Daniel Nava's Surreal Road to Red Sox
Like when he got stuck in South Central Los Angeles with a few bags full of wet baseball uniforms after the Laundromat where he was washing them closed for the night.
"I had to go back to my room at the hotel and turn on the heat and throw them on there to dry," Nava said. "I had to go sleep on the other side of the room, otherwise I'd really be sweating."
While just about every other major leaguer was honing his baseball skills when he was 18 or 19 years old, Nava was working on his laundry skills. Deemed too small to play even at Santa Clara, a Division I program that wasn't exactly stocked with talent, Nava instead accepted a job as the team's manager. He did laundry. Fetched water. Worked the grounds crew. He was one notch above a bat boy.
It seems like a distant memory now for Nava, who eventually outgrew -- literally -- his manager job and returned to the field, fighting against the odds to play at a junior college, then at Santa Clara, then for the independent Chico (Calif.) Outlaws. The Red Sox purchased his contract for $1 in 2008.
Two years later, he was in the majors, hitting a grand slam on the first pitch he saw, bringing tears to the eyes of those who had watched him early in his career.
"I was pretty emotional," Santa Clara coach Mark O'Brien told FanHouse as he stood on the field at AT&T Park before the Red Sox played the Giants on Friday. "It was surreal. I don't know if there are any other adjectives to describe it. I'm very proud. It couldn't happen to a better person. He's one of the best character people I've ever known in my life."
Joining O'Brien on the field was Chris Bradford, the retired coach at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., near San Jose. Bradford got the first look at Nava when he was a 4-foot-8, 70-pound freshman.
Seriously, 70 pounds.
Nava grew to 5-5, 150 by his senior year, but he was still so small that his playing time was limited. Bradford said during Nava's junior year, he put him in center field, but didn't let him hit. They used their DH to replace him.
After Nava graduated, he asked O'Brien if he could walk-on at Santa Clara. O'Brien, who had been an assistant at Stanford when Nava was the bat boy for the Cardinal, told him he was welcome to try out, but he didn't like his chances. O'Brien cut Nava, and asked him if he wanted to be the manager, just to stick around the program.
Nava did, figuring on his career being over.
"I thought I was done," Nava said. "When I got cut, Santa Clara was in a rebuilding process. They weren't really Division I talent. They were in the midst of a change. I thought if I can't make a team that was in the midst of a change, I'm probably done."
So Nava shagged fly balls with all the enthusiasm he could muster ("I called him the human windshield wiper," O'Brien said) and he did the laundry. He finally grew enough before his sophomore year that O'Brien considered putting him on the team, but Nava's family could no longer afford Santa Clara, a pricey private school. He instead enrolled at nearby College of San Mateo, where he finally got a chance to wear a uniform instead of washing them.
"If we could afford Santa Clara, I probably would never have gone back to junior college and played," Nava said, "but that's how it worked out."
Nava hit well enough at San Mateo to earn a scholarship to return to Santa Clara. There he led the West Coast Conference in hitting his senior year. Nava still didn't get drafted, and he even got cut by Chico, of the independent Golden Baseball League, so he spent a year working out at Santa Clara and working on finishing his psychology degree. (He's still four classes short.)
The next year, Nava got another chance with Chico, and he stuck. He hit .371 with Chico, earning Baseball America honors as the top prospect in independent leagues. That's when the Red Sox purchased his contract for a buck. It's a standard procedure when teams purchase contracts of independent players. The cost is $1, with another $1499 to follow if the player makes a minor league roster.
Nava made it. He hit .341 at Class-A Lancaster in the California League. The numbers were still dubious, because Lancaster is the best hitter's park in all of minor league baseball, and because he was 25, one of the oldest players in the league. Nava started 2009 at Class A and finished at Double-A, hitting a combined .352.
Still nowhere to be found on the list of Red Sox top prospects, Nava opened up 2010 at Triple-A Pawtucket, and continued to hit. He was batting .294 when the Red Sox brought him up to help with their injury-ravaged outfield.
Manager Terry Francona said Nava wasn't just a cute story though.
"I know the path he's taken, but for the last month the guys in Triple-A have all been saying this guy can help us," Francona said. "He's certainly given us a boost. That's for sure. When you call a kid up, you hope he can hold his own and make the plays. He's given us a big boost."
The epic first-pitch grand slam was just the start. Nava is still hitting .326, starting every day in left field.
He's become a bit of a media darling, so much that he's had to learn to say no to some interviews or else they'd swallow up all his pregame preparation time. When Nava and the Red Sox came to San Francisco this weekend, facing the team he rooted for when he grew up 40 minutes away, Nava did wave after wave of interviews. He assigned his brother the job of managing the overwhelming ticket requests.
Certainly a lot of the folks who were asking for those tickets were the same people who not long ago told Nava, 27, he was too small to play baseball.
"If they told me that, they were probably right," Nava said. "I don't care too much to shove it in their face because this has happened. I use it as motivation to keep going, not to get retribution."
Nava, now 5-10, 200 pounds, hopes he can also provide some motivation for some other undersized kid out there.
"Hang in there for as long as you can," Nava said. "I was basically shut down. I thought I was done and another opportunity presented itself. Exhaust all options until you realize the doors are shut. If a door opens again, go for it. That's what I did. I got another shot and I fortunate enough to have things line up, and I thank God for it."