me”, like hey man, I “dig” your style kind of thing. So what do you when some of of best players in an MLB clubhouse and best prospects in an organization starting calling you a name? You embrace the hell out of it! And thats exactly what I did. “Dig-Me”, hmmmm…I thought. It has a really nice ring to it. And anyone who knows me well, knows that my wheels start spinning once I get an idea. And without even knowing it, the next chapter of my life had just begun.
I headed off to Double-A that spring with my confidence at an all-time high, with an awesome team and manager to play for, and this new nickname. And what a year it was. I got an opportunity to play in a beautiful stadium in a great town with incredible fans. And I was one step closer to my goal of reaching the Major Leagues. But what made it even more fun was how my new nickname played a role in this whole experience. “Dig-Me” soon became popular clubhouse banter, with players claiming to be “Dig-Me” and others taking a vote on whether or not they were, haha. Soon, those who were deemed to be “Dig-Me” became known as the “Dig-Me” Tribe. Haha, our very own tribe in Double-A. Before you knew it, with the help of 3 other of my teammates; Sean Burnett, Chris Duffy and Josh Bonifay, the “Dig-Me” became a phenomenon among fans who started claiming they were “Dig-Me” too. Little kids, grandparents and fans of all ages wanted to be a part of the tribe. Especially after the Altoona Mirror was kind enough to do a feature article on the four of us, telling the story about our performance, friendship and style. It truly was incredible.
Fast forward 10 years and you can imagine how much can happen. I completed a 14 year career in professional baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, New York Mets and Long Island Ducks organizations. I gave the game I love every ounce of my effort and took my best swings at getting to the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, I CAME UP ONE
LEVEL SHORT, playing in Triple-A Norfolk in the Mets organization, as the highest step on the ladder. I HAVE NO REGRETS. No “what ifs”. Just gratitude I was one of the few guys out there who can say they got paid to play the greatest game in the world. But I’m also grateful for the platform the game gave me to share my “Dig-Me” story with fans and players across the country. My playing career became part of an incredible story that was starting to gain some traction. You see, along my playing journey, I decided to take my nickname and put it on a tee shirt. I mean, hell, if your gonna get called a name, might as well wear it, right? So thats what I did. But I made one small change. I dropped the “E” and made it “I”. Why would I do that you might be asking? Well, I thought that an “I” would be a reminder of phrases like “I CAN”, “I AM” I WILL”. And just like that, an “E” became and “I”, “Dig-Me” became Digmi and a nickname became a brand. At least that what I was thinking.
What was I thinking actually? Right in middle of playing professional baseball and trying to work my way up to the Major Leagues, I decided I wanted to start a lifestyle apparel brand? Like, the schedule and commitment of trying to play at the same level of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (both of whom I got the honor of playing against in one of those MLB Spring Training Games) wasn’t challenging enough, attempting to start a new brand like Ralph Lauren seemed like a smart idea. Really Ray? Who did you think you were, Marc Ecko or Daymond John? I mean seriously, this couldn’t have been one of my brightest ideas. Or could it? A lifestyle brand with a catchy name, that promotes a positive message of chasing your dreams and showcasing your personality. Hmmmm. That sounds like something people might relate to. Doesn’t everyone have a dream, I thought. Doesn’t everyone have a personality worth showcasing and sharing with others? Yes, why yes they do. So how about all of those people dress those dreams and personalities in some cool gear? Yeah, now this is starting to make some sense. But wait…doesn’t Digmi need a face, an icon, a logo.
So here I am doing my thing in the middle of my playing career when I decided I wanted to start my own clothing brand. I had the name. I had the vision. But I needed a face. Something that people could recognize as Digmi. So I started thinking. Polo has the player on the horse, Lacoste has the crocodile, Ecko has the Rhino. Ohhhh…so it has to be an animal, right? Well at least thats what I thought. So I started thinking what animal would represent Digmi, and nothing clicked. Or maybe it was that all the animals were already taken hahaha. I mean, we weren’t about to use a dinosaur for our logo. Digmi the dinosaur, really?? And then it happened. The game that changed everything. The game that introduced me to the one guy I would end up spending more time with than anyone else in my life. “The Guy In The Tie”.
I forget the exact date. But it was sometime in 2004, while playing for the Altoona Curve, my second year in Double-A. We were in Bowie, Maryland and I was just coming off a pretty good game. I was feeling good about my chances as a player and excited about my new apparel brand that had a name but no face. Well, not for long. You see, I had one of those nights that a player likes to forget. The one where you can’t hit water if you fell out of a boat kind of nights. I played terrible the whole game and I struck out 3 or 4 times. I was just off. I looked bad, real bad. But hey, it happens. Anyone who has ever played baseball knows that you can feel like Ted Williams one night, and then feel like the one of kids in Bad News Bears the next. (If there is anyone who is out there reading this that doesn’t know who Ted Williams is or who the Bad News Bears are….Im not sure we can be friends haha). Well, after my last at-bat and another strike out, my hitting coach came over to console me and remind me to keep my head up. He pointed out that nights like these happen, and that the last pitcher I faced had nasty stuff, and sometimes you just have to “Tip Your Cap”. Wait, what? What did you just say? Did you just say “Tip Your Cap”?
Im a huge fan of the era of baseball when most fans wore suit and ties to games and would tip their caps to a great performance by a player. Or vice versa, when that player heard the applause from the crowd, they would acknowledge it with a tip of their cap. A gesture of gratitude and respect. Remember a time in our culture when a pretty woman would walk down the street and men would be polite and tip their caps? I can still see the images in my head of players tipping their caps and fans doing the same. So wait, a gesture acknowledging great performances and personalities? Yes, thats it. Not an animal or a crazy looking design. No, none of that. Digmi was going to tip its cap to everyone with the courage to chase their dreams and be themselves. And thats exactly what we did. With some thought, some sketches and the concept of a dapper dressed man wearing a tie and a top hat, “The Guy In The Tie” was born. Ladies and gentleman….Digmi had found its face.
The next decade flew by. From one organization to another, Digmi was being introduced to new people and players. I would travel from spring training complexes to minor league clubhouses selling our small collection of tee shirts and hats, trying my best to build a business while playing professional. As you can guess, that wasn’t the easiest thing to do. In fact, looking back, I’m not even sure how we got this far. Like a struggling player in middle of a tough season, I was making mistake after mistake. Everything from inventory to budgets and deadlines challenges made it seem like my dream of building a successful brand would be impossible. I quickly learned that you can’t build a brand while being a full-time baseball player who was more concerned with hitting home runs than designing and selling product. The priorities were out of order. I knew it. But I also knew that there was something special about this project. There was a reason why people were being drawn to our story. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was us. Maybe it was “The Guy In Tie”. Or maybe it was all of it. Whatever it was, I just knew it was something. So I doubled down and committed to riding this thing out all the way. There is was turning back.
So thats exactly what we did. We started hustling. I mean really hustling. From traveling to Major League Stadiums to meet players who were willing to wear and support our product, to hosting pop-up shops in small stores in the tri-state area, to setting up tables at colleges and sports complexes to gain some brand awareness and interest. We even had stealth sales transactions in diner parking lots on Long Island (ask SAME CITI – DIFFERENT SHEA author Jamie Quinn about that) You name it we tried. We’ve packed up more cars and trucks that I would like to remember. Anything to keep the name out there to keep the dream alive. Remember, no turning back right? Some of it was working. Our designs were being worn by numerous professional athletes and celebrities. They were being seen on major media outlets like ESPN and MTV. We even snuck “The Guy In The Tie’ on the national stage for Game 3 of 2015 World Series with a cool sign cheering on Noah Syndergaard and the New York Mets. People were noticing. It was working. At least I thought it was. But we needed to make some moves. We needed more credibility. A place to work. A place to call home. A place for our new fans and customers to visit and shop. And since we were still having trouble getting any retailers to take a shot on our brand because we were so new, I decided to open a store. Yeah you heard it right. Another one of my brilliant ideas. Really Ray? Adding a store to an already difficult project makes sense to you? Yes, yes it does. I had a plan and idea. And it nearly
cost us everything.
We opened Digmi Nation in
November of 2012. I had no choice. I know, I know, you always have a choice. I get it, I do. But no one was giving us a chance in their stores. I kept being told to come back when we got into our first retailer, or landed other accounts. What?? How can I get into my first store if no one wants to be the first to take us? So thats why I decided to open our own Digmi store. We didn’t have to impress or convince anyone to take our stuff. It was our place. So it would be all Digmi. Digmi everything. And it was beautiful. We build the space from scratch and it turned into everything we needed it to be. We held events, seasonal releases, and special interviews with celebrities. My crazy idea, although risky as hell, was doing what we needed it do. It was getting us attention. People were noticing. The right people were getting interested in our project. More people were believing. But I have to be honest. That store was the most stressful project I have ever been a part of. I risked almost everything I had on that project. Time, money, part of my sanity. Maybe all of my sanity actually. For all the great moments we had there, there were a lot of lonely nights. To many to mention. A lot of nights where I stayed behind to close up after another cool event, or after another productive meeting with my team. I’d shut the lights off sometimes and just sit there in the dark, wondering if I was biting off more than I can chew. We were so close to hitting it but yet so far away at the same time. Our popularity was growing, at least it seemed, but the sales weren’t. Popularity doesn’t always pay the bills. We hadn’t caught our break yet. How much longer could I keep this thing going. What started out as a story of “Professional Baseball Player Builds Clothing Brand” was turning into “Retired Baseball Player Strikes Out in Business”. All the time, all the years, all the hustle, and we hadn’t caught our break. “Damn…one level short again”
I’m not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing, but I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t know to quit or give up. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said it a million times both in baseball and business. “Thats it! I quit. I don’t need this anymore”. Yeah, guilty as charged. I lead the league in saying it. But I’ve never had the courage to do it. Especially when I believe in something. Just like baseball, I promised myself I’d play until the end. It didn’t matter the salary or what league or what color uniform. I promised myself as a kid that I would play for as long as I could. And thats what I did. So how could I be any different with Digmi. Didn’t I love this too? Didn’t I promise myself that I would ride this out all the way? Yeah, I did. I’m man of my word. There is a quote that says ” The temptation to quit will be the greatest just before you are about to succeed” (at least I think I’ve seen that somewhere). So, quitting wasn’t an option. Onward we go!!
Its crazy what can happen when you hang on just a little longer. When you keep the lights on one more day, and the door open for another night. Someone might just walk in. Thats the one thing our Digmi team does so well. We never shut down. We never close up shop. We just keep moving forward. The store did what it had to do. Someone noticed. Well, actually a few people noticed who believed in our project and vision. It was exactly what we needed. A big aqcuistion at the trade-line kind of moment. Our Digmi team just got some new teammates. Boom, the team of passion and personality joins forces with a team of businessmen. Yes, the store. The place where we told our story gave people a visual of what this could be. It worked. It worked. At the 11th hour, it worked.
We got new life and the ability to take the project to a new level. More product offerings, creative projects including attending industry trade shows put Digmi in the middle of it all. Here we were. Digmi. A real brand where buyers from national retailers were getting an opportunity to see our collection and hear our story. It really is cool when a buyer stops by your booth to check out your collection and asks to hear your brand story and places an order. Kind of like hitting a home run. We took this momentum back home and with the help of some of our contacts, we were given the opportunity to meet with representatives from Bloomingdales in the spring of 2016. Yeah, you heard me right. Bloomingdales. I don’t get nervous that often, and usually feel confident in most situations. But this was different. This was our chance. My chance to make all that time and effort on this project worth it. This was the opportunity to make all the whispers I’ve heard along the way; “It’ll never work”, “It’s impossible”, “You’re wasting your time and money”, “Who do you think you are”, go away! C’mon Ray, get your mind right. Forget about all the other stuff going on in your life right now. Nothing else matters. This is the meeting you’ve been waiting over a decade for.
Just like I did for 14 years playing ball. I had a routine that helped me get my game face on. A cup of black coffee and some Jay. Yeah as in Jay-Z. Jay’s been my soundtrack since high school and even accidentally made an appearance at our first Digmi party at The 40/40 Club in NYC back in 2004 (I forgot to mention that earlier. Whoops, sorry about that). I put on Jay from the moment I woke up, went over our collection, packed up our samples, and threw on a tie (c’mon I had to) and fresh Digmi fitted. It was story time. I got to the city a little early as I had to meet one of my partners before walking in. I stood on the corner and just stared at the Bloomingdales building for a little bit. I had to take it all in. No matter what happened in the next few minutes, I was proud of what we had built. Digmi was about chasing dreams. And throughout all the highs and lows, the good and bad, thats what we did. We chased our dream. It didn’t matter what happened next. I was proud of who we were and what we stood for. Oh, yeah I forgot, I wore my first Digmi tee shirt we ever made underneath my button down. I had to. For good luck. But it also made me feel like every person who has been part of our journey was with me. Ok. I’m in the building. “Yes, hi, good morning! My name is Ray Digmi and they are expecting me”
I’d like to think that I told my best story that morning. I came with passion and presented our collection with heart and enthusiasm. I introduced “The Guy In The Tie” and detailed our vision for the brand. I had their attention. Or was it him. Or was it all the awesome images I showed them of people being Digmi. It didn’t matter because it was all the same. Me, him, you. I explained that WE ARE ALL DIGMI. And they believed me. Yeah, they believed me enough to tell me that they would be in touch with plans to bring Digmi into Bloomingdales in some capacity. Wait, what? Did you say yes to Digmi? Yes to the brand that couldn’t get their first account because no one wanted to be the first to take us on? I could’ve easily have done the moon walk in that office. But I had to keep my composure. You know, act like you’ve been there before. But I couldn’t help but smile. I smiled bigger than ever. Digmi just landed its first account. With Bloomingdales off all places.
That was spring of 2016 remember. With the great news came a lot of work to bring this to life. Design, development, production all had to be done according their company standards. Wow, what a learning curve and at times, a very challenging process for some rookies like us. But this is what we asked for. I remember having to get into the city to sign paperwork to make the purchase order official, and of course everything went wrong. Traffic almost made us last to the meeting that would put Digmi on the shelves at their 59th Street location. No way we could be late for this meeting. So you have to do what you have to, right?. Stuck in the middle of Manhattan, we hopped out of our cab and ran through the city streets, dodging cars, buses and bikes to get their on time (Ask “From Jeter To Judge” Author Carlos Ruiz about that). But like our story always goes, we got there. It wasn’t easy, and we had to dodge some traffic along the way, but we got there. Paperwork signed, sealed and delivered. Digmi was headed to Bloomingdales.
I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. March 6, 2017. The day Digmi hit the shelves of 3 Bloomingdales stores (59th/Lexington in NYC; Roosevelt Field and Walt Whitman Malls on Long Island). What a feeling it was to hear the news that our brand was in a national retailer, And in the middle of the Big Apple. It’s actually really hard to put into words what I was feeling that whole day. Especially, when I got to see it with my own eyes. I fought my way into the city right before they closed at 8:30.pm. I went by myself. I had to. I knew what would happen when I got there. I ran through the doors and down the escalator to the Metro 59 section of the store. And there they were. 3 new Digmi designs. Digmi label. Digmi hangtag. Price $35. I stood there and stared. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t tear up. Like I said before, there were so many lonely times along this journey. So many difficult choices to make. So much lost along the way. But I promised myself I’d never give up. I promised my team I’d never give up. And here we were. In the middle of Bloomingdales. I Took some pictures and then grabbed a size large in all 3 styles. I walked up to the cash register and proudly paid full price plus tax for my very own Digmi tee shirts. It never felt so good to spend money on anything before in my life. I walked through the store and looked around. Polo, Lacoste, Psycho Bunny, Calvin Klein. Major brands. By no means am I comparing ourselves to them (yet) but I have to admit that it was super cool to be in the same room as them. Kind of reminded of being in that Major League clubhouse in spring training. And hey, you never know. Maybe we’ll be a brand who has space just like the others. You can only dream, right?
The ride back home was an emotional one. Im sure you can understand. I thought about how it all started, with the nickname and then the crazy idea to put it on a shirt. Then a hat. Then a sweatshirt. I thought about all the parties and projects that helped give Digmi life. I thought about all the great memories and friendships that were made because of the “The Guy In The Tie”. But then I thought about all those lonely days and nights when I was scared to death that I had gotten it wrong. That my idea wouldn’t work, and the vision I convinced so many people to believe in would fall short. I thought about all I had lost along the way. But thats part of it. I always knew that going into this thing. I guess thats why I’ve always be drawn to chasing it. I realized that Digmi was just like baseball. You work so hard, give up so much, knowing that there will be hard times. You go into it knowing that it will be a long road. But the chance to play in the Major Leagues is worth all the years fighting in the minors, right? And even if you come up one level short, you can look in the mirror and know you gave it everything you had. And for the entire Digmi team, after years of working, fighting to keep the dream alive, we had made it. At least for this one night, we made it. WE FINALLY WON!
When I got home that night, I sent out a group text to my team, thanking them all for their years of hard work and support. They were all pumped and excited about what the future had in store for us. One of my partners sent a separate text to me saying “Congrats Ray. All of your dreams are about to come true. You just got to the big leagues”. And that text really hit home for me. You see, it seemed like I spent my whole life playing the game I love, giving everything I had to play in the Major Leagues. And I’m proud of my career, I really am. But the bottom line is that I came up one level short. One level short of being a Major League player. People ask me all the time where do I get my drive to keep working on this project, and how I didn’t give up during all the real difficult times. Well, I guess heres the best way I can put it. I’ve been extremely fortunate to play baseball at every level in the world; Little League, Middle School, High School, Division 1 College, Rookie Ball, Short Season A, A, High A, Double-A, Triple-A and Major League Spring Training. I have a hit at everyone one of those levels. I always told myself that when I have my dream office, I will create a wall with a baseball in a case from each of those leagues, signifying my hit and time there. And then there will be this empty case. Yes, I will have an empty case on the bottom right. And that case will always be a reminder of the one level I didn’t get to. I’m convinced that if I did get there, I would have gotten a hit. I did everywhere I else I played. But I didn’t play there. I didn’t get that hit. And that hit will always be missing. That missing level, that missing hit is what drives me. I have this dream that with a lot of hard of work, that maybe Digmi can grow big enough and motivate tons of people to chase their dreams and embrace their personalities to where Major League Baseball notices who we are. And then maybe we can do something with them. Maybe we partner on charitable cause. Maybe they ask us to collaborate on a cool apparel design or even become the official lifestyle brand of the league. I don’t know, but it could happen right? Couldn’t you see our logo, “The Guy In The Tie” tipping his cap on a billboard of a MLB stadium? I definately could. And when that does happen, I’ll make a custom baseball with our logo on it, and I’ll put it in the case with where the missing hit stays. And everyday I look at it, I’ll know this; I may have come up a tad short of playing in the Major Leagues, but we built a brand that got there. Digmi playing in the Major Leagues…yeah, that’ll be good enough for me. For some strange reason, I have a feeling that Baseball took me to Bloomingdales, and getting into Bloomingdales just might take me back to baseball.
There is saying in baseball that goes something like this:
Getting to the big leagues is the easy part, staying there is the hard part. Well, I guess we can say we know the feeling. Hell, we got there. Now we just have to figure out a way to stay. But that story is for another time and another post! Here’s to living your dream and tipping your cap along the way!
LIVE your DREAMs, BE yourself! You never know just how far that can take you!
A quick little end note: If you notice, I say “WE” throughout this piece. I say we, because thats who we are. A lot of people get confused between Digmi and Ray Digmi. Yeah, I’m the guy who started this crazy project. Yes, it is my nickname that family, friends and now business associates call me. But Digmi is a WE thing. I couldn’t be luckier to have had the crew I have had over the years that have come to believe in this project with me and support it with their time and effort and most importantly their passion. Their belief and trust in me is the greatest responsibility I have. I owe them. Without them there is no dream, no vision, no hustle. They have put their heart an soul into it right there with me, and for that I will always be grateful. There is zero shot this story exists without them. They know who they are and they will always be my inspiration to make sure this project, one way or another, succeeds. This is YOUR BRAND! Thank you for walking this journey with me!
To my business partners, all the athletes and celebrities who ever gave us their time, and every single person who has been kind enough to support our project with a purchase….a very heartfelt THANK YOU!
To my family…thanks for dealing with this project for so long. I have a feeling its all going to be worth it. I love you guys!
To Bloomingdales….Thank You for giving a guy in tie a chance to hang in your stores. He is forever grateful!
Written with great pride and emotion:
– Digmi Founder/Chief Creative Officer
Ray Digmi Navarrete
CHECK OUT OUR FEATURE ON NEWS 12 LONG ISLAND FOLLOWING OUR DEBUT @ BLOOMINGDALES