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.”Continued...