Nava fueled by unlikely rise to Major Leagues

March 2nd, 2016

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Daniel Nava weighed 70 pounds when he started high school. His coach gave his father the baseball from his first varsity-level hit because he wasn't sure Nava would ever get another one. He didn't just go undrafted. He spent his first two collegiate years as an equipment manager, got passed up by two -- yes, two -- independent-ball teams and was given one stinkin' dollar to join his first professional organization.

So, yeah, Daniel Nava is coming off a down year in the Major Leagues. Big deal.

"I don't want to have a down year -- but I'm used to the odds being stacked against me," Nava said from the Angels' Spring Training complex on Tuesday. "I'm used to people saying I can't do it. I had all these people -- scouts, coaches, everyone -- tell me I couldn't do it, for years. It's OK. I'm used to that."

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Nava hit a grand slam on the first Major League pitch he ever saw, as a 27-year-old rookie in 2010. He put together an unforgettable 2013 season, nearly making the All-Star team in July, winning a World Series championship in October and hitting the game-winning home run on April 20 -- the first Fenway Park game following the Boston Marathon bombings.

In a 335-game stretch with the Red Sox from 2012-14, Nava batted a respectable .278/.364/.403. And after an injury-plagued 2015 season, the 33-year-old switch-hitter signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Angels, who hope to deploy him as their left fielder.

Nava will essentially replace Josh Hamilton, which is interesting.

Hamilton is the guy who had it all and nearly threw it away. Nava is the guy who had nothing and somehow made it.

"His story should be a movie," said Doug Williams, Nava's coach at College of San Mateo. "But maybe if you made it a movie, nobody would believe it was true."

Nava barely made the freshman team at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif. He hardly played on varsity as a junior and batted an unspectacular .270 as a senior. Nava was 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds by the time he graduated, barely able to hit the ball into the outfield with a 32-inch bat.

"Once everyone started growing, I stopped," Nava said. "And the separation, I could not catch up."

He attended Santa Clara University hopeful of making the baseball team as a walk-on, but he couldn't. So for the next two years, Nava did the dirty work. He washed uniforms, prepped the field and charted pitches. His free time was spent playing basketball and working out. A career in baseball was the furthest thing from his mind -- until he started growing.

"I had a really late growth spurt," Nava said.

Between his freshman and sophomore year of college, Nava grew about four inches and quickly began to fill out. He started hitting again, but this time it felt a little different.

"I could put a ball in the outfield," Nava said, "and I couldn't do that before."

Nava was always a skilled hitter. He was quick to the ball, with low-maintenance mechanics and elite strike-zone awareness. Once he started to get into his 20s and began to generate some pop, those traits finally became noticeable.

He transferred to San Mateo after two years -- largely because his parents could no longer afford the Santa Clara tuition -- and suddenly looked like an elite hitter.

"As soon as I saw him hitting in the batting cage off a tee, I was impressed by his balance and stride, and his approach," Williams said. "Through cage work, front toss, off the pitching machine, it continued. When he went out to the field, that's when I really knew that he was something special, because it did not matter who was pitching."

Nava batted .400 and was a two-time Junior College All-American in his two years at San Mateo, earning a scholarship to return to Santa Clara for his final year of eligibility. He batted .395 and made first-team All-West Coast Conference, but the MLB Draft went by and his name wasn't called.

He got cut by the Chico Outlaws and the Long Beach Armada, two independent-ball teams that no longer even exist, so he spent an entire year playing co-ed softball at a local church league.

He also kept trying.

"I got committed to just getting a shot someplace," Nava said. "That's all I wanted. If I failed, I was OK with that. I just wanted to see what could happen."

Mark Parent, the former White Sox bench coach who will manage the Angels' Double-A affiliate this season, coached the Chico Outlaws at the time. His team finally had an open spot in 2007. So Parent invited Nava, then watched him bat .371 with a 1.100 OPS in 72 games, good enough to be named the top independent league prospect in the nation by Baseball America.

"Good things happen to good people, and Daniel Nava is a really good guy," Parent said. "He deserved everything that came to him."

Jared Porter came to him.

Porter was the Red Sox's director of pro scouting at the time and was scouring independent ball looking for cheap talent to fill out the Minor League system, so he signed Nava for the purchase price of $1.

Nava spent the 2008 season with Class A Advanced Lancaster, as the fourth outfielder on a team with three legitimate outfield prospects, and he had a rough first month.

"I thought they'd send me home," Nava said.

But he stayed, and finished the year batting .341/.424/.523. He did even better in 2009, batting .352/.458/.553 for Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland. The following summer, the Red Sox finally called Nava up to the Major Leagues.

It happened on June 12, for a nationally-televised Saturday game against the Phillies at Fenway Park. Then-manager Terry Francona called Nava into his office, showed him the lineup, told him he would bat ninth, pointed out all the guys who were expected to produce -- Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Beltre -- and told Nava to just have fun.

Nava came up in the bottom of the second, with the bases loaded and none out, and drove a first-pitch fastball from Joe Blanton into the right-field bullpen.

Porter watched it from a hotel room in Rancho Cucamonga.

"I was going nuts," Porter said. "I was just really, really happy for him. He really is a good person, and he worked so hard."

Several producers have already called Nava about making a movie adapted to his journey, but he doesn't want to think about that until he finishes playing, whenever that is. One thing he has thought about a little more frequently is that grand slam.

"As a reminder, because I had a rough season last year, that it's not over yet," Nava said. "It's just a good reminder that it's not over when people say it's over. And even if it were to end today, I have a lot to be grateful for."