RUNNING SOUTH from San Francisco to San Jose, there is a storied stretch of Highway 101, connecting, among other landmarks, Candlestick Park, where Willie Mays once roamed; Stanford University, home to 19 living Nobel laureates; San Mateo, where Tom Brady grew up; and global headquarters for Apple and Google. At one end sits the Golden Gate Bridge, gateway to the City by the Bay, at the other lies Silicon Valley, cradle of America’s technology revolution. Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava has deep roots here. He knows this territory as intimately as he does Fenway Park’s right-field corner. It’s where he learned to play baseball and where, as an undersized teenager with more heart than raw physicality, he became determined to see how far that ability might take him. Or not.
Before he was a Red Sox, Nava was a Lancer (at St. Francis High School in Mountain View), a Bulldog (College of San Mateo), and a Bronco (Santa Clara University). Two things he never was, though, were a phenom or a prospect. Because the now 30-year-old switch-hitting Nava seemingly emerged from nowhere to become a bona fide Major Leaguer, and because the Red Sox have rebounded in the 2013 season from underachieving malcontents to embraceable pennant-chasers, even casual fans know something about Nava’s improbable journey and how it represents one of baseball’s all-time-best Horatio Alger stories.
Failing to make the first college team he tried out for, Nava accepted the equipment manager’s job and never complained. Undrafted out of college, he hired on with the Chico (California) Outlaws, a now-defunct independent league team that, at least initially, did not want him either. When the Sox paid the Outlaws a paltry $1 for Nava’s contract rights, in 2008, it was akin to finding a Ted Williams rookie card in a 10-cent yard-sale shoe box.
Most fans know, too, that Nava’s flair for the dramatic, the can-you-believe-this moment, is no longer fluky but part of his baseball-playing DNA, a character trait that makes his story even more special — and inspires even more what-if fantasies on the part of fans who wonder how far their own athletic careers might have gone had they persevered the way Nava has, refusing to quit on a lifelong dream.
In 2010, on the first pitch he saw in the majors, Nava blasted a grand slam, a feat matched only once before in hardball history. In April, at Boston’s first home game after the Marathon bombings, Nava looked on as Neil Diamond crooned “Sweet Caroline” and then, moments later, he stroked a game-winning three-run homer. Everyone in the ballpark had goose bumps, Nava included. Recalling that moment weeks afterward, Nava admits it was hard not to choke up as the Fenway faithful paused to remember those who’d been killed or maimed in the bombings, particularly the youngest victims. “A lot of players like myself had an understanding, a slight idea of what that meant,” Nava reflects, sitting in the home dugout before a Fenway game against the San Diego Padres. “You’re never going to stand in another person’s shoes and fully relate. But we tried as best we could.” To win that first game back in Boston, and in such dramatic fashion, “was special,” he adds quietly. “You don’t script that stuff. It just happens. . . . I honestly felt honored and blessed to be a part of it.”
By mid-season, Nava, once projected to be a fourth or fifth outfielder (at best) in the 2013 season, was not only a regular presence in the Sox starting lineup but also a legitimate All-Star candidate, hitting nearly .300 and ranking high among American League outfielders in most offensive categories while playing stellar defense.
From team leader Dustin Pedroia to manager John Farrell to the Sox front office, praise for Nava flowed early and often. (We should note that Red Sox owner John Henry reached an agreement with the New York Times Co. to buy the Globe as we went to press.) “A first-class teammate,” Pedroia says before a July game in Oakland, where Nava’s family members, friends, and former coaches turned out to cheer for him upon his return to the Bay Area. “We trust him. If the game’s on the line and he’s up, it doesn’t matter if he strikes out or gets a hit. We all know that all the hard work he puts in is for that at-bat.” Red Sox roving instructor Chad Epperson likes to kid Nava about his late-blooming success — “Never say Nava,” he’ll say teasingly — and calls it “a great story, obviously, not only for him, but for everybody who may not have things going right for them.” In Farrell’s eyes, Nava’s emergence underscores two truths about the game. One, “you don’t have to be of a certain size or strength or speed to be successful,” says the Sox skipper. “Two, no scout can measure the internal fortitude of a given player, what he’s willing to sacrifice and overcome to be a Major League player.”
What fans may not know is how hard Nava has worked to get where he is and how little he takes success for granted. A man of faith — Nava calls himself a nondenominational Christian — he credits his deeply held religious beliefs with helping him keep baseball’s inevitable ups and downs in perspective. That’s not always easy in Boston, certainly, where baseball is a religion to many diehards. Yet Nava’s mental toughness, never allowing himself to get too high or too low, suits a ballplayer described by those who know him best as humble, unflappable, and working tirelessly to make himself better, on the field and off.
“I’ve found that in the craziness of this sport, of me going up and down, [faith has] been like a rock for me to fall back on,” Nava says during the first of two interviews before the All-Star break. “I personally believe I’m here to do more than play baseball.”
Now grown to a muscular 200 pounds, Nava retains the youthful features of his college years, with a round, open face and ready smile that fans have come to appreciate, too. His goal “was never to make it to the big leagues,” he says. “My goal was just to get a shot to play baseball and see how far it would go. I always believed if I gave it everything I’ve got and it wasn’t meant to be, I’d have no regrets.”
IN 1997, WHEN DAN NAVA arrived at St. Francis High, he stood 4 foot 8 and weighed less than 80 pounds. A onetime Stanford University batboy, he had baseball skills that rated above-average, according to his former coaches. Yet he was considered too small and scrawny to excel in athletics at a school like St. Francis, which regularly sends players to Division 1 programs such as Stanford’s.
“To get to a school in our league and compete, guys have been playing year-round,” says Mike Oakland, head coach at St. Francis and Nava’s former coach at Santa Clara, showing me around the high school’s athletic facilities earlier in the summer. Nava hardly fit that profile, Oakland adds, never having played for a stud travel team, as many of his peers had. But by his junior year, Nava had begun to show signs of a late growth spurt. He made the varsity team, albeit barely, but delivered only one base hit all season, prompting then-head coach Chris Bradford to hand the baseball to Nava’s father, figuring it might be the only hit the kid would get in a Lancer uniform.
By senior year, Nava, now grown to 5 foot 7 and 160 pounds, was the team’s starting center fielder. He mostly batted ninth, though, and was often pinch-hit for. His .270 batting average, while respectable, did not attract much interest from college coaches. “I called Mark O’Brien at Santa Clara and said, ‘Give this guy a look, will you?’ ” Bradford recalls. “ ‘He’s not very strong, but he’s a baseball player.’ ”
O’Brien, who knew Nava from Stanford baseball camps, liked the kid well enough. But when Nava arrived on campus, O’Brien was in a bind. Great baseball IQ, great attitude, O’Brien reminded himself. Just not enough of the other tools that would land him in the Broncos’ lineup. “He couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield, yet he did everything right,” says O’Brien, who asked Nava to become his equipment manager instead. Those duties included setting up the practice field, charting pitches, shooting video, and washing uniforms. In exchange, he was allowed to work out with the team. Nobody had to prod Nava to do that. By sophomore year, Nava, a weight-room fiend, was no longer quite so weak or undersized. One day O’Brien and Oakland watched Nava take batting practice, the ball suddenly exploding off his bat.
Maybe this kid can play, both men thought.
One problem: Nava did not have a scholarship, and his family was struggling financially. Forced to sell their house, Nava, his two siblings, and their parents moved in with relatives. Nava had already decided to leave Santa Clara when a friend suggested he try out for the College of San Mateo team, a nearby community college with a fine baseball pedigree.
Doug Williams, San Mateo’s head coach since 1995, knew he had a potential star in Nava from the moment the young man arrived. Sitting in the dugout of the Bulldogs’ home ballpark, high on a bluff overlooking San Francisco Bay, Williams remembers the young player who showed up about 10 years ago, filled with potential and eager to prove himself. “In the [batting] cage, I immediately noticed how calm his stride was,” Williams says, gripping an imaginary bat and explaining how Nava consistently stays “in a very good athletic position” as he strides forward to make contact with a 95-mile-per-hour baseball. Batting off a tee, that’s not unusual, Williams notes. But when Nava hit off a pitching machine, he showed the same controlled stride, the same relaxed-but-aggressive hitting mechanics. His final test, facing live pitching, convinced Williams that Nava was indeed the real deal. On the mound was teammate Scott Feldman, a hard-throwing right-hander now with the Baltimore Orioles. Smashing fastball after fastball, Nava played pepper with the left center-field wall, 370 feet away.
“I knew immediately this was something special,” says Williams. “Whether he could maintain the mental part was the question, particularly with the letdown he’d had at Santa Clara. But we found he was as mentally strong as he was physically, if not stronger.”
In two seasons at San Mateo, Nava batted .400 and was named a junior college All-American, drawing the attention of several college programs. Having only a year of eligibility left, though, narrowed Nava’s chances for a scholarship. To finish his degree — he majored in psychology — Nava needed to transfer credits as smoothly as possible, and for that Santa Clara was his best option. He received a full scholarship.
As a born-again Bronco ballplayer — no laundry duty this time — Nava made an immediate impact, batting .395 to lead the West Coast Conference. Mark O’Brien called several big-league teams on his behalf. Not one took a chance on him. “To this day, I needle them about my boy Nava,” O’Brien says, laughing. “Did I believe he’d play in the majors and do this? No. Am I surprised? No, because I know his mentality.”
Enter the Chico Outlaws. They, too, passed on Nava at first. He returned to San Mateo to stay in baseball shape and to help Williams coach as an unpaid assistant. “I basically thought I was done,” recalls Nava. “If you don’t get drafted or make an independent ball team, there’s not much left.”
A year later, though, the Outlaws faced a roster vacancy and called Nava back. Given a second chance, Nava did what he’s so often done: made the most of it. In leading his team to the league championship, he batted .371 with 12 home runs. His timing could not have been better, either. Jared Porter, then Red Sox coordinator of professional scouting, had been instructed by general manager Theo Epstein to scour the independent leagues more thoroughly. Not many, notes Porter, produce future Major Leaguers such as former Sox first baseman Kevin Millar or current pitcher Craig Breslow, both of whom came up this way.
Moreover, scouting these far-flung leagues is “hard to do,” admits Porter, who, like many in the Sox organization, is thrilled, if not entirely surprised, by Nava’s development. “These leagues are all over the place, and typically they don’t have a lot of prospects.” Nava, he says, is unique in many ways. “It’s hard to remember an indy-league position player making an impact like he has.”
The deeper Porter dug into Nava’s performance record, the more interested he got. A Baseball America contact of his alerted Porter that Nava was about to be named one of the publication’s top indy-league prospects. Without ever seeing him play, Porter persuaded the Sox to buy Nava’s contract for the minimum amount: $1. By agreement, the Outlaws would receive $1,499 should Nava claim a roster spot with one of Boston’s minor-league teams. He was assigned to the Lancaster JetHawks, a Single A affiliate in the California League, winning another batting title. Ahead lay the road to Portland, Maine, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and a shot at silencing the doubters for good.
AS HE ROSE THROUGH the Sox farm system, Nava kept hitting. And hitting. In 2009, splitting time between Salem, Virginia, and Portland, he batted a gaudy .352. In 2010, he led Pawtucket with a .294 average before joining the big club in June.
First at-bat, bases loaded. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Joe Blanton threw Nava a fastball. Boom. It landed in the Sox bullpen. “You have got to be kidding!” exclaimed Fox Sports analyst Tim McCarver, who was working the national broadcast. Red Sox Nation thought much the same.
Nava played 59 more games with Boston that season, batting .242. In 2011, however, the storybook script went back in the drawer. The Sox put Nava on waivers that May, meaning any team could pick him up for virtually nothing. When no team bit, he was sent back to Pawtucket, where he batted a .268 with 10 home runs. Decent numbers, but not good enough to ensure his future as a Boston Red Sox.
In 2012, Nava was not even invited to Major League camp. Typically for him, he showed up early for spring training anyway. Never say Nava, indeed.
His persistence paid off. Again. Promoted from Pawtucket that May, he hit .243 in 88 games with six home runs and 33 runs batted in, a performance that won him the franchise’s Lou Gorman Award. Named for the late general manager, the honor is given annually to the Sox minor leaguer who has “demonstrated dedication and perseverance in overcoming obstacles” on his way to the majors, a description that clearly fit Nava.
The 2012 disaster of a season under rookie manager Bobby Valentine left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, though, calling into question what kind of team Boston would field in 2013. Nava has proved to be a key part of that turnaround, another testament to his work ethic and mental resilience. “Even when he got sent down and put on waivers, taken off the roster, not invited to spring training — all he does is keep going out and kind of proving guys wrong,” says first base coach Arnie Beyeler, who managed Nava in Portland and Pawtucket.
Third base coach Brian Butterfield came to Boston in the 2013 season from Toronto, where, he says, the advance scouting reports on Nava went from below-average outfielder to solid defender, reflecting the hard work Nava has put in to improve. With some players, “you have to use a little psychology in your approach,” says Butterfield. “Find out what pushes their buttons. With Daniel, you just tell him. ‘Look, today you were good. Or not good.’ He’s very receptive to coaching, hard or soft.”
Nava’s success has not gone unnoticed by other Major League hopefuls, either. During a spring training game, Nava was playing first base when Minnesota Twins infielder Chris Colabello reached on a hit. Like Nava, Colabello had gone undrafted out of college; he spent years with the Worcester Tornadoes, a now-defunct independent-league team. Turning to Nava, Colabello said, “You’re my inspiration.”
THE 2012-13 OFFSEASON was an eventful one for Nava. In November, he married Rachel Parker, whom he’d been dating since 2010. Born in Hawaii, Parker hails from Roseville, California, northeast of Sacramento. And on August 5, Parker gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Faith. They plan to make their offseason home in the Phoenix area. Nava trained there over the winter with teammates Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonny Gomes.
He and Rachel are “almost like little kids” when they have time to spend together, a smiling Nava confesses. “We want to go to the driving range, do little kid things. Go out on a boat, get out of the house, see a movie maybe. Just have fun.” He adds, grinning, “That’s obviously going to change when we have a little daughter.”
Heading into the 2013 season, Nava acquired his first agent, too, former big-league pitcher Joe Sambito. Signed through the season for $505,500, slightly above the Major League minimum, Nava will be eligible for arbitration in 2015, when he stands to earn a substantial pay raise should he keep performing as he has in 2013. Nava says he’s unconcerned about contract details at this point in his career. He just wants to play. “There’s a lot more to focus on right now than all the other stuff down the road,” he says.
Asked whether he might take up coaching after his playing days are over, Nava pauses for a moment. “I probably would like to,” he says, turning to watch his teammates sprint out for pregame practice. “The journey I’ve taken is so unique, I think I have a lot to offer. . . . With that said, I’m still learning off guys who’ve been in this league 10 to 12 years.” Helping younger players “is a passion of mine,” he continues. “I’ll obviously never have all the answers. But I think I do have something that can help them with motivation and inspiration.”
To fans who’ve been following his story so far, that would be an understatement.
Joseph P. Kahn is a Globe reporter. E-mail him at email@example.com.