Daniel Nava’s entire career has been marked by people underestimating just how good he could potentially be. It’s a winding journey from being incredibly underrated for years, overrated for one shining moment, and then right back to the familiarity of being overlooked. This week’s Fenway opener provided another appearance on center stage for a player that has had to fight and claw for every single opportunity that the sport of baseball has reluctantly offered him.
His baseball resumé is riddled with enough disappointment to last a lifetime and enough perseverance to write one heck of a feel-good Disney script.
- As a walk-on at Santa Clara, he failed to make the team and spent his freshman year as the equipment manager.
- He transferred to a junior college at the College of San Mateo where he earned the status of Junior College All-American, leading to Santa Clara inviting him back and offering not only a spot on the team, but also a scholarship.
- In his only season as a player for Santa Clara, Nava didn’t just lead his team in hitting, he led the entire conference.
- Despite his stellar senior year performance and the fact that baseball’s amateur player draft has roughly 89 rounds, Nava went undrafted.
- Not to be deterred, Nava tried out for the Golden League’s Chico Outlaws, and got cut. He spent an full year out of organized baseball. At this point, any reasonable friend or family member had to be pleading with him to find a new dream.
- One year later after being given a second chance, he made the Outlaws and put up a robust .371/.475/.625 line and was named “Baseball America’s #1 Independent League Prospect.”
- The Red Sox purchased his rights from the Chico Outlaws for $1, with an agreement that they would send an additional $1,499 if the organization decided to keep him around after spring training.
- Despite being 25 (ancient in the world of minor league baseball) and hitting .341, Nava spent the entire 2008 season in Low-A Lancaster.
- 2009 saw Nava split the season between High-A Salem and AA Portland, where he continued to have no trouble hitting the ball, posting a combined line of .352/.458/.533 between the two levels.
- After beginning 2010 in Pawtucket, Nava finally got his chance in the major leagues amidst a rash of Boston outfield injuries. As everyone knows, the first pitch that Nava ever saw in a major league uniform (from Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton) was turned around and sent over the wall for a Grand Slam. It was a nationally televised game on FOX, and he suddenly became an overnight sensation.
- 40 days later, with Jeremy Hermida ready to come off of the DL, Nava found himself as the odd man out and was sent back down to Triple A.
- Despite making it back up to Boston later in the year, Nava failed to hit another home run that season and struggled (particularly in the field and as a right-handed batter) enough that he was designated for assignment in May 2011. Every other major league team passed on the option to claim Nava off of waivers and he was again relegated to AAA Pawtucket.
- In 2012 Nava failed to even receive an invitation to major league camp and again began the year with the PawSox.
At every intersection of his career, Daniel Nava was doubted, dismissed and turned away. Yet every single time he went to whatever team would take him, worked hard, and hit the ball.
Nava’s quote in a 2010 interview with Mike Andrews accurately summarizes the uphill battle that he has faced his entire career. “Really, since high school and every level since, I’ve been cut and then started playing again. Fortunately I’ve succeeded at every level, but I’ve always been told ‘you need to prove it at the next level.’ I think that has a lot to do with why what I’ve done has been kind of under-the-radar.”
As the 2013 regular season approached, a continually improving Nava suddenly looked primed to finally grab a Major League roster spot out of camp as a platooning LF and backup 1B. But as camp progressed he found himself losing attention and at bats to the much-hyped, fast-tracked prospect Jackie Bradley, Jr., who arrived on the scene as a sort of anti-Nava. Not that he hasn’t worked hard for the things he’s accomplished in the game, but at 22 years old he has already been the Opening Day left fielder for the Boston Red Sox. Nava was still a Santa Clara Bronco at that age, and 5 years away from his first major league opportunity. The organization deemed that it would be better to risk an entire year of service time for the young phenom rather than entrust left field to Nava for a couple of weeks. To me, the Red Sox instance of starting Jackie Bradley, Jr. at the Major League level can only be viewed as one more organization underestimating just how much Daniel can bring to a ball club.
Nava has made a career of shutting people up, namely his doubters and detractors. Those who said that he wasn’t big enough, or athletic enough. Those who admired his approach and his commitment, and quietly wished that he had also been given the talent to go along with it. But on Monday afternoon, as Nava trotted around the bases at Fenway relishing a game changing 3-run HR, the fans did anything but shut up. They cheered wildly for a guy who they, the organization and whole the whole baseball world had doubted time and time again.
Two days later, on a soggy Wednesday night, Nava had again forced his way into John Farrell‘s lineup. What did he do for an encore to his game winning performance? Just another clutch, 6th inning HR that gave the Red Sox the lead at the time. In five games this season his stat line is absolutely absurd: .467/.571/1.133 with 3 HR, 4 BB, and 0 K. It’s obviously a very small sample size, but that is still one heck of a sample.
The 2007 Baseball America article naming Nava the #1 Independent League Prospect started out their summary on Daniel saying “Nava has been proving doubters wrong for years.” Six years later and the storyline remains exactly the same.