* Dioner Navarro, the Jays' new starting catcher, was a Yankee minor leaguer in 2003 when his wife, Sherley, suffered a brain aneurysm on the couple's first anniversary and had to be rushed to the hospital. .... 2014 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors 2015 Canadian draft list
By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN -- The ride from the Radisson Bay Harbour Hotel to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa normally takes 40 minutes.
“It seemed like three or four hours, even though it felt like we were driving at 5,000 miles per hour,” said Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro in an empty Blue Jays clubhouse Saturday morn.
The date of the ride -- Sept. 27, 2003 -- is easy to remember.
It was the couple’s first anniversary.
Navarro, then a New York Yankees minor leaguer, was in the passenger seat of an ambulance, one paramedic driving, the other in the back attending to Navarro’s wife, Sherley, then 22, who collapsed at Clearwater hotel.
He was 19, and the Venezuelan’s English was not where it is today.
“All of a sudden, the guy in back yelled ‘don’t do this to me Sherley! Sherley don’t do this to me!’” recalled Navarro. “The driver told me not to turn around. I said I’ll turn around if I want -- that’s my wife. Then they started speaking in codes which I didn’t understand.”
And out came the paddles.
Navarro was watching a scene he’d seen, we’d all seen, on TV.
Except this was real life.
This was his beloved wife.
“The guy zaps Sherley the first time and nothing happens, he zaps her again and she came back perfectly normal,” said Navarro.
Upon arriving at St. Joe’s, a couple of blocks north of the Yankees' minor league complex, a cadre of doctors met the ambulance.
Tests showed Sherley has suffered a brain aneurysm.
* * *
Signed in August of 2000 in Caracus, Venz., Navarro was assigned to the Yankees Gulf Coast League rookie-class team along with Robinson Cano the next spring. The catcher was at class-A Greensboro for 92 games and one game at class-A Tampa the next year.
After 52 games at Tampa, he was promoted to double-A Trenton, breaking his thumb in the final game of the 2003 season.
“You had to look on the bright side, it was the final game of the season,” said Navarro, living with Sherley’s parents and her toddler, Gerson, in Tampa near Busch Garden.
They scrimped and saved for their first anniversary and a get-away weekend ... across the Courtney Campbell Causeway to the Radisson.
Watching TV from the bed, Sherley said she did not feel well, she stood up, said she was feeling dizzy and fainted.
“My English was not very good, but I am trying to dial 911 on the hotel phone and the switchboard said they could not call -- but they would connect me,” Navarro said.
He asked for an ambulance as the 911 operator asked questions:
“Is she still breathing?
Sherley was breathing.
“Is your wife moving?”
She was not moving.
“Try to wake her up.”
Navarro was able to wake up his wife.
And then the fire department arrived. Navarro yelled “there’s no fire here, I need an ambulance.”
Then the paramedics came to the hotel.
“My guess is that they are looking at us two young kids, probably too much alcohol,” Navarro said. “Sherley was fine, talking perfectly.”
Sherley refused to go in the ambulance, guessing that maybe she was pregnant.
The anchor of the family had stated her case. OK, sign the papers that you don’t need treatment said the paramedic.
And then she collapsed again.
And now the Navarros were off on the mad ambulance dash to St. Joe’s, 40 minutes in normal traffic ... even if it seemed like “three or four hours, at 5,000 miles per hour.”
* * *
We sat down to ask Dioner (dee-honor) Navarro (na-VAR-oh) about his two-year, $8 million US free-agent deal with the Jays. If he knew about how popular -- in some quarters -- J.P. Arencibia, his predecessor was? How he started more than 100 games three straight years (110, then 113 and then 105) from 2007-09 with the Tampa Bay Rays, earning all-star status in 2008.
And then never again over 100.
Navarro started 36 games with the Rays in 2010, 45 with the Los Angeles Dodgers the next year, 16 with the Cincinnati Reds in 2012, and 53 last year with the Chicago Cubs? How much work load could he handle?
What’s it like to be involved in a trade with Arizona (which brought Randy Johnson to the Yankees) with the Dodgers (Shawn Green to the Diamondbacks)?
We never got there.
We got talking about Sherley, and it was a topic we couldn’t leave.
* * *
The spinal tap the doctors gave Sherley showed blood.
“Now they had to flush the brain,” said Navarro. “My wife signed the papers without any of us knowing.”
Doctors gave the Navarros three options: operate through the skull, through the groin or leave as is.
After the three-hour procedure to flush the blood from the brain, Sherley slipped into a semi-coma state, her left side paralyzed.
“This was life or death,” Navarro said. “This was the anchor of our family, if anyone needed anything, we always would go to my wife. Now she was in hospital fighting for her life.”
Doctors spoke to Navarro and told him the only option remaining was through the groin with a 5% survival rate.
“You have to give me better odds than that,” the anguished teenager cried. “I’m not doing anything until we get to better than 50%.”
Navarro was called to Sherley’s room.
She was awake again.
Navarro said Sherley said “baby, sign the papers, I’ll be OK.”
He then shivered, looked down at his left arm and rubbed it quickly with his right hand.
No problem, said his inquisitor, rubbing tears away from his left eye.
Navarro signed the papers.
Sherley’s family arrived at St. Joe’s from the Bronx, from Pennsylvania, Miami and Puerto Rico. There were 40 to 50 relatives.
The next day, Sept. 30, they gathered to pray, awaiting an uncertain result.
There are no chip shots in brain surgery, as John Olerud’s surgeon once told us in 1989.
* * *
All of Shirley’s relatives were there.
Navarro and friends were there.
They had been told the brain operation could last 4-to-6 hours.
“After 2 1/2 hours, here comes the doctor,” said Navarro. “I’m thinking did she die? Why is he coming out so early? I remember like yesterday, and it happened in 2003.
“Then, the doctor smiled.”
The doctor told Navarro: “I don’t know what you all are praying for, but keep it up. Sherley is OK. She is a miracle.
“Pray for me too. You guys are good.”
Metal coils were inserted to prevent another rupture.
* * *
On Navarro’s left forearm is a tattoo: The letters D and S (Dioneer and Sherley) and the date Sept. 30.
The date of a miracle.
That’s why he wears uniform No. 30.
His wife had something in common with a member of the 2004 Yankees: Olerud, who underwent the same surgery in 1988 as a college student.
“John and my wife became good friends,” said Navarro.
The story of his wife told, Navarro is now in a hurry.
He had to drive home to Riverview, south of Tampa.
Dioner, Jr, eight, had a ball game at 1 o’clock. Junior’s godfather is his pop’s roomie from Trenton in 2004: Cano. The Jays new catcher says Cano is his best friend.
And Gerson, now 15, was suiting up in a spring game for the East Bay Orioles at 3 o’clock.
Sherley would be at both games.
Like all the other mothers, cheering for her favorites.