By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – We should all live life like Dioner Navarro.
Win or lose, rain or shine, up or down, the 31-year-old Blue Jays catcher plays baseball with an exuberance that is something to behold. He has found a way to treat the game as just that, embracing everything fun and coming to the field with a never-ending smile on his face.
If you look closely, you’ll see Navarro distinctly after every game the Blue Jays have walked off. He’s the one chasing the helmet that has been tossed up in the air by the player who finished it, spiritedly trying to catch it before it hits the ground. If you scroll through the footage from after Toronto won the American League Division Series, he’ll be the player strolling around with a cigar in his mouth and a forage cap he borrowed from a police offer.
When infielder Cliff Pennington came in to pitch for the Blue Jays when they were down in a blowout against Kansas City in the American League Championship Series, the backup backstop was on the bench energetically cheering for every pitch, noticeably ecstatic over each one that touched 90 miles an hour.
Navarro kicks around a soccer ball before games, he laughs each day with his teammates, he welcomes and embraces everyone around him. He epitomizes the idea that baseball is a child’s game, no matter what level a player reaches.
“I remember when I was 18, the year after my wife was diagnosed with her brain aneurysm and she had a four per cent chance of staying alive,” Navarro said. “Ever since that point, I realized there are so many bigger things than baseball, so I just enjoy myself.
“I get paid to do what I love, and a lot of people can’t say that. I get paid a lot of money to do what I love, and I just try to keep it loose, keep it fun. It’s a great game, it’s a great atmosphere, and we’re the only two teams left in the American League. It doesn’t get any better than that. When you go up to the plate, you’re the only guy batting that night. Nobody else is watching anyone else but you.”
“So it’s a great time to be here and it’s just fun. I try to keep it fun. I’ve got three kids myself, and they watch me doing these things, so I try to keep it fun for my family and for my team.”
Navarro’s wife and three sons have helped him to have an innate ability to keep the game light. His jersey number, 30, is a constant reminder of the date Sherley’s aneurysm was diagnosed. His 10-year-old middle child reminds Navarro to be thankful for everything he has.
“When my wife got pregnant we ended up finding out that moms with brain aneurysms, their kids have a higher risk of having problems with their kidneys,” he said. “We didn’t find that out until he was like four years old, but we knew ever since she was pregnant, since he was in the belly, that he was going to have trouble with the kidneys, we just didn’t know how serious it was going to be. It ended up being that one of his kidneys wasn’t functioning at all, so he had his kidney removed when he was a year old.”
His oldest son is already following in his father’s footsteps, though Navarro was a little bit hesitant to let him live the baseball life almost as early as he did. Naturally, his son is loving every minute of it.
“My oldest one is going to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.,” he said. “He’s been on me for three years. It’s fairly expensive, even for a big leaguer, but he showed a lot of improvement in school, which was the biggest thing for us.
“So we gave him a shot and he really worked his tail off. We talk every night and he’s loving it. He says they work hard, they do a lot of stuff, and he’s really happy and really proud of being there. It’s been an amazing experience for him.”
One of the best parts of an amazing season with Toronto’s ballclub for Navarro has been the fact that he’s been able to share it all with his family. He hopes that as the days go on, they can continue to cherish the times they had this year.
“They love it and they enjoy every single time, Navarro said. “My oldest son, being on Instagram and following every single player, all that stuff is fun. They were here for the opening of the series and I got to bring them to the field and they experienced it. These are the little things that are going to stay with them forever.”
Only one American League team remains after the Royals took down the Blue Jays in the hard-fought battle that was Game 6 at Kauffman Stadium, but there’s plenty of positive for all of Toronto to take away from a season that saw the organization head to the post-season for the first time in over two decades. Of course, Navarro enjoyed it all.
“Everything we have accomplished is the highlight,” he said. “All the trades that Alex [Anthopoulos] made to make the team better, and being able to win the east [division], being able to be in a playoff chase for almost two months and even when the season was over, everything.
“All the walk-off homers, all the opportunities we had, being able to be around great players like [Josh] Donaldson, [Jose] Bautista, [Edwin] Encarnacion, [Kevin] Pillar is doing an unbelievable job, David Price, [Marco] Estrada, all of those things. Those are things that when you go home, and 10 years from now when you’re done playing, you remember those sort of things.”
Navarro’s journey to the ALCS seems improbable in retrospect. When the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a five-year deal during the off-season, it appeared as though the Venezuelan catcher would have to find a home elsewhere. The organization looked, for the sake of the backstop who just wanted to be involved, but couldn’t find any suitable suitors, and he travelled north with the team out of spring training.
“I’m a huge believer that everything happens for a reason,” Navarro said. “I’m a really religious guy. The whole thing with me being traded wasn’t because I wasn’t comfortable here, I just wanted to play and I love playing. We’ve got a great group of guys, we’ve got an unbelievable staff, and an unbelievable city, and everything was great. I just wanted to play.
“Obviously having Russell signing the big contract, everybody knew he was going to be the guy – which I didn’t mind, I just wanted to play. And he did an unbelievable job. I believe I did a really fair job too, every time I got the opportunity, and I didn’t get traded for a reason. I got to be back there two games in elimination games and do a pretty decent job, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”
It doesn’t get any better. For a boy who grew up in Caracas, the most dangerous city in the world, to find the success that Navarro has had – already with parts of 12 years in the big leagues under his belt – and to be doing what he’s doing, he is grateful for every day.
“I was 15,” Navarro said of when he left Venezuela. “My dad had a good friend over in Houston. I knew from a really young age that this is what I wanted to do. My mom was always pushing me, ‘You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to go to school,’ so my last year of high school I told my her, ‘Mom listen, I want to play ball.’
“So my dad arranged for me to fly over to Houston and I spent a year there just training and getting ready for July 2nd, the international draft, and ever since then I’ve been here. I signed with the Yankees, I met my wife in Tampa, and I’ve been there ever since.
“I don’t know what else I would be doing if I wasn’t playing ball. From a really young age, I was the first one at the ballpark, the last one to leave, doing my thing and taking buses at 12 years old by myself in Venezuela, which isn’t the safest thing to do. But I always believed in myself, my family believed in me, and once we all jumped on the same boat it was a pretty easy shot.”