Nava, McDonald flourish as unlikely Red Sox

Daniel Nava was undrafted and toiled in independent ball before landing with the Red Sox

For the last three weeks, the Boston Red Sox have remained near the top of baseball's toughest division with a pair of starting outfielders making $400,000.

Neither Daniel Nava(notes) nor Darnell McDonald(notes) should be here.

Both are.

And perhaps the only thing more incongruous than a $162.7 million team resorting to minimum-salary non-prospects to save its season is how the unlikeliest successes of 2010 ended up with the Red Sox in the first place.

One dollar. That's what Daniel Nava was worth to the Boston Red Sox: $1. He was a Powerball ticket.

Only the lottery hits on occasion, and guys like Nava – they might as well be in a rigged game. The independent-to-big league path is so rarely trod, major league teams pay only $1 to purchase the contracts of men who are playing on the sport's fringe for a reason.

Or a few. Nava was 4-foot-8, 70 pounds as a freshman in high school. His parents took him to a doctor who prescribed growth hormone; Nava stopped taking it because his fingers swelled. He stood 5-foot-5 as a senior and started in center field but logged only five at-bats because his coach used a designated hitter in his spot. He tried to walk on at the University of Santa Clara and was asked instead to become team manager. He did that, left for a junior college, hit a growth spurt, came back to Santa Clara on scholarship and won the West Coast Conference batting title.

No team drafted him. None offered a free-agent contract, either. Nava tried to latch on with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. They didn't want him. Life as a civilian beckoned. Those years honing his swings – Nava's father made him switch stances every at-bat, left-handed, then right-handed, then lefty, then righty, no matter the matchup – could get him only so far. Perceptions can kill a career before it begins.

Except that Chico found a roster spot for Nava. And by the end of the 2007 season, during which he hit .371 and slugged .625, the Red Sox found four spare quarters to get his rights. He raked at High-A ball in 2008, in Double-A last year and in Triple-A this season, and when injuries waylaid the Red Sox outfield, they couldn't continue to deny the production.

So up he came. The Red Sox players didn't know him because he hadn't merited an invitation to major league camp. They didn't understand his preparation, how he never watches video because he's afraid he will spend too much time aching over minute mechanical adjustments. And they didn't know the sort of individual he was, how one morning in the Bay Area a policeman cited him for jaywalking and Nava wasn't as mad at the bogus ticket as he was at showing up 20 minutes late for a workout.

"He was always so punctual, and he kept apologizing," said Jon Cohen, Nava's trainer. "He's just so sincere. You want all the athletes you work with to succeed. Daniel is such a special person. Not only his story. Who he is."

He is still a rookie, and he feels like one. Nava traverses the clubhouse with a certain nervousness. He doesn't want to do anything that would make him look out of place. He already feels there. Veterans needed to teach him about the dress code and the proper tips to give clubhouse attendants. They hand him gear to get loaded on the team charter, from boxes to bone-growth stimulators. He has done nothing but learn since June 12.

On that day, the Red Sox called Nava up from Triple-A Pawtucket. They played him in left field and batted him ninth.

"You watch guys play on TV, and then you go up there and face them, and you realize it's the same game," Nava said. "I do my best to slow it down so I don't feel like it's too out of control."

He couldn't help himself. Across his chest were the words RED SOX. He was in left field, in front of the Green Monster, for two innings before his first at-bat. When he dug in against Joe Blanton(notes), Nava resolved to swing at a first-pitch fastball. Blanton fed him one.

The ball landed 397 feet later. The bases, by the way, were loaded. On his first major league pitch, 27-year-old Daniel Nava hit a grand slam.

Sitting inside the visitors' clubhouse at Coors Field, Darnell McDonald surveys the room. His Red Sox teammates tap away at their iPads and engage in Connect Four wars and bide their time before batting practice. This is when McDonald relaxes and breathes in the major league life that, after all these years, is so sacred.

"It's been a storybook season for me from Day 1," McDonald said, and this is no exaggeration. To hyperbolize such moments is not something a 31-year-old seeing his first regular major league action does. He savors, he appreciates and he prays that it's not going to stop, because, really, that's all he knows.

When McDonald hit a pinch-hit home run in his first Red Sox at-bat this season, then followed with a game-winning RBI single an inning later, out poured 13 years – of work, and of frustration, and of paying the sort of penance that begs baseball sainthood. McDonald was drafted in 1997 by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round, and he has played 1,338 games in the minor leagues since. His cups of coffee with the big league clubs in Baltimore, Minnesota and Cincinnati were cold. Baseball had sentenced McDonald to a life of Triple-A purgatory.

"I've been up," he said. "I've also been down. And I've been down. And I've been down. Story of my career, man."

Boston signed McDonald this offseason after he spent part of last season as a defensive replacement with the Reds. He hurt an oblique in spring training and started the year at Pawtucket. Injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) and Mike Cameron(notes) forced the Red Sox to put him in center field the night of his heroics and for nearly a month thereafter.

With Cameron set to return, the Red Sox planned to cut McDonald. They set him up with a hotel room and a ticket back to Boston. He watched a movie, then fell asleep. He knew the routine.

Then the phone rang. It was Red Sox manager Terry Francona. He asked McDonald to head to Tropicana Field. Ellsbury had hurt himself again. McDonald wasn't going to get designated for assignment after all. Disappointed would, for once, evade him. He could continue writing this new story.

All those years spent wondering whether he made the right decision coming out of high school – to turn down the University of Texas, where Ricky Williams hosted him and Mack Brown so desperately wanted him to play running back, and sign for $1.9 million with Baltimore – suddenly had a new answer: absolutely. Because this was right, finally right, McDonald given a fresh start with an organization that regarded him not as bust or washout but ballplayer.

"The older I get, the more I learn not to worry," McDonald said. "I like playing. Whether it's the minor leagues or here, I'm going to have the same attitude. I come, I work hard, I enjoy every day. My experiences have brought me to the point where I can appreciate being here that much more."

It was with particular joy, then, that McDonald slipped on his uniform June 23. The Red Sox were facing the best pitcher in baseball, Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), and their starting outfield was the same as Pawtucket's in its first game this year: Nava in left, McDonald in center and Josh Reddick(notes) in right. Nava and Reddick appreciated getting to face Jimenez; the evening's delights were multifold for McDonald.

He grew up in suburban Denver. His family and friends were there. He wanted to do something, and in the sixth inning, with Nava on after his second RBI double of the night, McDonald turned on a 96-mph fastball. The ball kept flying, deeper and deeper, 433 feet by the end, a dagger to Jimenez's night, and his ERA, and the whole notion that guys like Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava can't pummel the best pitcher in the major leagues just like the biggest star.

It's unfair to compare, because each path is so unique, so personal. It's interesting, though, to gauge who they believe is the unlikelier Red Sox hero.

"Definitely Nava," McDonald said. "He was undrafted. Went through independent ball. I couldn't imagine doing that."

"Him," Nava said. "That's earning it right there. Thirteen years is a long time. Though we don't really sit here and compete for it."

How about this: Both are equally improbable, and together – on this team, with this franchise that is run so well, from general manager Theo Epstein down to area scouts, and a payroll of more than $162 million – it's downright impossible.

"However they got here," Francona said, "the whole idea is for people to help us win."

And they are. Nava started 15 games before Francona rested him. He's hitting . 302 with an .856 OPS and has batted as high as second for Boston. McDonald has played in 63 games, nearly as many as his previous major league stints combined. He has five homers and has compensated for his mediocre center field defense with big hits.

"I like where I'm at," McDonald said.

"Things worked out for me," Nava said.

Each smiles. They're here. Still. That surprises them and edifies them. Because they've continued to acquit themselves, they'll often share the outfield, Nava in left wearing No. 60, McDonald in center wearing No. 54, high digits usually reserved for marginal players.

For every Stephen Strasburg(notes) and Jason Heyward(notes), there are a thousand Daniel Navas and Darnell McDonalds, guys with skill and pluck and want-to and some sort of flaw, inherent or assigned, that attaches itself to their vita and refuses to dislodge.

Most never make it, not in a place like Boston, not anywhere. On a dollar and a dream, and a baker's dozen years of trying, the unlikeliest two did.