MESA, Ariz. — Whenever new Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro would go home questioning whether he still belonged in the big leagues during his struggles the last three seasons, his wife, Sherley, liked to remind him of his baseball claim to fame.
"She'd say, 'You were once traded for Randy Johnson,' and I'm like, 'You know what, you're right about that,' '' Navarro said Thursday.
Indeed, on Jan. 11, 2005, the Diamondbacks traded "The Big Unit'' in a four-player deal built around Navarro, the Yankees' top minor leaguer — and later that day dealt the hot Venezuelan prospect to the Dodgers for Shawn Green.
Occasionally, remembering how he once was so valued helps Navarro overcome bouts of doubt. But Navarro draws regular inspiration from another part of personal history that defines his life, and baseball career, even more — and Sherley triggers those memories without saying a thing. Just seeing his wife, who once stared death in the face, does that.
"She's been through a living hell, but she's still so positive,'' Navarro said. "Everything I've been through with her, I think I can translate not only to young guys in the clubhouse but to veterans. I want to be that guy that when a problem breaks out, everybody comes to for a solution because of my experiences.''
Navarro doesn't wear those experiences on his sleeve as much as his back.
Crouching in a stance against the A's at Hohokam Stadium, Navarro wore a No. 4 jersey that was his second choice. Negotiations continue with teammate Travis Wood over obtaining No. 30, which Navarro always has worn as a tribute to his wife. For fun, Navarro will apply pressure by walking past Wood's locker to display the large tattoo on his right forearm that features a baseball inscribed with "30" inside a cross.
"He's an outstanding, stand-up guy who fits in well,'' Wood said. "I'm sure we'll figure it out. I know it's special to him.''
Wearing either number — 30 or 4 — keeps Navarro from letting baseball blur his perspective.
It was Sept. 30, 2003, when doctors operated on a golf-ball-sized brain aneurysm that Sherley survived despite being given a 4 percent chance to live before surgery. Navarro was 19. The couple, who met over the Internet, had been married a year when Sherley passed out during a weekend getaway celebrating their first anniversary.
"I matured at a young age,'' Navarro said. "Because I had to.''
He would need all that maturity when his son, Dioner Jr., was born with a kidney disease that often inflicts children of mothers with brain aneurysms, Navarro explained. Dioner Jr. had his left kidney removed when he was 1, but when the doting dad welcomes his family here Friday, the boy will show no signs of what he endured.
"They told us he was going to be underweight and not as active — everything opposite of what he is now,'' Navarro said. "Now he's 7 and a nice little chubby guy who looks just like Daddy.''
Daddy looks like a one-year, $1.75 million investment in character and camaraderie for a team expecting to struggle. The money the Cubs offered surprised even Navarro, who has played in only 136 games over the last three years. But they see Navarro as an ideal mentor for starter Welington Castillo, even if he never regains the form that made him a 2008 All-Star with the Rays.
Manager Dale Sveum thinks so highly of Navarro's potential that he resisted calling him a backup. Navarro considers his role behind the scenes as important as his behind the plate, spreading goodwill around the clubhouse like a United Nations ambassador in stirrups.
"One of the great things about baseball is you can have Latinos, blacks, whites, guys from Japan, and everybody brings something different to the clubhouse that needs to be respected,'' said Navarro, 29. "I love the game. I consider myself a really good father and see (young teammates) as my kids. I want everybody to feel welcome and that they belong, whether they have two days in the big leagues or 20 years.''
The five seasons Navarro spent with the Rays included the organizational transformation the Cubs seek. He recalled a meeting as spring training ended in 2008, the year the Rays captured the pennant with 97 wins, when everybody sensed the culture had changed. The Rays won 66 games in 2007.
"We basically said, 'We're tired of (bleeping) losing. It's time!' '' Navarro said. "We were tight. If a fight broke out, everybody came out of the dugout. If somebody was down, you picked him up. With the Cubs losing so many games last year, I felt I could help be part of a turnaround nobody expects.''
It wouldn't be the first time Navarro experienced that.