Don Nava, leaning on the back wall of the Red Sox media room, couldn’t stop smiling as he waited for his son. When the door finally swung open, Daniel Nava, who had just finished making his major league debut, saw his father immediately, their eyes staying connected as he walked to the podium.
His smile was big and wide, too, for he had just completed one of the most memorable premieres in Red Sox history.
Nava, who was called up yesterday from Triple A Pawtucket to replace Josh Reddick, started in left field and batted ninth in Boston’s 10-2 victory over the Phillies yesterday afternoon.
There was plenty of drama awaiting him as the 5-foot-10-inch Nava made his way to the plate in the second inning for his first at-bat. The bases were loaded with no outs. Instead of taking in the moment, Nava didn’t waste time.
On the first pitch he saw from Joe Blanton, Nava sent a fastball into the right-field seats for a grand slam to give the Red Sox a 5-2 lead.
Nava is just the second player to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat with the Red Sox and the second in major league history to hit a slam on his first pitch, joining Kevin Kouzmanoff, who did it for the Indians in 2006.
“It was a gorgeous swing,” said manager Terry Francona. “It energized us.”
And, of course, Nava didn’t admire his home run for a single stride. He was too busy sprinting around the bases with his head down. He thought the hit was just going in to be a double in the gap.
“I was looking for something to drive,” said Nava, who also doubled to lead off the fifth, finishing 2 for 4 with four RBIs. “As I was rounding the bases, I think that’s when I said, `Oh, man, I just hit a grand slam.’”
The elder Nava, who had seen his son play for the first time in two years when Pawtucket played Friday in Indianapolis, was standing in a section behind home plate videotaping the at-bat. He said when he saw the baseball soaring quickly on a line through the gray, rainy sky, he knew it was a homer. He doubts he captured most of it because he was too busy celebrating with his arms up.
“My eyes need Band-Aids because I’ve been crying so much,” he said. “You think of all the people who said he was too small, too slow, couldn’t throw, couldn’t hit with power. I never doubted him because I looked at his heart, not his size.”
What made Daniel Nava’s arrival special was the path he took, which over the last five years was markedly different than most prospects.
Nava was a walk-on at the University of Santa Clara, and was soon cut. To stay with the team, Nava became the equipment manager, which meant doing the team’s laundry at 3 a.m. (Don Nava remembers calling his son and being told how Daniel was going to the laundromat.)
Nava thought about becoming a coach or a scout, but instead transferred to College of San Mateo, a junior college, for two years. He returned to Santa Clara for his senior year, but was not selected in the 2006 draft.
He landed with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League. There he produced to the point where Baseball America named him the top prospect in independent baseball, which led the Sox to sign him in 2008 for $1.
“I told him, `You’ll never have another day like this in your life,”’ Francona said. “I told him to enjoy it, play the best you can, and try to help us win, and he did all of those things.”
When Nava was on deck before his first at-bat, he asked Francona if he knew where his parents were in the stands. Francona, focused on the game, barked at Nava, saying he didn’t care where they were sitting. He just wanted Nava to get a hit.
Nava said he knew most of the fans at Fenway Park probably didn’t know who he was. That was OK with him, because Nava had received a tip from radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione during an interview for the pregame show. Castiglione sat Nava down in the clubhouse and shared a story he learned from Chuck Tanner of the Milwaukee Braves, who hit a home run in his first career at-bat on April 12, 1955.
His message: “Swing at the first pitch,” Castiglione said, “because you’ll never get it back.”
“I’ll do what I can,” said Nava.
Castiglione, obviously, had no idea Nava would hit a grand slam.
Once Nava reached the dugout, he wasn’t acknowledged right away by his teammates. Then, they bombarded him with congratulations before David Ortiz pushed Nava out of the dugout for a curtain call.
“It felt great, and it was something I wasn’t expecting,” Nava said. “It’s one game. Who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?”