In early 2010, Torey Lovullo worried that Daniel Nava might be vulnerable to vertigo.
The concern wasn't medical. Instead, it related to the idea that Nava, after sprinting up Kilimanjaro with his head down, focused only on each successive step in front of him, might suddenly look up, look around and become light-headed at the reality of his altitude.
Nava was in the third year of a professional career that had already exceeded any reasonable expectations, going from his well-documented non-playing origins to an indy league MVP and now a player who could make a legitimate claim to being the most consistent hitter in the Red Sox farm system since the team had acquired his rights from the Golden Baseball League for an initial down payment of $1.
While his prospect path had been unconventional, in the eyes of the team, he'd demonstrated convincingly that he could play. He hit .341 with a .424 OBP in High-A Lancaster in his pro debut in 2008, mashed at a combined .352/.458 clip between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland in 2009 (a season limited to 61 games by injuries) and now, in early 2010 in Pawtucket, he was raking.
He was no longer a minor league bench contributor who was waiting for other players to get injured so that he could have an opportunity. Lovullo was getting him on the field every day in Triple-A, and by mid-May, Nava was hitting .320 with a .405 OBP and .531 slugging mark along with six homers in 36 games.
It was time for the talk.
"The whole scenario for me is one that was a process. I saw him in spring training as a very capable, contact-oriented switch-hitter who could play left and right field. There's value in that type of player," recalled Lovullo of what he saw in 2010. "From there, it was just a matter of being able to watch him and evaluate some of his tools a little bit further. So as I watched him play, he was very productive. His bat-to-ball, he was more than contact-oriented. He was driving the ball to all fields. He was hitting the ball out of the ballpark both left- and right-handed.
"At a certain point, probably in late-May, I said to him, 'Are you aware that you're going to be a big league player?' I think I caught him by surprise. He'd never probably processed that. He never thought about it. He just kept his head down, was grinding away and said, 'OK, if I do my job here, I'll see what happens next year.' But I wanted to make him aware that he was doing things that a big league player could do."
Because Nava's path towards the big leagues had been unique, Lovullo thought that the corner outfielder needed to receive a unique message. In nine minor league seasons as a manager, Lovullo said, Nava is the only player with whom he ever felt compelled to have such a conversation before it was time for his summons to the big leagues.
After all, most players reach the conclusion that they're big league-ready prematurely. Baseball history is littered with players who struggle desperately in no small part because they feel that their organization has done them an injustice by assigning them to a level that is below their abilities -- the Double-A player who fumes in Portland because he thinks that he's shown he can hold his own as a big leaguer.
Nava was different.
"That's what we do as teachers. We pay attention to our students. We care about each guy in a different way, and I could see that Daniel had more progressive thoughts," said Lovullo. "He wasn't ripping heads apart. He was more or less working his way into what he wanted to get to, and I just wanted to be proactive. I just thought I needed to lay this on the line for him and have him understand what's around this corner. That's how I said it to him. I said, 'I just want to prepare you for what's around this turn, Daniel.' You're not going to another independent league from here. You're not going to Japan. You're going to the major leagues. That's your next step. Align your thoughts, because you are a big leaguer."
The "progressive" nature of Nava's thoughts became evident in the way he responded. The outfielder, then 27, had been told during spring training by Red Sox team officials that he'd positioned himself to be a potential big league depth option. Nonetheless, when the PawSox manager informed him that he was in line for a big league promotion, he still reacted with humility and curiosity.
"After that [initial conversation], he came in and asked why," Lovullo recalled of how Nava received his message. "I said, 'You can play both outfield positions very well. You have above-average speed. And you're a good hitter -- a very, very capable hitter who can drive the ball out of the ballpark. If there's a need, I'm going to recommend you. I just wanted you to be aware of that.' "
Nava did not realize that Lovullo's message was uncommon for minor leaguers. And because of the conversation he'd had with the team's player development staff entering spring training, it did not come as a complete shock given his early-season performance. Still, in retrospect, Nava understands why he'd be singled out for such a communique.
Even now, the 30-year-old frequently remains mindful of what he refers to as his "journey" or his "path." Though it's finally unnecessary for him to detail each step of it -- the undersized high schooler, the team manager in college at a time when he had no hope of cracking the team, the startling growth spurt, the struggle even to find a roster spot in the indy leagues, the eventual transfer of his rights to the Sox for $1 -- Nava's perspective on the improbability of his success is different from that of virtually anyone else in a big league clubhouse.
And so, he understands why Lovullo felt the need to tell him something that other minor leaguers might consider obvious.
"My guess, the reason why he did that is because he knew the journey that I'd taken and knew that I needed to mentally prepare, because up until that point, I don't think I'd ever been told by anyone that I had a chance to be in the big leagues," said Nava. "That year in spring training, in the player meetings in spring training, they said, 'Hey, we just want to give you a head's up, we're not saying it's going to happen, but we think you should start mentally preparing yourself that you could be in the big leagues.' That was the first time I'd even considered it. I didn't even think I was going to make the team in Triple-A. I thought I was going back to Double-A.
"[So] I think [Lovullo] wanted to prepare me as best as he could mentally. But how can you ever prepare someone for their first experience in the big leagues? It's something you can't completely prepare yourself for, but I think that's why he did it. I didn't know that was the first time he'd ever done that, though."
A couple weeks later, there was another sort-of-landmark conversation between the two. Jeremy Hermida suffered fractured ribs, and Josh Reddick was struggling in the big leagues. And so, Nava was dispatched to Boston for his potential call-up, but without the certainty that it would take place.
"Torey called me in his office. It was, 'You're going to the big leagues. We don't know if you're going to be activated or not,' " Nava recalled. "He said, 'I wish I could give you a big hug and tell you, "Congrats, you're going to start in left," but I don't even know if they're going to call you up there and send you back. He kind of gave me every scenario just so I could try and be prepared. It was kind of a weird, subdued excitement if that makes sense."
Nava, of course, was added and enjoyed his memorable success in his first big league plate appearance, on his first big league pitch. But that success proved fleeting, something of which Nava -- who casually mentions the fact that he was designated for assignment and removed from the Sox' 40-man roster, going unclaimed by every team in baseball in early 2011 -- also remains acutely aware now, at a time when his big league performance has put him in very different conversations.
By and large, Nava's career has been one in which each success has come as something of a revelation, a remarkable narrative about a baseball-playing Rudy. But what he's done on the field is no longer simply a tale of the defiance of odds.
Nava has now asserted himself as one of the most productive outfielders in the American League, someone who appears set to make his postseason debut in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rays not just as a feel-good story about determination but instead because he is performing at a level that suggests a championship-caliber contributor.
In 2013, Nava finished the year hitting .303 -- eighth in the American League. His .385 OBP was fifth in the AL, behind only a group of four superstars (Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joe Mauer, David Ortiz) and just ahead of other star performers like MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and Robinson Cano. His .831 OPS was third in the American League, behind only Trout and Jose Bautista.
Yet even now, Nava struggles to believe exactly what has transpired, that he's made the transition from a player whose big league existence was tenuous to one whose performance puts him in the company of some of the game's best.
"That's the craziest thing," said Nava. "I was talking to my wife. She was there in 2011 when I was taken off the 40-man and struggling. To all of a sudden be like, 'Wow, this is the place I'm in, looking back,' it's crazy to think all this has happened in such a short time. Get taken off the 40-man, put back on the 40-man, to play, to be a contributing factor. That's all you want in my role -- to be contributing on a team like this. We've got stars up and down the lineup. Fortunately, a lot of guys chipped in. I'm glad to be one of those. I can't thank God enough. I never thought I'd be sitting here talking about hitting three-whatever.
"That's a shock to me," Nava said of the company he's keeping in terms of OBP. "I don't feel like I've walked as much as I would've liked to have walked, but I've made up for it by getting hit. Those are guys who have done this for a long time and done it very, very well. It's kind of humbling and cool at the same time."
Yet in typical fashion, Nava deflects the accomplishment onto his teammates.
"The way that our lineup is shaped and how our team contributes in terms of offensive efficiency, David is the only guy with 100 RBIs. Then after that, you've got the guys up and down the lineup who can hit anywhere, anytime," said Nava. "You get those guys all lined up, it allows me and everyone else to just go out and be themselves. You don't have to do more. It really allows a player to just relax and play their game. I never felt with this coaching staff or anyone else that I had to be someone I wasn't. I guess that's in part allowed me to be me -- ugly BP, and hopefully some balls fall in during the game."
While Nava shies from what he's become, those who have watched his emergence can marvel with amazement and appreciation for what he is, and how he got there. Lovullo, the man who felt comfortable recommending Nava and preparing him for his first big league opportunity three years ago, admits that he catches himself shaking his head in disbelief at the player's evolution.
"I thought he was going to be a very capable big leaguer. I thought he could be a productive and capable big leaguer, but to say that I thought he could be one of the elite in that category, it's hard to say that I could predict that. Anybody that says they saw that coming for any player, not just for Daniel Nava, is crazy," said Lovullo. "If everybody knew what Daniel Nava would be, there would have been a fight over him. It's a tribute to Daniel -- because of his mental toughness, his perseverance, and his ability to just stay on it, stay on it and stay with his dream. It's so easy to cheer for him because of that. Could I have predicted this? Not in a million years. But it's a lot of fun to watch."