Cubs’ Dioner Navarro gains inspiration from wife’s brush with death
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com February 28, 2013 10:13PM
Updated: March 2, 2013 7:49PM
MESA, Ariz. — He has told the story countless times, and he still speaks with awe and emotion in his voice when he talks about it all these years later.
“She died in my arms,” Dioner Navarro says quietly.
He was only 19, a Class AA catcher for the New York Yankees, celebrating his one-year wedding anniversary a few weeks after his season had ended when his wife, Sherley, suddenly collapsed while they were out to dinner in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Three times on the way to the hospital, she had to be resuscitated, twice by paramedics, once by her teenage husband before they got to the scene.
“It was crazy,” he says.
It wasn’t until long after they’d gotten to the ER that doctors diagnosed the brain aneurysm — only to give her less than a
5 percent chance of survival.
A 19-year-old, bus-league ballplayer with a toddler son, an uncertain future and a fear like he had never known, Navarro signed papers — including a death certificate — and watched Sherley get wheeled into surgery. And then he waited.
The specialist performed nine brain surgeries that day, Navarro says.
“Eight of them died,” he says as if he still can’t believe it. “Eight of them died. Out of nine.”
That was Sept. 30, 2003.
“And we’re still going strong,” says Navarro, the newest Cubs catcher, who wears constant reminders of that day in the form of the “30” embedded into the cross tattooed on his right forearm, and in a peace of mind and attitude that radiates throughout the Cubs’ clubhouse — from an easy smile and upbeat nature to the private dance moves he busts before a game while listening, in his own world, to music through a set of bright-green headphones.
“He’s just a really great guy,’’ clubhouse neighbor Darwin Barney said.
He’s also not a bad catcher, a former All-Star in Tampa Bay who most recently spent time last season with the Cincinnati Reds. The Cubs picked him up on a one-year, $1.75 million deal to catch once or twice a week and mentor young starter Welington Castillo.
“He’s a quality guy behind the plate, and he’s been great with Castillo,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He’s a real quality guy to have.”
That he made it at all to the big leagues, much less this far and for this long, is a testament to a strength that belies the sportswriter paunch he brought to camp.
“It’s been a journey, man, “ he says. “It was the worst period of my career, but at the same time, it was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to us because we became like this.”
He clamps an index finger to the middle finger as he talks. “Me and my wife,” he says.
The cooking they do together now and the fishing day trips into the bay waters off the Tampa-St. Petersburg shores are priceless to Navarro after what it took to get Sherley through her recovery, and to get the family through the next year or two after that.
To this day, she has seven metal coils in the area of her aneurysm to prevent another rupture. But it makes her sensitive to cold and might contribute to the migraines she has had since her surgery.
“It’s been almost 10 years, so she knows how to deal with it, and she knows how to control it,’’ he says. “I wouldn’t be able to do it.’’
In fact, he almost was unable to keep playing baseball.
“I needed to be with my family. I couldn’t focus,” he said of that first season back with the Yankees’ Class AA affiliate in Trenton, N.J., more than 1,000 miles from home in the Tampa area.
Their solution: As soon as Sherley was able to drive, she and young Gerson followed Dioner in their 1999 blue Ford Explorer, wherever the Trenton Thunder’s bus went.
“I was almost glad it was a bus league,” says Navarro, who would not have been able to afford the Class AAA flights — and had trouble enough making the AA thing work on a minor-leaguer’s salary. “We spent a lot of money, but at that moment, I felt it had to be done. I needed to make sure my wife was near me.
“We knew it was going to be hard. We knew it was going to be complicated.”
Even then, it only worked because future Yankees All-Star Robinson Cano was willing to pair with Navarro in the mandatory two-to-a-room accommodations for the team, and accept his wife and small child.
“He was, and still is, my best friend,’’ Navarro says of the man who’s now his second son’s godfather.
It took almost three years before Dioner felt Sherley was safe enough to be alone. And since he has been in the big leagues, he has moved her family near their home.
“I enjoy every single day now,” he says. “I enjoy my life. I enjoy my kids. I enjoy my job. Obviously, I want to do my best to help the team win, but whatever happens, after the game is over, it’s over.
“I go back home and I see my wife alive, happy, yelling at me. …’’
“As long as I can hear her, I’m happy.”