By Corey Gottlieb / MLB.comIt was Johnny Bench, the backstop of backstops, who once said, "A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He's got to ride that nag till it drops."
Where Rays catcher Dioner Navarro is concerned, Bench's metaphor extends beyond the realm of physicality and etches out an image of resilience, personified. Just nine months past his 24th birthday, Navarro has repeatedly found himself at the intersection of near tragedy and renewed perspective, that place where the horse seeks to buckle and the outlaw seeks to stay the course.
Navarro's adolescence initially seemed filled with the brightest of bright things; he grew up a rising star in Caracas, Venezuela, and signed with the Yankees as an amateur free agent at age 16.
A year later, Navarro was surfing the web when he met a young woman named Sherley in a Spanish-language chat room. She was, by all accounts, his perfect match, a Bronx-born Yankee fan who spoke to him about baseball while teaching him to speak English. Soon after, Navarro began his Minor League career in the U.S., and the young couple was married.
Then, with no warning, came the event that would forever change both of their lives. On Sept. 27, 2003, the Navarros were celebrating their first anniversary when Sherley collapsed. Rushed to a local hospital by her then-19-year-old husband, she was told she'd suffered a brain aneurysm and given a five percent chance of survival. Along with Sherley's parents, Dioner was asked to sign death papers as a precaution.
Miraculously, Sherley Navarro survived surgery and has since returned to full health. Though at times she still suffers migraines and epileptic bouts, she is alive and thriving, a fact that Dioner commemorates by wearing the No. 30 on the back of his jersey (Sherley was told on Sept. 30, 2003, that she would not live).
At the time, Navarro described the event as the greatest challenge of his life. At the time, it was.
"When I get here to the field I know it's my job and I have to put that in the back," Navarro told the St. Petersburg Times. "But he is my son. I know he'll be fine ... I just think positively the whole time."
Of course, it would be easier to think positively if the young man didn't seem to be on the receiving end of an endless stream of misfortune.
In 2006, Navarro and his family were rear-ended on their way to Wal-Mart, causing their SUV to flip over twice and land on its head; somehow, all three walked away with only minor bruises.
This past year, Navarro's mother suffered a brain aneurysm -- yes, a brain aneurysm -- on the night before Spring Training. Navarro joined her in Caracas, and, like Sherley just a few years before, she survived.
Perhaps there is some greater power looking out for them both -- for them all. Or perhaps, like a family of catchers, they have acquiesced to the notion that with pain comes perspective. Either way, the Navarros have made abundantly clear that they have no intention of letting up, no matter what is thrown -- or bounced -- in their direction.
"I guess all that stuff that happens to me makes me stronger and makes me realize that I have people around me who keep me strong," Navarro told MLB.com.
Spoken like a true catcher.
Corey Gottlieb is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.