Daniel Nava was the unlikeliest major leaguer in any starting lineup today. And it’s safe to say a lot of Red Sox fans were disappointed to see him starting over Jackie Bradley Jr. in left field in the Fenway Park season opener.
Nava, though, rewarded manager John Farrell’s show of faith with a homer over the Green Monster that scored all of Boston’s runs in a 3-1 victory over Baltimore. It was his second homer on the young season.
To say that Nava took a rare path to the majors would be underselling it. The kid weighed 70 pounds as a freshman in high school. He failed to make the Santa Clara University baseball team as a walk-on, settling for a gig as an equipment manager until he could no longer afford tuition and left for junior college. After a successful year of baseball at the College of San Mateo, he returned to Santa Clara, this time on a full scholarship, as a senior and hit .395.
Of course, Nava still went undrafted. He tried out for the independent Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League in 2006 and failed to make the team. Trying again in 2007, he made the team, hit .371 with 12 homers in 256 at-bats and got himself signed by the Red Sox.
After a couple of years in the minors, Nava was called up by the Red Sox and became the second major leaguer ever to hit a grand slam on the first pitch he ever saw. And then he went almost two years without another major league homer. After he hit a modest .242/.351/.360 in 161 at-bats as a rookie in 2010, the Red Sox left him in the minors for all of 2011. Summoned back last year, he hit .243/.352/.390 with six homers in 267 at-bats. This year, he made the team out of spring training for the first time and has two homers and six RBI in four games.
Now, the 30-year-old Nava is the very definition of a fringe major leaguer. For all of his hard work, he may yet find himself back in Triple-A in a couple of months. Even so, it’s incredible that he’s come this far. From 70-pound weakling to college equipment manager to indy league tryout cut to Boston Red Sox outfielder qualifies as an unprecedented path.
For more on Nava’s background, see Brian MacPherson’s feature in the Providence Journal from 2010.