tampabay.com

From near tragedy, an early maturity

Dioner Navarro was 19 when his wife nearly died, an experience that forced him to grow up fast.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published June 30, 2006


WASHINGTON - All they wanted to do was celebrate their first anniversary in style. Dioner Navarro took his wife, Sherley, out for a nice dinner in Tampa and planned to spend a romantic evening at the waterfront Radisson Bay Harbor Inn.

Instead, Sept. 27, 2003, turned out to be a real-life nightmare, the night her life nearly ended - and his was changed his forever.

Sherley, 22 at the time, got up during the night and collapsed on the floor, stricken by a brain aneurysm that would have killed her had Dioner not quickly called 911.

"When the paramedics put me in the ambulance, they had to put the machines on me to get me back alive," Sherley said Thursday. "I left. I died in the ambulance, and they brought me back. I was gone."

When she got to St. Joseph's Hospital, Sherley's life was still in jeopardy. With her left side paralyzed and initial procedures showing blood on her brain, extensive surgery was needed in the next few days, and nothing was certain.

"They didn't know how I wasn't in a coma, how I wasn't a vegetable. They couldn't explain it," Sherley said. "The next day there was a conference with my mom and dad and Navi, and they told them I needed surgery and that I had a 5 percent chance of being alive. Or maybe no chance. Navi, my mom and dad had to sign my death papers."

Sherley, somehow, came through the surgery so well the doctors told her parents, "Your daughter is a miracle."

She has had two followup procedures, has to come in for regular checkups, has battled bouts of epilepsy and still is bothered by migraines, but she lived through it.

And Dioner, then a 19-year-old Yankees minor-league prospect, now the Devil Rays' prized new 22-year-old catcher, grew from it.

"It's been the toughest thing I've ever had to go through," Navarro said. "I was 19 years old, trying to live the life with my wife. We were having a wonderful time, and all of a sudden she was in an operation having like a 1 percent chance of being alive. But somebody up there was watching down here, and that just made us stronger, and made our love stronger."

Navarro will never forget what they went through, and he marks it in his own way. "That's why Navi is No. 30," Sherley said. "They said I wasn't going to survive on Sept. 30. That's why he uses No. 30 wherever he goes."

When the Rays acquired Navarro, along with Jae Seo, from the Dodgers in Tuesday's deal for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson, they got a player who is a solid switch-hitter with the potential to develop power, a good receiver and game-caller and an overall promising defender.

They also got someone who is mature beyond his years.

As Sherley recovered slowly, Navarro, somehow, played on. He was rated the top prospect in the Yankees system going into the 2004 season, and despite the obvious distractions he played like it, earning his way from Double A to Triple A to the big leagues by September.

"My main concern was trying to be strong for Navi," Sherley said from their Tampa area home. "This was his future, and I didn't want him to go down. I thought that that year would be Navi's worst year. I was still sick. I was going through epilepsy. I had to always be in the hospital.

"It just made him stronger. He focused more. He goes out there on the field to have fun. Other guys stress out because they didn't do good. He goes and does what he has to do."

"His wife was very, very ill and he played great," Dodgers farm director Terry Collins said. "He'd go to the hospital in the middle of the night and stay there and the next day show up and play. If you ever hear anyone say he doesn't play, that just wasn't true."

When the Yankees signed Navarro as a 16-year-old out of Caracas, Venezuela, in August 2000, they couldn't help note the similarities with another short and stocky catcher who was quite successful - Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez - and gave Navarro the nickname Pudgito, for Little Pudge.

That might seem like added pressure for a teenager who was not blessed with all of Rodriguez's physical tools, but Navarro relished the comparisons.

"It's good when people start to compare you to the kind of player he is; he's the best catcher in the big leagues," Navarro said. "That's the kind of thing that motivates me more and makes me work harder because I want to become the kind of player that he is. I feel very proud of myself, and hopefully 10 years from now people will start calling other players Little Navi."

Navarro appeared to be the obvious successor to Jorge Posada in New York, impressing the Yankees with his physical and mental abilities. "He's a bright guy," Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman said. "He picked up how to run a game fairly quickly, and he learned English fairly quickly."

But the Yankees, who felt his work habits fluctuated and his weight needed watching - he's 5 feet 9, 213 pounds - found him valuable in another way: "He was an often asked-for guy," Newman said.

After rejecting several tempting offers, they decided to use him as the key piece in the January 2005 trade to get Randy Johnson from the Diamondbacks, who immediately used him as the key piece of their own deal with the Dodgers to get Shawn Green.

The Dodgers had big plans for Navarro, impressed enough to make him the starter for the final two months of 2005 and pleased enough to keep him on the job this season.

But that all changed when he was struck on the right wrist by a foul ball a month into the season. He landed on the disabled list, and rookie Russell Martin was so impressive in his absence the Dodgers decided to keep him. When Navarro was healthy, they sent him back to Triple A and suddenly considered him expendable.

"This guy has a huge upside," Collins said. "I think he'll be a solid major-league catcher. He has the ability to play every day. His arm's as good as Toby Hall's. He has very soft hands. He's got a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark with power from both sides of the plate. He knows how to win.

"He can be an everyday guy. Whether he's going to be an impact player, we'll have to wait and see."

As thrilled as the Rays were to make the trade, the Navarros - who met in an Internet chat room - were happier.

They can live year-round in the Riverview house they bought in December, which Sherley has already figured out is "44 minutes" from Tropicana Field. Dioner can spend more time with 7-year-old stepson Gershon and their 9-month-old son, Dioner Jr., who Sherley wasn't supposed to be able to have. Sherley, who has improved enough that she can go two years between checkups rather than six months, can stick with her Tampa-based doctors.

"Life is great for me," Navarro said. "I'm so glad to be back home and be with my wife. Everything we get to do together is wonderful."

"We didn't expect this," Sherley said. "It's too good to be true."

In more ways than one.