SAN DIEGO — Daniel Nava’s entire career has been characterized by a stubbornness to accept that a wall might represent a dead end.
He was virtually too small to hold a bat as a freshman in high school. He didn’t make his college team and instead became an equipment manager before taking advantage of a junior college opportunity. He went undrafted and was cut after an independent league tryout, only to return to the Chico Outlaws a year later and emerge as the top prospect in the Golden Baseball League, resulting in — finally — an opportunity with the Red Sox.
You remember the rest: A grand slam on the first pitch of his big league career in 2010. A refusal to disappear after being designated for assignment in 2011. A return to the big leagues in 2012. A key role on the World Series winners of 2013.
Every step of Nava’s career has been so improbable that he’s learned to ignore the word “no.” And so, one more time, Nava is willing to walk through a sea of nos in search of one more yes.
“I want a shot,” said Nava, “and I’d be grateful for anything — that’s for sure.”
Nava, 36, is patrolling the halls of the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego looking for work. At the Winter Meetings, he wants to meet face to face with as many teams as possible to make his case for some opportunity, any opportunity, to get back into affiliated baseball.
It has been a difficult three-season stretch for Nava, who after being designated for assignment by the Red Sox in 2015 has played in the big leagues for the Rays, Angels, Royals, and Phillies. In late 2017, he was enjoying a strong season with Philadelphia (.301/.393/.421 in 80 games) until his year was cut short by a back injury incurred while working out. He barely made it to first base after his final plate appearance of the year, a pinch-hit single off former Red Sox teammate Junichi Tazawa in September.
Nava signed a minor league deal with the Pirates the following year, but it quickly became clear that he’d need a diskectomy. But what is usually a fairly routine back procedure did not give way to a normal rehab. Searing pain became a constant, resulting in his hospitalization that June and weeks in an ICU. The area where the surgery was performed had become infected.
“The infection was on a level of pain that I haven’t experienced,” said Nava.
He was released in July, but after weeks in which he couldn’t walk while lying in the hospital, baseball wasn’t on anyone’s mind. He went home for therapy that was focused more on quality of life.
“At that given moment, I would say I was done,” said Nava.
Yet as 2019 neared, he started to rapidly turn a corner. Baseball again felt like a possibility. But with spring training rosters all but set, with lingering health questions about his back, and with the industry taking a jaundiced view of players in their mid 30s, Nava encountered a wall of sorry-but-no responses to his efforts to find an opportunity.
Plenty of players might have shrugged at that point, satisfied at an unlikely big league career that had spanned parts of seven seasons, and been content to walk away. After all, Nava is now married with a 6-year-old and 3-year-old in Arizona, and not the aw-shucks 27-year-old who seemed all but ready to wave at his parents in the stands when he made his debut in 2010.
But defiant — perhaps even delusional — optimism had always propelled Nava. And so, 12 years after he put himself on the baseball map as an independent leaguer, he tried to repeat the feat, signing with the Kansas City T-Bones of the American Association.
Yet independent ball is a different beast for a player who has been in the big leagues and has a family than it is for a 24-year-old who was never supposed to have a pro career. Despite a solid performance — .288/.379/.423 with 7 HRs in 71 games — Nava didn’t get the call that he craved for an opportunity with a minor league affiliate of a big league team.
“I was grateful to play, but it was tough because I thought I had a chance to still play in affiliate ball and to prove myself, but I wasn’t provided that opportunity,” said Nava.
“I understand what the nature of the game is now — meaning, in 2010, when I entered the game, the guys of elder statesmanship were appreciated a little bit more than they are now. As we well know, now they’re more looked down upon.”
On Sept. 9, the T-Bones played their final game of the season. Nava popped out in the 11th inning of a 5-2 loss. He would not bat again.
“The season ended with me on-deck. That was tough,” said Nava. “I took it as, ‘That could be my last at-bat right there.’ ”
But Nava decided not to accept that. He’d proven that he could remain healthy for a full season in independent ball. So he elected to fight for one more opportunity.
He came to San Diego in hopes of meeting with as many teams as possible, seeking nothing more than a roster spot in the minor leagues. Triple A? Double A?
“I’d go to anything — anything,” he said. “I think if I didn’t have the story that I had and I got drafted out of college, if I did that, I think I would be less likely. But my story has taught me to be grateful for what I have. I think that I’ve learned that all over again with the injury.”
But the doors do not open easily. Nava knows that. He came prepared to encounter plenty of nos — and indeed, he already had heard that word from multiple teams by the end of Monday.
“I think you’re lying if anyone said, ‘I got nos today and it didn’t affect me,’ ” he acknowledged. “Clearly hearing some of the nos that I heard today wasn’t ideal, wasn’t fun, wasn’t something I was hoping for.
“I was aware it was a possibility. That’s probably why I’m here. I realize that the odds are severely stacked. If I didn’t show up, I think the odds are even more severely stacked.”
He planned to spend Tuesday again trying to meet with any teams that will listen to a player making a case for another opportunity, someone with a championship ring who believes that there is still more.
At this point, Nava can’t envision going back to independent ball. He has responsibilities to his family, and knows that he can’t keep fighting the current of a game growing ever-younger.
But he still believes he can contribute, and he cannot accept that the end has come without knowing it with certainty, without taking another shot. And so Nava is willing to endure the harshness of a two-letter word uttered to his face 29 times if that is what it takes.
“You’re never given anything,” he said. “You don’t get it for free. At the same time, I feel like I’ve earned just a shot. That’s all I’m asking for. That’s all I think anyone who is in my situation can ask for.
“I may have to end this and I don’t want to end it. But hopefully, I get one more three-letter word.”