Late last summer, I was chatting with Lynn and Mike McKenna in front of the Middlebury Market about the woes of the Red Sox, who were headed for last place, limping to a miserable finish.
They were waxing enthusiastic about Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava, their favorite player.
Nava is a most unlikely major-leaguer. The Red Sox plucked him from independent ball in 2008 after playing for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League in California. The Red Sox paid the Outlaws $1.00 (that’s right — one dollar) for the rights to sign him.
He was the last thing from a golden boy destined for athletic success, weighing 70 pounds when he entered high school and growing only to 5’5”, 150 pounds by graduation. At Santa Clara University, he failed to make the baseball team as a walk-on and served instead as the team’s equipment manager. For financial reasons, he transferred to the College of San Mateo where his baseball career started in earnest.
Returning to Santa Clara for his senior year, he made the team, but went undrafted. He headed to independent ball, played well, signed with the Red Sox, and began working his way up through the minor leagues.
In his first major league at-bat for the Red Sox on June 12, 2010, in a nationally televised game, on the very first pitch, Daniel Nava hit a grand slam homer, thereby earning a place in baseball’s trivia Hall of Fame, and helping the Sox to a 10-2 win over the Phillies.
He hit just that one home run in 60 games for the Red Sox in 2010. The next year, 2011, he failed to make the big club and was not protected on the team’s 40-man roster. All 29 other major league teams passed on signing him.
He spent the entire 2011 season playing for Pawtucket, the Red Sox AAA team. At 28 years old, he was in danger of being released. He feared he was headed back to independent ball.
Last year, he came up to the Red Sox in May, after injuries to Crawford, Ellsbury, Sweeney, and Ross decimated the outfield corps. He performed adequately (.243 batting average), despite a wrist injury, in part-time duty.
OK. Now back to the McKennas last August:
I was my most grouchy and condescending. As I explained patiently, Daniel Nava was not to be taken seriously. He was a Band-Aid, a symptom of how far the Sox had fallen. He was baseball’s “Rudy,” a nice story, appealing especially to romantics.
His career, I pointed out, would be short-lived, his identity as a ballplayer based solely on its implausibility, and of course that grand slam, memorable, but only a moment in time. He would soon be gone, headed to the minors again, maybe to resurface on occasion in a utility role, but not as a serious factor in any Red Sox reconstruction plan.
Well ... maybe not.
The McKennas might want to prepare a plate of crow for me.
Here we are, nearly a third of the season gone and Nava is proving to be a valuable part of the resurgent Red Sox, playing right field, left field, and first base, and batting in the middle of the line-up, sometimes as high as second.
He played well in Spring Training (.327 batting average), and made the team in a righty-lefty platoon in left field with Jonny Gomes. Nava is a switch-hitter, stronger from the left-hand side of the plate.
With Gomes slumping (.176 batting average) and rightfielder Shane Victorino’s play limited by injuries, Nava has been a fixture in the line-up on a consistent basis and central to the Red Sox early success. He is batting close to .300, and has knocked in 34 runs (third on the team), scored 27 runs (also third, tied with Ellsbury), and slugged six homers (fourth).
Now 30, Nava has made himself into a solid big-league player. Looks like he belongs. He’s dependable defensively and has always been able to hit. Sox Manager John Farrell is now putting him in the line-up batting right-handed against lefty pitchers.
And ... earlier this season, he hit a home run that exceeded in drama that grand slam three years ago:
On April 20, the Red Sox played their first home game after the Boston Marathon bombings, just five days later.
The city was still reeling. In emotional pregame ceremonies before a full house in Fenway, Big Papi proclaimed “this is our f ------ city.” Then in the eighth inning, Neil Diamond himself showed up to lead the fans in singing “Sweet Caroline.”
The Sox were down 2-1 to the Royals in the bottom of the eighth when Nava came to the plate, with two out and two on. He pulled a one ball-one strike fastball into the Red Sox bullpen — and the place went wild. Nava’s blast was decisive as the Red Sox held on for a 4-3 victory.
Daniel Nava qualifies as both a Red Sox folk hero, and a real player.