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Two Rays returning to New York as All-Stars

CLEVELAND — For rookie Evan Longoria, the All-Star Game is going to be another blur of new experiences. But for the other two Rays who headed Sunday night to New York, it's more a homecoming, and quite a happy return.

For pitcher Scott Kazmir, who was a touted Mets first-round pick and top prospect before being acquired — okay, stolen — in a July 2004 trade for Victor Zambrano.

And for catcher Dioner Navarro, who fulfilled his childhood dream of signing with and playing for the Yankees but three trades later has found success, and stability, with the Rays.

"It's kinda cool we're sending them both back there for the All-Star Game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Kazmir was supposed to pitch in All-Star Games in New York. And playoff games. And World Series games.

For the Mets.

But they needed a veteran starter for the 2004 stretch drive, and former Rays general manager Chuck LaMar made them pay by acquiring the then 20-year-old Double-A prospect.

They're still paying, from the sound of steady sports radio blabber and volume of newspaper articles every time Kazmir visits, blasting the Mets' decision and taking the what-if game to extremes, with more to come this week. (There are also a pair of YouTube videos lamenting the trade.)

"It's amazing it's still going on," Kazmir said. "How long has it been now? Four years? And they talk about it like it just happened yesterday. … It's just pretty crazy."

As stunned as Kazmir was at the time, he says the trade was the best thing that could have happened. He was in the majors three weeks later, and by 2006, when he might have just been getting to the big leagues with the Mets, he made his first All-Star appearance for the Rays, in Pittsburgh.

This one, he figures, will be a little bigger deal, and not just because he'll be a little more comfortable and outgoing around his peers.

"It's going to be a little different," he said, "just being in New York, and being in the last All-Star Game in that historic park will be even more exciting."

It's going to be exciting for Navarro, also.

Growing up in Venezuela, he was 16 when he signed in August 2000 with the Yankees for $260,000 and felt he had struck it rich.

His older brother, Dewis, and others warned him to look elsewhere, that it would be so much harder to make it because the Yankees organization was stacked with good players. Dioner didn't care and became more determined, and became the Yankees' top prospect going into the 2004 season.

"That was my dream, to be able to play in Yankee Stadium for the New York Yankees," he said. "And my dream came true."

Sept. 7, 2004, against the Rays ironically, catching the ninth inning of an 11-2 Yankees win. And that turned out to be the only time he would play for the home team in the Bronx. (Well, technically, until Tuesday.)

Navarro, 20 at the time, got into a couple of road games, got a better sense of how limited his opportunity would be with Jorge Posada under a long-term deal, and got traded during the offseason. Twice, actually, on the same day (Jan. 11, 2005), from the Yankees (in a package for Randy Johnson) to the D'backs, then (in a package for Shawn Green) to the Dodgers.

"I was kinda sad that I was leaving the organization," Navarro said. "I was happy I was going to go somewhere else and play."

He did for a while with the Dodgers but got hurt then replaced by rising star, and fellow 2008 All-Star, Russell Martin, then got traded in June 2006 to the Rays.

Returning to Yankee Stadium not only completes his career circle, it also marks a complete turnaround.

At last year's All-Star break, he was, statistically, one of the worst players in the American League, with a .177 average, one homer and 13 RBIs.

All he has done since is hit .300 with 12 homers and 66 RBIs, rank among the leaders in throwing out runners and wow Maddon with his improved game-calling and pitch blocking skills.

And become an AL All-Star, at Yankee Stadium of all places.

"It's going to be," he said, "really special."

>>fast facts

All-Star Game

Tuesday, 8 p.m., Ch. 13

Two Rays returning to New York as All-Stars 07/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2008 7:38pm]
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