Fighting like brothers, Navarro forced Garza to see things in new light

Fighting like brothers, Navarro forced Garza to see things in new light
February 14, 2013, 11:00 pm
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MESA, Ariz. – Almost fighting Dioner Navarro may have been one of the best things to happen to Matt Garza’s career.

It helped unlock something in both players, and fuel the Tampa Bay Rays on their run to the 2008 World Series. Garza didn’t think it should be portrayed as a turning point, though he admitted that he learned an important lesson, how to better channel his emotions and control all that adrenaline.  

Looking back, Garza thought tempers were bound to flare because it felt like it was “107 degrees” for a Sunday afternoon getaway game against the Texas Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington. Navarro could have been feeling the grind in the middle of an All-Star season in which he would catch more than 1,000 innings.

Then No. 9 hitter German Duran – who has one home run in the big leagues since June 8, 2008 – cranked a 97 mph fastball over the wall in center for a two-run shot. A heated argument on the mound in the middle of the fourth inning spilled into the dugout, where teammates had to separate Garza and Navarro.

Now they’re reunited inside the Cubs clubhouse, and it wouldn’t be shocking if Navarro eventually becomes Garza’s personal catcher this season.

The Chicago media dug up the incident once the Cubs traded for Garza in January 2011, stretching to make comparisons to Carlos Zambrano that never came true.

Garza said it was just like brothers arguing, a miscommunication forgotten the next day.

At the time, Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay’s freethinking manager, suggested Garza talk to his friend Dr. Ken Ravizza, a sports psychologist, Cal State Fullerton professor and author of “Heads-Up Baseball.”  

“It wasn’t like: ‘You sit down. Let’s do this,’” Garza recalled. “It was just kind of this chit-chat and see what’s up. I’ve known him since college. He knew my college pitching coach (at Fresno State). It was intertwined like that and we kind of became real good friends. And now we just talk like friends.”

Garza had his teammates cracking up in the clubhouse on Thursday morning, wearing his off-to-school backpack over both shoulders with a bat sticking out the top.

Garza was ready for the workout at Fitch Park, and insiders have noticed how he seems a little more relaxed this spring, that his conditioning program has given him some more strength and flexibility.  

Garza still doesn’t quite know why he felt something in his right elbow last summer, which forced the shutdown that made him feel like he had “been locked in a cage for six months.” But he made a point to get in great shape physically and mentally, vowing that he’d be ready by Opening Day, shrugging off the trade rumors and walk-year pressures.

“The years have helped me temper myself,” Garza said last month at Cubs Convention. “I was telling my wife the other day: ‘Man, everything moves so much slower now.’ And she’s like: ‘You are a year away from 30.’

“Having four kids, three daughters, if I wasn’t going to learn patience (now), then it’s never going to happen. This offseason was a good test. I had to fight a seven-year-old to wipe makeup off. I had to fight a three-year-old to go to sleep. And I had to fight a five-month-old to eat. It was a pretty fun offseason.”  

Garza had told the front office that the Cubs needed to get a veteran catcher to work with Welington Castillo. He was pumped when they signed Navarro to a one-year, $1.75 million deal.    

Navarro – who’s listed at 5-foot-9 – stood up to Garza and accepted his share of the blame for instigating the scrap. Navarro realized he needed to become a better leader and send the right message to Garza: “Hey listen, bro, calm down. You got what it takes. Just chill.”

“It was in the heat of the moment,” Navarro recalled. “We became almost the best of friends. We were having breakfast the next day together.

“We dealt with it and we knew what we needed to do to get back to where we wanted to be.”

Navarro is a good talker from Venezuela who loves soccer and FC Barcelona – “I’ve got a man-crush on (Lionel) Messi!” – and thinks Garza has no-hit stuff whenever he’s on his game.

The Rays had lost 96 games in 2007 before packaging Delmon Young in a trade with the Minnesota Twins that yielded Garza. The small-market team shocked the baseball world by going from worst-to-first and winning the American League East.

“That was the beautiful thing about that team, man,” Navarro said. “We got crazy guys like Garza and Jonny Gomes. And we got really quiet guys like (Edwin) Jackson, Carlos Pena.

“When we all took the field, we were one family. We stayed tight, whatever happened.”

Garza would go on to make his bones in the playoffs, winning the ALCS MVP award and beating Theo Epstein’s Boston Red Sox in Games 3 and 7.

Here’s what Garza said at this time last year, when a Boston reporter working on an Epstein profile asked what he knew about the new Cubs president: “That I was able to kick the crap out of him every year.”

That Garza and Navarro could have knocked each other out – but didn’t – might be a key if the Cubs somehow make an out-of-nowhere run in 2013.

“It brought stuff to light,” Garza said. “I figured it was a hindrance, just blowing up out there. I’ve limited those to far and few lately, so it’s been awesome for me. I figured if I don’t get out of my way, nobody else will.”