Daniel Nava was 4-foot-8 and 70 pounds when he entered high school. He failed twice to make the baseball team at Santa Clara University and ended up washing uniforms as the team manager.
Now the sixth-year pro is expected to be the starting leftfielder for the Los Angeles Angels this season, continuing one of the most unlikely careers in Major League Baseball.
Nava, 33, will be platooning with right-handed hitting Craig Gentry in the outfield as the Angels begin their 2016 campaign. For his career, Nava has hit .281/.377/.409 against right-handers. Nava’s best season came in 2013, when he hit .303/.385/.445 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI in 134 games with the World Series-champion Red Sox.
Nava’s crooked path to the majors seems nothing short of a Hollywood movie script. His coach at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California saved the ball after Nava’s first high school varsity hit, thinking it would be the only one he’d ever get. Nava batted ninth in the Lancers order his senior season and hit one home run.
At Santa Clara, he was cut as both a freshman and a sophomore. Still he stayed on as manager, washing uniforms at 2 a.m., fetching water, and shagging fly balls with reckless abandon.
Before his junior year, struggling to make Santa Clara’s tuition, Nava transferred to nearby College of San Mateo. He made the roster, grew two more inches, and hit .400 over two seasons. Then he headed back to Santa Clara with a scholarship in hand and one year of baseball eligibility remaining. He made the most of it, leading the West Coast Conference in batting (.395) and on-base percentage (.494) in 2006 while not making a single error in the outfield.
Nava went undrafted out of Santa Clara and was cut two more times before signing on as roster filler with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League. He got the chance after an outfielder ran away to get married. Nava won the league’s batting title, and in 2007 the Boston Red Sox purchased his contract for the princely sum of one dollar.
After his roller coaster ride to the majors, Nava’s MLB debut could not have gone any differently. With the bases loaded, he stepped to the plate and, on the first pitch he saw as a major leaguer, promptly unloaded a grand slam into the Red Sox bullpen.
Only one other player in major league history, Kevin Kouzmanoff with the Cleveland Indians in 2006, has ever hit the first pitch he saw for a grand slam. Yet the unlikelihood of Nava’s feat pales in comparison to the rest of his improbable baseball odyssey.