As a diehard Notre Dame football fan growing up, Rudy Ruettiger was my hero. The movie “Rudy” is the true story of a boy from a working-class Chicago neighborhood who defies everyone by making the football team at Notre Dame. Rudy had to overcome many obstacles including size, grades, physical ability, poverty, dyslexia, and constant setbacks. He enrolled at Holy Cross Junior College, got straight A’s, transferred to Notre Dame, walked onto the practice squad, and got beat up every day in practice before finally getting on the field for a play in which he recorded his lone career sack.
It’s all very impressive, but doesn’t compare to the story of the Boston Red Sox‘ Daniel Nava.
Rudy was a giant compared to Nava. During his freshmen year at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California, Nava was 4- 8 and weighed in at 70 pounds. By his senior year he had blown up to a whopping 5-5 and 150 pounds. After playing high school baseball Nava tried to walk onto the Santa Clara baseball team, just like Rudy did. However, unlike Rudy, Nava didn’t make the team and settled for equipment manager for the below-.500 West Coast Conference school.
Just like Rudy, Nava struggled to pay for school and was forced to leave Santa Clara after two seasons. He also enrolled at San Mateo Junior College and excelled on their baseball team. The Broncos wanted him back and offered him a full scholarship as he excelled his second time around and earned All-Conference honors.
Despite his success at Santa Clara, Nava was not drafted in any of the 50 rounds of the 2006 MLB draft. He signed with the now defunct independent baseball squad Chico Outlaws, but even they cut him after tryouts. He was brought back a year later after an injury opened up a roster spot. He took advantage of his second chance by tearing the cover off the ball en route to becoming the number one rated independent league prospect in the country.
The Red Sox bought his rights for $1. Yes, $1. Daniel Nava was cheaper for the Red Sox than a junior bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s.
Nava continued to hit in Single-A and worked his way up to the Pawtucket Red Sox. When questioned by a reporter as to what motivated him at age 27 to keep playing baseball he said, “I definitely thought I could perform and perform well. That’s why I kept on going. Quitting’s just not much of an option for me.” This attitude paid off as he was called up to Boston in June of 2010, and hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw, making him only the second player in MLB history to accomplish this feat.
Despite hitting well for the Red Sox he was sent between Boston and Pawtucket four more times in the next two months. His reward for this patience and perseverance? Clearing waivers and a season in the minors in 2011. In 2012 the Red Sox gave him another chance after injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury. He had some timely hits but finished with a .243 average.
Just as in every season, 2013 presented Nava with another obstacle: Jackie Bradley Jr. The Red Sox’ top outfield prospect was the talk of spring training and was clearly MLB-ready. Nava took his familiar role on the bench. However, once Bradley’s play started to cool off Nava was once again opportunistic. In his third game he joined the hit parade, smashing a home run in the Red Sox’ 13-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
In Monday’s home opener against the Baltimore Orioles manager John Farrell made the controversial call to give Nava the start over Bradley. Nava made him look like a genius, smashing the game winning three-run home run in the seventh inning. The image of a smiling Nava rounding the bases has become the defining image for the 2013 team. They are having fun and they like what they do. They are grateful for the opportunity to be relevant once again and most importantly they are winning.
Just like Rudy, Nava has transcended size and socioeconomics with fortitude and determination. He needs to be taken seriously and will be a critical part of the Red Sox success this year.
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