Navarro is the Rays' soul man

Not to go all Deepak Chopra, but the walking, squatting definition of an old soul is tucked behind the catcher's mask during Tampa Bay Rays games.

Dioner Navarro, the unheralded leader on the American League East's best team, is 24 in earth years, much older on the cosmic calendar. And this year, the one in which he has experienced the greatest growth on the field – Navarro made his first All-Star team and his batting average is a Rays-best .290 – is a testament to his ability to cope with outrageous misfortune.

"I've always thought of myself as very spiritual, even when I was a little kid," Navarro said. "I basically accept everything that happens to me as part of a grand plan, and I try not to question things that are hard to understand or seem unfair."

It's as if Navarro is drawing on the divine spark of previous lives, the way a batter who strikes out drives a similar pitch for a hit in his next at-bat. And now he's helping less learned souls (see Garza, Matt) discover the path to enlightenment.

Navarro latched on to a starting job with the Rays last season and hit .227. Manager Joe Maddon stuck with him, aware that Navarro was oscillating in the same orbit of inexperience as most of his teammates. Navarro has not only hit, but helped stabilize a young pitching staff with the third-best earned run average in the major leagues.

"He's been our MVP by far," Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "Navi has guided us through so much stuff. That's what you need as a catcher. He builds confidence in you as a pitcher. He's our leader. He's very mature for his age."

Examples abound:

• At 16, Navarro signed with the New York Yankees out of Caracas, Venezuela. "Dioner has been the calm one and wise beyond his years since he was a little one," said his mother, Rosa.

• At 17, he met his future wife, Sherley, in a Spanish-language Internet chat room. Sherley, raised in the Bronx and living in Tampa, was 21 and had a 2-year-old son. They were married shortly after he came to the U.S. to begin his minor-league career.

• At 19, Navarro faced the first of several life-or-death episodes involving family members. Sherley was struck by a brain aneurysm on their first wedding anniversary, fell into a coma and was temporarily paralyzed on her left side. Her recovery was "nothing short of incredible," said Navarro, who wears uniform No. 30 because the date of the episode was Sept. 30, 2003.

• At 21, he and Sherley had a son, Dioner Jr., who was born with a rare condition that eventually required the removal of a kidney. "Nobody knows why," Navarro said. "It just happened to be him. Nobody can explain it."

• At 22, Navarro and his family were in an auto accident that resulted in their SUV landing on its roof. Sherley slid out the rear passenger door and Navarro pulled Dioner Jr. from his car seat and handed the baby to his wife through a window before crawling out himself.

• At 23, he was struck in the throat with a bounced pitch and carried off the field on a stretcher to the hospital. Navarro was back in the lineup four days later. "All I was trying to do was breathe, but I couldn't," he said. "It was a scary moment."

• At 24, he endured an eerily familiar family emergency. This time it was his mother who had a brain aneurysm on the eve of spring training. He rushed to Caracas to be by her side, and she, like Sherley, recovered.

For his part, Navarro matter-of-factly recounts the incidents one by one, chapter and verse. He and his family have survived it all. Raised in a religious household, he leans on old-fashioned faith to get him through.

"I had to become a man sooner than a lot of other guys," Navarro said. "God has a plan for me, and everything that's happened in my life has only strengthened that conviction."

Amid such personal crises, going on the disabled list with a wrist injury early this season – he slipped walking into the dugout and cut two fingers on his right hand after grabbing a net to break his fall, an injury Maddon called "freaky" and "ugly" – didn't faze him. Nor did losing his job as the Dodgers catcher to Russell Martin early in the 2006 season. Batting .177 during the first half of the 2007 season, when the Rays first entrusted him with a full-time job less than a year after acquiring him from the Dodgers, paled in comparison.

A short, pudgy switch-hitter, Navarro has the type of body that makes an observer wonder how he ever was considered a prospect, let alone a major league All-Star. The perception becomes more acute when he struggles, which made Maddon's decision to stick with Navarro all the more interesting in hindsight.

"I liked the way he interacted with the pitchers, the way he took charge and called a game," Maddon said. "Those qualities were obvious. The hitting was just a matter of time. Navi doesn't swing and miss much, he knows the strike zone and occasionally drives the ball. I wasn't too concerned."

Navarro batted .280 in the second half last year to solidify his hold on the job. A rigorous weight-training regimen during the offseason left Navarro lighter, stronger and more confident. After tending to his mom's illness and recovering from the slip in the dugout, he went back to the business of shepherding young pitchers from promise to performance.

"What I love most about this team is that we've gotten to the point where we know we can do it," Navarro said. "We've had the opportunity to grow up together. We all believe we are part of something special."

Even if there are occasional episodes where Navarro must assume the role of wise elder, regardless of whether he's actually older. Garza, a high-spirited right-hander with electric stuff and a history of tantrums, is two months older than his catcher. Yet Navarro imparted a lesson more than two months ago that Garza hasn't forgotten.

"It woke him up," Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett said.

One batter after a blooper fell into short left field in the fourth inning of a game against the Texas Rangers, Garza gave up a home run to No. 9 hitter German Duran. Garza groused. A single by Ian Kinsler followed. Garza groused some more.

Navarro had seen enough. He went to the mound, looked into the face of a pitcher seven inches taller than him and let him have it.

After the inning, Garza said something to Navarro and grabbed his shoulder. Navarro pushed the pitcher and more shoving followed. Maddon and others had to break it up.

"If I have to do it again, I'll do it again," Navarro told reporters. "This kid is going to help us through the whole season. I don't think we'll get to that again."

Said Garza of the incident: "It helped me work on some things. I didn't realize some of the things I was doing out there."

All he's done since is become one of the best pitchers in baseball. In his next start, Garza retired the first eight batters and 10 of the last 11 in a 4-1 victory over the Marlins. Two weeks later, he pitched a one-hitter. And two weeks ago, he returned to Texas and shut out the Rangers, baseball's highest-scoring team.

Recently, Tampa Bay's crises have run toward injuries. Speedy outfielder Carl Crawford and powerful third baseman Evan Longoria are out of the lineup. Closer Troy Percival is sidelined. Yet the Rays roll along, leading the Red Sox by 4.5 games in the AL East as of Saturday.

"This is special," Navarro said. "I'm having the time of my life."

This life, anyway.

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