Mark O’Brien, the baseball coach at Santa Clara University, was only being polite when he invited Daniel Nava to come out for his team as a walk-on in the fall of 2001.
Nava weighed 135 pounds and did not get many at-bats during his senior year at St. Francis High in nearby Mountain View, Calif. He played well in center field, but the coaches often would use a designated hitter for him.
O’Brien was a graduate of St. Francis and knew Nava from the summer camps at Stanford when he was an assistant there. Nava became a batboy for the Cardinal and when he was ready for college, O’Brien gave him the opportunity at Santa Clara as a favor.
“He came out for the team and I’ll be honest with you, he didn’t get many balls out of the infield,’’ O’Brien said. “I called him in the office and said, ‘Hey, man, I love you as a kid but I can’t look you in the eye and say you can play for this team.’ It’s hard to let a kid go, but there wasn’t much I could do.’’
But O’Brien was willing to let Nava hang around the program. What he could offer was a chance to shag balls during batting practice, rake the field and wash the uniforms on road trips.
“Most kids wouldn’t have wanted to do that,’’ O’Brien said. “But look what happened.’’
The former team manager is now 4 for 8 with 2 doubles, a grand slam, and 5 RBIs as a member of the Red Sox, arriving on Saturday and starting two games in left field. There is not a more unlikely rookie in all of baseball than the 27-year-old Nava.
“People have asked me if I wake up and think it was a dream,’’ Nava said. “I’m asking myself that all the time when I’m awake. It’s a little hard to believe.’’
Wearing a Santa Clara polo shirt, O’Brien took a recruiting trip to Florida on Sunday night. As he made his way down the aisle of the plane, people asked if he knew Nava.
“I had to stop and tell the story a few times,’’ he said. “But I don’t mind, it’s a great story.’’
Nava stuck around the Santa Clara program for two seasons. O’Brien considered activating him as a sophomore when an unexpected growth spurt left Nava 5 feet 10 inches and 170 pounds. A pipsqueak no longer, Nava was driving the ball to all fields. But for financial reasons, Nava had to leave school and enrolled at San Mateo Junior College.
That’s when Nava emerged. He hit .400 in two seasons and returned to Santa Clara, this time on a scholarship. Nava hit .395 with a .495 on-base percentage as a senior.
SCU Coach Mark O'Brien Reflects on Daniel Nava's Day
Much has been written about former Bronco equipment manager Daniel Nava in the last 24 hours. From his rise as equipment manager for the Bronco baseball team his freshman year of college to his grand slam in his first major league at-bat on Saturday with the Boston Red Sox, many Bronco fans had a twinkle in their eye when watching SportsCenter last night. Just Google his name, it's amazing.
SCU: Did you see Daniel's grand slam live? Where you watching the game?
MB: I watched the game at my home live on FOX (national TV game vs. the Phillies). My wife called and told me it was on; and I walked in when he was on deck the first time. My two-year-old daughter Brooklyn was taking a nap and needless to say, she woke up after he launched it because I was so fired up. What a great first at-bat in the major leagues - a grand slam off the defending World Series champions.
SCU: How many times have you seen the replay of Daniel's grand slam? When you saw it on ESPN's SportsCenter did it give you goose bumps?
MB: I literally was choked up and had tears (I'm not afraid to admit that - that's what coaching is all about) when he hit the thing. I have seen it 20-plus times already.
SCU: Asking you if you are surprised he is in the big
leagues and made that kind of introduction seems kind of silly.
But, are you? What thoughts do you have on his rise after leaving
MB: I don't think anyone thought coming out of high school that Daniel could play Division I baseball, let alone make it to the big leagues. Then, after his growth spurt and his journey started, I am not surprised because he is the most disciplined and best work-ethic guy I have ever coached. He's an amazing kid.
SCU: When was the last time you talked to Daniel? To his parents?
MB: I saw him at our Bronco Alumni game and before he left for spring training. I called his Dad yesterday. I don't want to bother Daniel right now, I am sure he is flooded right now with phone calls and media attention. He probably is flooded with everything, but I will call him tomorrow.
SCU: What does this tell athletes about hard work? What lesson can be learned from this?
MB: It is a great teaching lesson to the players in our program and all athletes as well. I actually gave everyone on the baseball team an article on Daniel about two months ago and told them that there is ALWAYS a way out of anything. Work ethic and attitude can get you a lot of places. Daniel worked his freshman and sophomore years as our manager, our equipment guy. It's wonderful for him and his family.
SCU: Is this one of your biggest thrills in your career?
MB: Daniel was the 27th player I coached that has made it to the big leagues and without question he is the person I am most proud of. I still haven't stopped thinking about it.