Minor League notebook

Portland’s Nava no longer playing catch-up

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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Daniel Nava batted ninth for his high school baseball team, and he did not survive the tryout his freshman year of college. He wanted to stay connected to the sport, so for two years he became the team manager at Santa Clara. Nava dragged the infield, filmed practice, and washed uniforms.

Before Nava begins telling the near-impossible story of how he came to play for Double A Portland, he has a question. “How far back we going here?’’ he asks.

He has been passed over as a baseball player so many times in his life, he needs direction to pinpoint the best place to start.

The easy part is where he is now. Nava is one of the most prolific hitters in the Red Sox farm system. In six games since being promoted from Single A Salem (entering last night), he was 7 for 17 with a home run, two doubles, a triple, and six walks. He hit .341 last season at Single A Lancaster, best in the league and highest among any Red Sox minor leaguer. He hit .339 at Salem this season before he jumped to Portland.

“Looks like a guy that can really swing the bat,’’ Portland manager Arnie Beyeler said. “He’s just kind of an everyday grinder kind of guy. He just goes out there every day and works hard.’’

So where to start? “I guess we could go back to high school,’’ Nava said.

In his freshman year at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., Nava stood 4 feet 8 inches and weighed 80 pounds. He played a little, dropping bunts and shagging flies and running the bases like a madman. Most of the time, his coach had a designated hitter bat for him.

“I was probably the annoying kid everybody looked at like, ‘Dude, this kid needs to take it easy,’ ’’ Nava said.

Nave barely played at all his sophomore and junior years. By his senior year, he had grown to 5-5, 150 pounds. He hit the first home run of his life over a 4-foot fence.

“It barely scraped over,’’ Nava said.

Nava tried out for the team at Santa Clara anyway. When the coach cut him, he asked to manage. He played pick-up basketball and stopped thinking about baseball. He did not think he would ever play again.

“No shot,’’ Nava said.

After two years at Santa Clara, school became too expensive for his family. He moved back to Los Altos, Calif., and looked over junior colleges. His father worked as a fitness instructor at a gym 20 minutes from his house. Nava was lifting weights one day when he ran into an old baseball buddy.

His friend told Nava about the College of San Mateo, about 30 minutes away from his home. The friend knew the baseball coach and said he’d put in a word for Nava, at least get him a tryout. Nava had not played in two years. He thought, why not?

Nava had continued growing after high school, and lifting weights brought him close to the 5-10, 200-pound frame he has today. In high school, he slapped balls. During the San Mateo tryout, he felt different. He could get behind balls and drive them. He was still one of the shortest players on the field, but he felt like a monster.

He made the team. After two weeks, he played in an intrasquad scrimmage. In his first at-bat, he struck out on three pitches. When he reached the dugout, he thought, “I can hit this guy.’’ In his second at-bat, Nava blasted a home run and sprinted around the bases.

Back in the dugout, his teammates asked him why he had run so hard; the ball flew far over the fence. “Well,’’ Nava told them, “I’ve never really hit a home run before.’’

Before the game ended, Nava had hit for the cycle.

“I became a different player,’’ he said. “Before, I was so small and weak. Finally, I caught up. I was like, ‘I might be able to play here.’ ’’

His confidence helped him land a spot back at Santa Clara, on the team and on scholarship for one season. A year after he washed the uniforms, he led the West Coast Conference in hitting at .395 and did not make an error in the outfield. He assumed he had done everything he could, and he would be drafted.

He was wrong. Nava spent the year trying to wangle a final year of eligibility at Santa Clara; the NCAA turned him down in January. He spent the spring trying to land a tryout anywhere. The Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League called him. He tried out. They cut him.

In May 2007, the Outlaws called again. One of their players had gotten married and left the team.

“Tryouts start tomorrow,’’ he was told. “Get your stuff right now.’’

Nava drove three hours from Los Altos to Chico. He made the team. He kept hitting and played more and more. He was a starter by the end of the year. Before spring training last year, the Red Sox purchased his contract. Nava called his dad.

“Are you serious?’’ he asked. “Are you joking?’’

Nava, 26, has moved from an independent league to two steps from the major leagues. He plays a sport he loves. Last weekend, he saw Fenway Park for the first time and played a game there. He thinks often about the best friend he lost in a motorcycle accident years ago.

“To be where I am, I don’t take anything for granted,’’ Nava said. “There are so many things that have happened. I don’t think this is all luck or a coincidence. I believe there’s a bigger plan.

“If this ends tomorrow, so be it. If I play for 20 years, so be it. No matter what, I’ve had a lot of fun. It’s been a blast.’’

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