Everybody loves an underdog story, unless you’re a Dodgers fan. Thankfully I’m not, and I assume you’re not either. So please allow me share with you the Rolls Royce of underdog stories. You’d be surprised to hear that this anecdote is not only one of the best stories going on in sports right now but also has Bay Area roots. In fact, it all started just down the street from where I grew up in Redwood City…
Back in 1997, a freshman standing just 4’8’’ and weighing 70 pounds enrolled into Saint Francis High School (Mountain View, CA) in hopes of making the baseball team. By his senior year, this Ecksteinian young man was still only 5’5’’ but beefed up to 140 pounds. Saint Francis, always a high school baseball powerhouse, penciled the switch-hitting senior outfielder into the very bottom of the order (9th). He would finish his high school career with 1 HR and no athletic scholarships to college. You think the story ends here? Heck no.
The kid decides to attend Santa Clara University and try out for the baseball team after a little encouragement from a friend and a promise from the coach that he could. The Broncos’ manager, Mark O’Brien, was the assistant coach at Stanford University before the Santa Clara gig and knew the freshman as Stanford’s batboy from years previous. The strong-willed freshman tried out but was simply not good enough. O’Brien even admitted “he showed up and could barely hit the ball out of the infield.” However the skipper wanted this pseudo-Rudy around the program.
The boy’s name is Daniel Nava and he agreed to become Santa Clara’s team manager. Dubbed “the human windshield wiper”, he carried equipment, shagged fly balls & even cleaned the uniforms. On top of that, Nava watched game film, worked out & trained so that he could try out his sophomore year. But yet again, he failed to make the team.
Time to hang up the cleats, right? Wrong again. Daniel Nava transferred to College of San Mateo and grew two inches. His body was finally getting bigger, faster and stronger. And that’s not all. Nava batted .400 for CSM over two seasons, earning Junior College All-American honors. With one year of eligibility left, Nava transferred back to Santa Clara University to play for Mark O’Brien. And guess what? He killed it.
During his senior year, Daniel Nava batted .395, had an OBP of .494, slugged .530 and boasted a Bondsian 1.006 OPS. The guy stole 15 bags without being caught once too! His 2006 success ended up leading the West Coast Conference in batting average and on-base percentage. Yet after garnering All-WCC accolades, Nava went un-drafted.
Okay, now it’s over right? Come on, you’re better than this.
Months after graduating, Nava was offered a chance to play for the Independent League’s Chico Outlaws. Not being picky, Nava accepted and went on to hit .371 for the Outlaws and was eventually named the Independent Leagues #1 prospect by Baseball America in 2007. Not bad eh? Well it doesn’t end here.
The Boston Red Sox assistant director of scouting was sitting in the stands for a game of Nava’s and was so impressed that he convinced the franchise to purchase Nava’s contract for a whopping $1. No, that is a not a typo. So in 2008, our boy Daniel Nava reported to the Single A affiliate of the Red Sox, the Lancaster Jets, where he proceeded to rake.
To give you a little background, my cousins lived next door to Nava’s family since the early 90’s. My family lived about two blocks away. Being 5 years older than I, there were a handful of times when Daniel was nice enough to play catch with me and even let me take a few hacks on his SwingAway (a product that Bryce Harper currently endorses). So by the time he was in the Red Sox farm system, it was safe to say I was pulling for Daniel.
Meanwhile in Lancaster, Nava continued his offensive onslaught against all odds. In just 85 games, he batted .341, hit 10 HRs and drove in 59 RBI’s. By 2009, Nava was promoted to AA Portland Sea Dogs. There he batted .364 with 4 jacks and 23 RBI’s in only 32 games. His OPS was a scintillating 1.047 too. The following season Nava was in AAA playing for the Pawtucket Red Sox and it was truly amazing he even made it this far.
Now if you’ll recall in 2010, the Boston Red Sox had all sorts of outfield issues. Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron ended up getting injured and besides them there was simply no offensive production. And wouldn’t you know it, Pocket Hercules Daniel Nava was steady crushing the ball down in the minors. So you see, the Boston Red Sox had no choice to but call up Nava. And they did. On June 12th, 2010 (the day I graduated from UC Santa Barbara), Daniel Nava made his Major League debut. Unbelievable. The kid who couldn’t make his high school baseball team was starting in left field for the Boston flipping Red Sox as they took on the Philadelphia effing Phillies at Fenway Park. And to think my parents were proud of me that day.
Flashback, Daniel Nava didn’t just have a love for baseball. He also had a huge crush on ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews. So, every game starting in Single A Lancaster, Nava left a single ticket for Ms. Andrews at will call, hoping she’d “be in the neighborhood.” She never did see him play in the minors. But once Nava got called up his story had spread through Red Sox Nation like wildfire. Unfortunately, Erin Andrews wasn’t in Boston on June 12th, 2010, but she was well aware that Nava was starting. She had to fly somewhere so she boarded her plane and turned her phone off.
When Erin Andrews landed she turned her phone back on only to receive countless text messages and voicemails. Daniel Nava had made history. On his first at-bat in his Major League debut, Nava swung on the first pitch he saw. The bases happened to be loaded and Joe Blanton was pitching. The ball Nava hit soared over right fielder Jayson Werth’s head and into the Red Sox bullpen for a grand slam. Boom.
Nava ran the bases so fast he said he felt like he was flying. Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after the game: “It’s just inconceivable. I’m about to cry. I guess I’m getting old.” Friends, family, teammates and ex-teammates were all pretty shaken up after the initial jubilance. That is, except for Daniel Nava. “I was cut five times in five years. I was basically shut down. You have to exhaust all your options. If a door opens again, go for it. I got another shot, and I thank God for it.” Nava wants his amazing story to inspire kids labeled as undersized and “not good enough.” Nava finished 2010 with a .242 batting average but also sported a respectable .351 OBP. But just like the great Duane Kuiper, Nava had but one home run to his name.
In order to make room for the returns of Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, Nava was eventually designated for assignment back down to AAA and didn’t end up seeing any Major League action in 2011. As for Erin Andrews, she “passed along her best” to Nava and “hopes to meet him soon.” Similar to Virginia Bennett in “Happy Gilmore”, she “doesn’t date athletes.” Back to the farm, Nava didn’t know if he’d ever play in “The Show” again. But just 11 days ago, Nava was recalled by the Red Sox to play left field again. Since then, Nava has been on an absolute tear.
Not to jinx him, the switch-hitting Nava has reached base 20 out of his first 42 plate appearances. Nava is currently flashing a .313 batting average with a whopping .477 OBP and astounding 1.009 OPS. Nava hit another home run too. Manager Bobby Valentine has gone on record saying that he is going to play Nava until he struggles. He’s earned an everyday role for the Red Sox.
Take this story however you want to. It might not relate to the San Francisco Giants, 49ers or Golden State Warriors, but it relates to Bay Area sports and fans like you and I. The pride of Redwood City is a Beantown legend and all I can do is smile. If you scripted this in a Disney movie no one would believe it. And it’s all happening right now.
One thing is for certain, I can guarantee this is the last time you hear me blogging my little heart out over the Red Sox. I only hope that this story transcends into something better. Maybe a $1 investment can pay an exponential return? Maybe this blog can grow into something greater? Who knows. May the odds be ever in your/my favor.