After long journey, Nava takes historic swing
Ex-independent league player hits slam on first pitch he sees
BOSTON -- The kid who was 70 pounds when he started high school made a dramatic and historic entrance to the Major Leagues on Saturday. Daniel Nava, an undrafted prospect the Red Sox signed out of an independent league in January 2008, swatted the very first pitch he saw from Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton and put it into the Boston bullpen in right-center field for a grand slam.
Just like that, Nava became the second player in Red Sox history to hit a grand slam in his first plate appearance with the team and first since Rip Repulski on May 10, 1960, against the White Sox. Nava is only the fourth player to hit a grand slam in his first Major League at-bat, and first since Kevin Kouzmanoff did it for the Indians on Sept. 2, 2006.
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In fact, Nava joined Kouzmanoff as the only two players in history to rip a grand slam on the first pitch of their careers.
"As I was rounding the bases, I think that's when I kind of said, 'Oh, man, I just hit a grand slam.' That's probably why I was sprinting the whole time because I was so obviously pumped for that moment and that opportunity," said Nava. "It's pretty ridiculous."
That would be true for any player who hit a grand slam in a first at-bat. But for the 27-year-old Nava, it goes to a whole new level.
Consider his long and winding track to where he ended up Saturday.
He started out at Santa Clara University -- as an equipment manager.
"He wasn't a prospect," said Don Nava, who was in the stands at Fenway with wife, Becky, to witness their son's magical Fenway moment. "He's never been a prospect. He washed uniforms for two years at Santa Clara. He's called me between the washer and the dryer. I say, 'What are you doing?' He says, 'I've got a pocket full of quarters. I'm going from the washer to the dryer.' The guy is getting kicked out of the Laundromat on a Saturday night in Compton, Calif."
Daniel Nava said he couldn't afford to stay at Santa Clara. But he eventually got the break he was looking for and played two seasons at the College of San Mateo (junior college). He wound up back at Santa Clara for his senior season, this time as a baseball player instead of the equipment manager.
Once his college career was over, the only professional team that stepped up to sign him was the independent league Chico Outlaws. He won the Most Valuable Player of the Golden Baseball League in 2007.
The Red Sox saw enough to like, and paid an initial investment of $1 to obtain his rights from the Outlaws. They got that buck back and then some on Saturday.
Nava started his stint with the Red Sox at Class A Lancaster in 2008, before moving on to Salem and Double-A Portland in '09. He played 54 games for Pawtucket this season, hitting .294 with eight homers, 38 RBIs and a .364 on-base percentage.
With Jacoby Ellsbury and Jeremy Hermida both on the disabled list with left rib fractures and the club feeling that Josh Reddick needs more regular at-bats in the Minors, they called on Nava to help in left field.
"For him to go to junior college and hang in there, and then get cut from an independent league team the first time and then go back, we're so grateful to the Red Sox," said Don Nava. "It's been a fantastic organization that's believed in him. I mean, [Red Sox principal owner] John Henry comes down today and sits down with me. That's class. It's been -- 'Pinch me, please.'
Daniel Nava's new teammate, Hermida, hit a pinch-hit grand slam in his first career at-bat for the Marlins on Aug. 31, 2005.
Sure, the Red Sox -- who beat the Phillies, 10-2 -- were impressed by Nava's surreal feat. But they had a little fun at first. When Nava initially retreated to the dugout, none of his teammates responded to him. But after the silent treatment, they all piled on him. And then David Ortiz pushed him out of the dugout for a curtain call.
Slamming first at-bats
|Daniel Nava||Red Sox||Phillies||June 12, 2010|
|Kevin Kouzmanoff||Indians||Rangers||Sept. 2, 2006|
|Jeremy Hermida||Marlins||Cardinals||Aug. 31, 2005|
|Bill Dugelby||Phillies||NY Giants||April 21, 1898|
And, yes, that trip around the bases was quick. There was a reason for that.
The ritual started with his first high-school home run.
"I had never hit a home run before, and I hit a ball over about a three-foot fence, and I was really sprinting around the bases because I had never done it before and I never knew what it felt like," said Nava. "Part of that, I think, might play into the fact that most of the time I sprint around the bases. I've never really been a guy who hits home runs. When I hit one, I don't know, my natural reaction is just to get going, just to get moving."
When his grand slam came flying into the Red Sox's bullpen, Manny Delcarmen, who would wind up as the winning pitcher before the day was out, flagged it down.
"There's been so many times they hit the ball in the bullpen and I'm a little late grabbing my glove," said Delcarmen. "I happened to look at it and it was coming right for us, and I knew it was his first big league at-bat, too. If that ball bounces, we might have people going in there chasing that ball down, so it was a pretty good catch. Hopefully it makes the highlights."
Nava is the 10th player in the long and storied history of the Red Sox to go deep in his first plate appearance with the club, and second this season. Darnell McDonald also did so April 20 against the Rangers.
"It's beyond amazing," said Becky Nava. "There's no words to describe it. It's like you're living a dream. Maybe it will make sense tomorrow. Right now, you feel like you're just on a high watching a dream come true."
Even before the grand slam, it had already been a day to remember for Daniel Nava, who was awed just by being in the clubhouse in the hours leading up to Saturday's game.
"It's obviously a dream come true," Nava said. "I was telling my friends, 'Sorry guys if I don't know what to say because I'm kind of speechless, the whole thing happened so fast.' I'm trying to learn what to do, where to go."
Was Nava really 70 pounds as a ninth-grader in the Bay Area?
"I was," said Nava. "I really was. I was really small. I didn't grow until sophomore year of college. I really was 70 pounds. I couldn't go on the rides at the theme parks, I was so small."
Could that kid have ever dreamed of starting for the Red Sox and standing in front of the historic Green Monster?
"That kid could barely swing a 32-inch bat, so I don't think he was thinking about the big leagues or anything like that," Nava said. "It's been a fun run, that's for sure."
Something happened along the way. Nava's body started to fill out -- he is listed at 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds in the media guide -- and he never stopped working.
"It's unbelievable. It's most incredible," said Don Nava. "Somebody asked me earlier, 'What does this mean to you?' I thought back to Little League. You think of all the people that said he was too small, too slow, couldn't throw, can't hit with power, and all the naysayers. I'm a professional coach, and I look at it from the same perspective. But he was not going to be denied. He doesn't have a girlfriend. He's focused on one thing, and that's playing baseball and playing to the best of his ability. I've never doubted him, ever. I looked at his heart, not what his size was."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona seemed almost prophetic by what he said before the game.
"Nava is kind of a good story," Francona said. "He's an independent league kid out of college -- he's hit everywhere he's been. There's been a lot of people in player development that have been talking about this kid for the last little while, saying, he can help you win games. So he's going to get a chance."
When the chance presented itself, Nava grabbed it with an exclamation point.
"He said to me when he was getting ready to get in the hole, on deck there, he said, 'Where do you think my folks are sitting?' I said, 'I don't care, go up and get a hit,"' Francona said. "I think I'm probably getting old, because we're all getting emotional in there and we're all kind of watching to see how he'll react and there wasn't really time. The ball is bouncing in the [bullpen], gorgeous swing."
Just like that, another Fenway folk hero was born.
"I hope not," Nava said when asked of his potential folk-hero status. "It's one game. We all know that. It's one game. There's still tomorrow, and who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? You saw what happened my next at-bat. I struck out. You can go from having a good at-bat, to the next at-bat, looking like you've sometimes never played baseball. Obviously, I'm enjoying it right now. The road I've taken hasn't been a road with a lot of flashing lights and what not."
With one swing, that all changed.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.