PORT CHARLOTTE — Dioner Navarro sat shirtless in front of his locker one recent morning. From across the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse came a whistle. Navarro smiled.
Yeah, looking pretty good.
Navarro, the Rays’ All-Star catcher, hired a personal trainer and changed his diet.
“No pop,” he said. “Once in a while I grabbed a Dr. Pepper, but that was the main thing, drinking a lot of water and cutting down on the sodas.”
Navarro reported to camp 15 pounds lighter than he did last season.
“I feel great,” he said. “I kept myself in great shape, and it’s paid off. Now I got a lot of time to spend with my pitcher and prepare for the season that I didn’t have two years ago.”
Two years ago, Navarro was thought to be a talented catcher who didn’t quite know how to tap into that talent. He wasn’t in the best shape, and no one accused him of working too hard. It was better last spring, but Navarro still left plenty of room for improvement.
Navarro spent most of the past two spring training camps trying to shed a few more pounds so he could work himself into playing shape.
This spring? Different story.
Navarro had a breakout season in 2008. He hit a career-high .295 (.310 before the All-Star break), was chosen for the American League All-Star team and was credited with guiding the Rays’ young pitching staff into a unit that led the team to the division title and the World Series.
Navarro found the euphoria of success intoxicating.
“It’s fun when you’re hitting .300 and your team is winning,” he said.
Navarro found himself faced with two choices in the offseason: He could rest on his success or he could work toward having a better season in 2009.
“Just the opportunity this team gave me last year after the year I had the year before was huge,” Navarro said. “It instilled a lot of confidence in me, and believe me, I don’t want to go back to ’07. I got to do what I did last year and better.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he wasn’t concerned at all with how Navarro would react to his success.
“There might have been a time I might have been more concerned with that, but I think with the culture we’ve established here now, I’d be really surprised if he didn’t build on it or want to build on it,” Maddon said. “Our agenda’s changed. We’re here to win. We’re here to win now and get back to the World Series and win it this year. So, he knows how important his position is. He knows how valuable he is to the team. He knows that, plus I tell him that all the time. So I would be disappointed dramatically if he did not.”
Left fielder Carl Crawford is the poster child for the baseball player who constantly finds ways in the offseason to improve himself as an athlete and a baseball player. But Crawford is not alone in the Rays’ clubhouse. Every member of last year’s American League championship squad who was healthy spent his offseason improving his game.
“When I first came here, I didn’t necessarily see that as part of the personal agenda of most people here,” Maddon said. “And now I see it. I think it has become part of our fabric. With (Navarro), he knows how important he is. He knows how much I value catching here. I believe you need a championship catcher to get to the championship round, and he showed that’s what he is last year. For him and for us, we need him to continue to be motivated in that sense.”
Aside from the occasional Dr. Pepper, Navarro passed on the pop and hit the weight room this past winter.
He knows the big guns in the lineup are Crawford, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Pat Burrell and doesn’t see any reason why he can’t be included among them. Plus, he added, he feels a responsibility to his teammates to push himself to be a better player this season.
“We did a lot of great things last year. I know there are a lot of great expectations this year, so I think I have a responsibility to myself, to the team, to the city,” Navarro said. “It was a great overall year last year, and we want to do better this year.”