The first I heard of Daniel Nava, he was a Red Sox farmhand with a schoolboy crush on then-ESPN reporter and certified babe Erin Andrews. It was a poetic tale of unrequited love: a relatively unknown ballplayer hits his way through the minor leagues — Lancaster to Salem, Portland to Pawtucket — all the while leaving a ticket for his crush at every game. Only she didn’t know about it.
The second time I heard of Daniel Nava was June 12, 2010. I was at the dump on a Saturday afternoon. As I hopped out of my pickup and flattened a stack of cardboard boxes to go into the compactor, I could hear Joe Castiglione over the truck radio as he recalled his pregame advice to the Pawtucket call-up: swing as hard as you can at the first pitch because it’s the only one you’ll ever see.
Nava, with the bases loaded, took Castiglione’s advice and ripped a grand slam into the right field bullpen. It was incredible. Fenway went bonkers.
And Andrews noticed. “Send my best to Daniel,” she tweeted. “Hope to meet him soon!”
Daniel Nava had made it.
To quote Kanye West, Nava “done played the underdog [his] whole career.” He tried out for the baseball team at Santa Clara and was cut, so the undersized Nava signed on as equipment manager. When he could not longer afford tuition, he transferred to the College of San Mateo and became a Junior College All-American. Santa Clara called back. He returned and smoked the league, hitting .395 and getting on base nearly 50 percent of the time his senior season. But the 24-year old went undrafted.
Nava signed with the Golden Baseball League’s Chico Outlaws. They cut him. When the team called back, he hit .371 to establish himself as the top independent league prospect around. The Red Sox purchased his rights for $1.
He toiled. He kept hitting. He waited on his chance. At age 27, he got it and made the most of it.
Only Nava didn’t ride off into the sunset with the pretty sports reporter and the starting left field job at Fenway. The circumstance of his call-up was a Boston outfield in shambles. Injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron and the disappointing Jeremy Hermida yielded Nava 188 at-bats with the big club in 2010, but the grand slam would be his only home run and he finished at a pedestrian .242. While he did reach base 35 percent of the time, Nava didn’t appear to be a part of the club’s plans as the Sox inked Carl Crawford to a huge deal after the season. He was DFA’d in 2011, went back to Pawtucket, and played out the string with the BoSox in a disastrous 2012.
At 30 years old, in 2013, Daniel Nava finally got a chance to compete for regular at-bats in a big league lineup. And he cashed in. He slashed .303/.385/.445, finished eighth in the American League in hitting, fifth in on-base percentage, won the World Series, and to put the proverbial cherry on top, he and his wife welcomed their first child.
What a year.
He’s a consummate team player and a guy who can help the club. So while pundits consider trading him, or giving his at-bats to Grady Sizemore or one of the prospects currently in camp, I’ll join Shaun Kernahan and throw my hat in the ring for Daniel Nava as the guy to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot this year against righties. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, you never, ever count out Daniel Nava.