In the muggy fields of central Florida, Roberto Rodriguez takes his three kids to their impromptu training ground.
Up the hill. Next.
Up the hill. Next.
Up the hill.
The three future collegiate ballplayers sprint up the hill adjacent to their Monteverde home in a test of endurance. Next come the agility and speed drills as Roberto times and tracks the progress of his athletes. Eventually the drills transition to the diamond behind their local church, where the focus switches from building endurance and speed to improving fielding, hitting and IQ.
Roberto would create a scenario: runners on first and third, one out. The ball is hit to you. What do you do?
It was this intensity and attention to detail on the familiar diamond that prepared his players for the bigger and unpredictable stages that were ahead.
Natalia Rodriguez is the youngest and the smallest of the three, but from as early as the age of five, she was matching her two older brothers, stride for stride, drill for drill. Through this gauntlet of exercises, her competitive nature was born.
Rodriguez comes from a baseball family. Her father played baseball growing up and coached all three of his children. Her mother, Iris, played softball at Yale, and her two brothers, Roberto and Sergio, played at Georgetown and Amherst, respectively.
As the youngest of three, she credits having her two older brothers as role models and motivators for the level of competitiveness that she now exhibits.
“It built up my competitiveness,” Rodriguez said. “Just going out there trying to be better than the boys.”
Whether it was organized drills with her father or a friendly exhibition game, she refused to give her brothers the edge despite any disadvantage she had physically. It is the mentality she had as a child and one that she carries with her to this day.
It is easy to mistake physical appearance for ability. Picture the selection process that takes place before a pickup game:
The most physically gifted athletes are selected first. Who gets picked last? Well, the least imposing players, of course.
If you were to categorize Rodriguez amongst other softball players, she would likely fall in the latter.
Listed at five-foot four, Rodriguez is notably one of the smallest players on the field for the Wolverines. But petite stature is no new foe for her.
In the seventh grade, Rodriguez was playing for her high school team at Montverde Academy. She was told that she wasn’t big enough or strong enough to be a shortstop, so she acquiescently made the move to the outfield.
“She didn’t want to settle for being the littlest one the team,” Roberto said. “She wanted to prove she could be just as good as anyone else. She was always driven, always motivated.
“ … I told her to just keep being the best player you can be wherever they put you.”
And that is exactly what she did.
During her time at Montverde Academy, Rodriguez went on to set every offensive school record and earn numerous awards. She batted .506 as a junior and led her team to the state championship game. She was the defensive MVP at shortstop during her sophomore season and the team MVP in her junior and senior seasons. In her senior season, she was also named the Montverde Academy 2017 Female Scholar of the Year.
“I just went out there and working with the team, it was just about getting better,” Rodriguez said. “It was a … program that pushed us and we weren’t –– we grew a lot, definitely, since I started playing there in middle school.”
Despite initially being moved to the outfield in high school, she remained in the middle infield for her travel team, where Roberto coached her from the time she was nine until she was 16.
When she was 10, her team finished in second at the USSSA/ESPN 10U World Series, and Rodriguez earned defensive MVP honors at shortstop. Three years later, her team would win the 2012 USSSA/ESPN High School World Series 16U A Championship –– a moment Rodriguez considers the biggest of her playing career.
“I was playing with a couple girls that I had played with for over four or five years,” Rodriguez said, “So it was with really close friends of mine, and it was in Florida –– Wide World of Sports. It was just a great atmosphere and I think it was just my first big win, so that was pretty big for me.”
In the summer before her freshman campaign, along with two of her teammates from the 16U World Series squad, she represented the Puerto Rican Junior National Team, helping her grandparents’ native country to a bronze-medal finish in the 2017 Junior Women’s Softball World Championship.
“It’s always great to represent your nationality,” Rodriguez said. “It was a lot of fun. You meet a lot of girls from the island… And it also allowed me to work on my bilingual skills.”
The three of them — who were the youngest players on that world series squad — teamed up one more time to compete against countries from around the world for the international tournament in their home state of Florida.
When it came time to be recruited, Rodriguez received offers from several schools around the country, ranging from east coast Ivies to PAC-12 schools. But it wasn’t until her junior year that she received an offer from the school she felt was the best fit.
“After I got the offer from Michigan, I didn’t let anyone else get a chance to be quite honest,” Rodriguez said.
As the Wolverines said goodbye to their switch-hitting shortstop and four-year starter Abby Ramirez at the end of the 2017 season, they welcomed in another switch-hitting shortstop in Rodriguez.
In spite of being small and frequently overlooked, Rodriguez has remained confident in her abilities. Or, as her father likes to put it, like “a little silent assassin.” But make no mistake, this quiet confidence is often infused with an energizing swagger.
In the clubhouse, she has the reputation as the player with the most “swag” as some of her teammates have put it.
“I think it’s really just me having fun –– it’s being me. I like to dance a little bit. I think they’re referring to a little juju, shoulder lean…its nothing crazy… just make people laugh and get everyone involved.”
The dancing simultaneously keeps her teammates grounded and her swagger-level sky high.
From a young age, she showed her dedication to the game and the desire to constantly improve. It takes this sort of approach to the game to remain passionate and hungry. Some athletes eventually fall out of love with the game, burnt out from the years of dedication. But not Rodriguez.
“Can’t say (quitting softball) crossed my mind,” Rodriguez said.
From the diamonds of Montverde, Fla. to Ann Arbor, Mich., Rodriguez has found her way to always enjoy the game.
Last season, fans became accustomed to seeing the slick-fielding freshman ranging the shortstop position for the Wolverines. She has become a staple of the Michigan defense — which ranked first in the Big Ten and second in the nation in fielding percentage through the end of the regular season. But she wasn’t supposed to be the starting shortstop. Sophomore third baseman Madison Uden was slated as the likely candidate be the everyday shortstop by coach Carol Hutchins. In the fall, the coaching staff noted how talented the freshman could be, but it was junior second baseman Faith Canfield who saw Rodriguez’s potential and vouched for her to get the nod next to her in the infield to begin the season.
“I think (Canfield)’s the one kid in our program that thought Natalia was the one to go to shortstop,” Hutchins said. “She, from the get-go, recognized what a talent Natalia is.”
Canfield took on a mentor role last season with Natalia as they partnered in the middle infield.
“That’s one thing with Natalia is just that she believes in herself and knows that she knows how to play the game,” Canfield said.
Rodriguez forced Hutchins’ hand, expediting what was supposed to be a year more for development and less for playing time. But it was the work ethic and passion for the game that her coach and teammates saw in her which gave her the opportunity to be the starting shortstop –– a work ethic and passion that can be accredited to her family.
On and off the field, her demeanor doesn’t change much: calm, cool and collected with a hint of swagger and a wide-eyed grin crossing her face.
“I just tell her to smile and have fun while you’re out there,” Roberto said. “… Nothing but good will come out of it.”