Nava's journey to Majors hard to believe

Red Sox outfielder went from equipment manager to hero

Daniel Nava left Pawtucket for Boston in early June. (Ken Babbitt/Four Seam Images)

By Danny Wild / | October 28, 2010 6:00 AM

Daniel Nava's historic Major League debut was just about as unlikely as the almost storybook-like road he took to get there.

Nava walked into Fenway Park on June 12, 2010, after working his way through the Minors. Injury-depleted Boston was desperate for outfield help and called up the 27-year-old for a start against the Phillies.

Who was Daniel Nava? An undrafted kid, a former college clubhouse manager, cut from an independent league team. He had to fight his way just to get bus rides with an affiliated club, eventually joining Boston after the Sox paid $1 for him.

"One dollar. One dollar," Nava said. "I'm grateful the Red Sox gave me a shot -- no one else did."

Nava's a quirky player who would leave tickets for ESPN reporter Erin Andrews at almost every game he played in the Minors. He weighed only 70 pounds in high school. People were telling him he was too small to play -- in Little League.

"The road I've taken hasn't been a road with a lot of flashing lights and whatnot," Nava said after his Red Sox debut.

Nava's journey is out of a Disney movie. A psychology major at Santa Clara University, Nava went to an open tryout for the college baseball team but didn't make the cut, instead taking a job as an equipment manager. There he was, washing uniforms at late-night laundromats.

"During that whole time, I'm thinking to myself, 'Why am I doing this?' We were in Hawai'i one time, and I'm sitting there washing uniforms at 3 or 4 a.m. I'm like, I should be enjoying Hawai'i."

And yet, somehow, on June 12, Nava delivered the most unlikely of hits: a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw in the Majors.

"He said to me when he was getting ready to get in the hole, on deck there, he said, 'Where do you think my folks are sitting?'" Red Sox manager Terry Francona recalled of Nava's at-bat. "I said, 'I don't care -- go up and get a hit.'"

Facing the Phillies' Joe Blanton, Nava became the fourth player to hit a grand slam in his first Major League at-bat, the first since Kevin Kouzmanoff did it for the Indians on Sept. 2, 2006. Incidentally, his new teammate, Jeremy Hermida, had also accomplished the feat.

"As I was rounding the bases, I think that's when I kind of said, 'Oh man, I just hit a grand slam,'" Nava said. "That's probably why I was sprinting the whole time because I was so obviously pumped for that moment and that opportunity. It's pretty ridiculous."

Washing uniforms

Nava's parents, Don and Becky, were both at Fenway on that magical afternoon. They have had a front-row seat for their son's unusual ride.

"He wasn't a prospect," Don Nava told "He's never been a prospect. He washed uniforms for two years at Santa Clara."

Nava was born in California in 1983 and played baseball from Little League to high school at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif. He was only 4-foot-8 and about 70 pounds when he began high school, although he continued to grow a bit through his senior year.

His small size didn't help -- he failed to make the team at a rebuilding Santa Clara and, instead, became the team's equipment manager.

Nava admitted he was ready to give up on baseball. He spoke to his coach about graduating and finding a job somewhere in sports.

"I wasn't thinking about anything in terms of a baseball career," he said. "I thought I was done. When I got cut, I thought, 'I'm done.' When you get cut -- and Santa Clara had a struggling program, a new coach -- they were trying to turn things around. I thought, if i cant be a part of a rebuilding problem, I gotta be realistic. I'm done."

Two years later, without money to afford tuition, he was forced to transfer to the College of San Mateo, a junior college, that gave him a shot on the field after a friend at the gym talked him into coming back. He hit well, earning JuCo All-American honors, and Santa Clara then offered him a scholarship and spot on the team a year later. Nava rejoined the school and led the West Coast Conference with a .395 average as a senior.

Minor League career breakdown
2006:Nava didn't make the team at Santa Clara and instead began washing uniforms and studying video of pitchers, something he credited with helping him as a hitter. He transfered to a junior college, proved himself a quality hitter and returned to lead Santa Clara in his senior year.

2007: A 24-year-old former equipment manager, Nava tried out for the independent Chico Outlaws, a team not affiliated with Major League Baseball. He was cut but later returned and earned Player of the Year honors from the league, leading to his contract being sold to Boston.

2008: Boston's $1 investment already seemed to have paid for itself when Nava joined Class A Advanced Lancaster and batted .341 with 56 RBIs in 86 games for the JetHawks alongside another future Red Sox outfielder, Josh Reddick.

2009: Boston moved the outfielder up to Class A Advanced Salem (he hit .339 in 29 games) to begin the year, but he finished up at Double-A Portland (.364 in 32 games).

2010: Nava joined Triple-A Pawtucket out of Spring Training with hopes of eventually making it up to Boston. He would see several stints of time with the PawSox in-between callups to Fenway as the year progressed, ultimately batting .289 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs in 77 games.

2010: Nava finally made it on June 12, 2010, when he started an interleague game at Fenway Park against the Phillies. He appeared in 60 games for Boston, thanks in part to an array of injuries to the Sox's outfield.

Nava's college biography ended with a simple line: "Future goals include playing professional baseball."

But, like many college athletes, it appeared to perhaps be the end -- again. He went undrafted.

"I had a team that was talking essentially to me and said, 'If you're still around on the second day, you'll get drafted.' But it just didn't happen, for a couple reasons. I felt like I did everything I could do to at least deserve a shot. I didn't care what round I got drafted in, I just wanted to play. Another team said, 'You're too old.'"

Nava moved on and hooked up with an independent league club, the Chico Outlaws, of the Golden League, who gave him a tryout before cutting him.

Nava worked out, fought back and, through the help of a friend and former college teammate, was invited to the club the following year.

"If they would have called me an hour later, it wouldn't have happened," Nava said. "That day, I was planning on heading to the beach with my friends and wouldn't have heard the phone. But I packed up my stuff on the spot and headed up to Chico the same day."

Nava went on to hit .371 with 12 homers and was named Golden League Player of the Year for the unaffiliated team. In one of the most important breaks of his career, he was ranked No. 1 among indy players in Baseball America's annual report.

No one from Boston had apparently seen the Redwood City, Calif., native play, but his status in the baseball magazine was, remarkably, enough -- Boston saw his top ranking and decided to give him a contract. And it gets even odder: the Red Sox purchased the rights to Nava from the Outlaws for $1 on Jan. 17, 2008 (they later paid an additional $1,499 after deciding to hang on to him).

Red Sox Nation, out west

It took a bit longer than two years for Nava to make the journey from indy ball to the back pages of Boston newspapers.

"He was not going to be denied," said Nava's father. "He doesn't have a girlfriend. He's focused on one thing, and that's playing baseball and playing to the best of his ability. I've never doubted him, ever."

That's not to say he didn't have his eye on someone. Now a Red Sox farmhand, Nava took up an interest in Erin Andrews, a Maine native who grew up a Boston fan and, more notably, became well known as a sideline reporter for ESPN.

Nava left tickets for Andrews at almost every game he played in the Minors (a similar plan actually worked for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with Jessica Simpson).

"I just did it to keep the locker room light," Nava laughed. "She loves sports; I love sports. I'm not opposed to meeting her."

Andrews never showed, but Nava kept working. A bench player at first, he earned enough respect to get a starting job and, making $1,100 a month, he hit .341 with 10 homers and 59 RBIs with Lancaster in the California League, a team stacked with sluggers playing in a notoriously hitter-friendly ballpark. Nava homered twice on June 8, 2008, when the JetHawks hit seven homers in a win over High Desert.

"It was fun, I got to play in front of my family and friends," he said. "And to be associated with an MLB team was exciting."

And it was not just any team. Nava quickly learned the meaning of Red Sox Nation.

"I guess most guys [with Boston] start at lower levels, and they can see the real Red Sox Nation in effect," he said, referencing teams like Class A Lowell and Greenville. "I didn't get that whole idea of how big Red Sox Nation was. There are fans in California, but it's not like the East coast. But I was going great -- I was happy to be playing for a team."

The Red Sox had him split the 2009 season between Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland. He continued to show off his average, finishing a combined .352 with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 61 games after an oblique muscle strain caused him to miss 80 games. ("I don't know how it happened," he said of the injury. "If I did, I'd never do it ever again.") He hit .364 after his promotion to the Eastern League.

On the radar

Nava kept up the pace this past spring when Boston assigned him to Triple-A Pawtucket. PawSox manager Torey Lovullo remembers meeting a driven, talented outfielder at Spring Training.

"I first saw him in Spring Training, and he had a reputation of being a very offensive, complete and professional hitter," said Lovullo. "He broke camp with Pawtucket, he had a lot of at-bats and he really just took off with the opportunity."

Nava admitted he was surprised they Sox sent him to Triple-A. "I didn't know where I stood until a players meeting, and I got an indication from personnel that I was 'on the radar,'" he said. "But I didn't know what that meant."

Nava's first big game at Triple-A came on April 20, when he homered twice and drove in four runs. He batted .319 in 21 games that month.

"It was easy for him," Lovullo said. "I remember our hitting coach told me, 'This kid can hit, he's going to hit in the big leagues.' But until that time, I didn't know much about him. But we had a good hitting coach, and at that point, I started to focus on him I could see that he was right -- he was going to be spectacular at Triple-A and deserve an opportunity to advance."

"I had never met Torey -- he probably knew more about me than I knew about him," Nava said of the former Major Leaguer. "He helped me a lot. Up until that time, I had kinda been under the radar, or really, no where close to the radar. So for them to say, 'You're on the radar with us, there's a possibility you could actually be in the show.'"

No pressure

That opportunity came little more than two months after Opening Day, when injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Hermida forced Boston to dig into its farm system for a bat. Josh Reddick, one of Nava's teammates in the seven-homer game, was sent down to Pawtucket for more playing time, and Nava was on his way up.

Lovullo had pushed Nava all season and gave him the message he'd been waiting years to hear.

"I was the lucky one who got to tell him," Lovullo said. "It was a pretty neat feeling. That's the best part of my job -- to share that with a young player."

"Torey would tell me, 'Don't be content with how things are going -- keep pushing yourself,'" Nava said. "'Let's work to be a more overall, complete player.' He opened up my eyes to a lot of areas that before, I'd never thought about."

"So much had gone into it," Lovullo said, "everyone was really excited."

Not nearly as excited as they'd soon be.

Nava recalled the surreal day after Lovullo broke the news. It was rainy, he said, and he found out he'd been activated and was penciled into the lineup when he landed in Boston. The rain washed away batting practice, so he was set to report straight to the clubhouse.

"I was excited," he said. "I worked out, it happened quick, and then I just had to go out and just do it."

Despite the magnitude of the situation, Nava said he felt almost no pressure.

"It was a lot of different emotions at the same time, and I had a good opportunity," he said. "Any time you step up with no outs and the bases loaded, it takes the pressure off. I'm sure that helped the situation, so I'm fortunate that was the situation."

Nava said he was simply hoping to avoid hitting a double-play grounder.

"I was not thinking grand slam by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "Just keep it simple."

A quick swing sent a towering shot to right field that landed in the Boston bullpen. Fans were stunned. Francona's jaw dropped. Kevin Youkilis and the Boston dugout mobbed Nava on the top step, eventually pushing him out for a curtain call.

Nava's grand slam quickly became the buzz of Boston. Andrews said she was planning on going to Fenway to see the game but never made it to the park.

"Pass along my best to Daniel," Andrews Tweeted. "Congrats on a big day that will go down in Sox history! Hope to meet him soon!"

The stunning slam brought Nava instant attention and fame, especially in Boston.

"It was a whirlwind -- I don't think I even understood what had happened," Nava said. "After the game was over, I was being told by reporters about the stat, and I said, 'Wow, I had no clue.' But after the season, I can sit back and understand it."

"I literally was choked up and had tears when he hit the thing," Nava's former coach at Santa Clara, Mark O'Brien, said after the game. "I'm not afraid to admit that -- that's what coaching is all about. I have seen it 20-plus times already."

Lovullo and his Pawtucket team had just gotten home from a road trip and, after spilling off the team bus, went straight to the clubhouse and flipped on the Red Sox game.

"We were all there, and normally we wouldn't be," said Lovullo, who noted that most players typically go home and sleep or relax before games, but on this day, everyone huddled around the TV. "The entire team was around the TV, and that never happens. And somebody says, "We need this guy to get on and Nava can come up and hit a grand slam in his first at-bat.' And we were all like, 'Yeah, shut up -- it'll never happen.' And then he hits the first pitch and it goes over the fence.

"I walked away shaking my head, I said to myself, 'Oh my god, I can't believe what I've just seen,'" Lovullo said. "I walked into my office and called the farm director, Mike Hazen, and he was doing the same thing where he was. I could hear the loud celebration on his end. It was such a huge impact on the system, and there was so much excitement created by that one moment."

Former Phillies pitcher Bill Duggleby, in 1898, Hermida, with Florida in 2005, and Kouzmanoff are the only other players to hit a grand slam in their first Major League at-bat.

Nava returned to Pawtucket on June 20 but went back up to Boston shortly after. He had another stint at Triple-A from July 22-Aug. 16.

"It was a little different going back after playing in front of 37,000 people, to go back to Pawtucket," he said. "But I knew, there's still things I had to learn and work on. I tried to focus on some of those things, to polish up mentally and try not to allow myself to fall into a lapse or lose sight of what's in front of me. But it was cool to be back."

Not many Major Leaguers would find it "cool" to head back to Triple-A, but that's Nava -- he just wants to play.

"He was very humble and proud," Lovullo said. "We outlined what it would take for him to get back, and he continued to improve at the Triple-A level, and he went back and had some good moments again. The one thing that never changed was his attitude and approach and passion for playing. He came from such an interesting place. He would never have taken for granted where he put on the uniform. He would put forward his best effort."

Nava echoed Lovullo's thoughts.

"[Pawtucket] was a good experience -- all I ever said was I just want a shot," he said. "I've been cut four times. I really felt like I deserved a shot -- I wanted to make a team. If I failed, I'd know what happened. That was something cool for me, I got up there, I made it. I know what I can do."

"I don't think anyone thought coming out of high school that Daniel could play Division I baseball, let alone make it to the big leagues," O'Brien said. "Then, after his growth spurt and his journey started, I am not surprised, because he is the most disciplined and best work-ethic guy I have ever coached. He's an amazing kid."

Nava said he made some lasting friendships and memories in his road through the Minors. He credited his faith in God and his family's support in helping him through the process.

"It's been a fun journey, and at times, it's not the journey that I think most guys would want to have, but it's worked out," he said. "Having your family supporting you, even when I took a year off, to have them support me -- to have that, I'm grateful. My faith in God has kept me going, I believed I could keep playing."

Danny Wild is an editor for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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