It is “What if?” week at SB Nation, so we’ll have a few posts throughout the week looking at some “What ifs” from Red Sox history. This is one of those posts!
I remember screaming at the television. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was it — a chance at real baseball history, and not just the trivial kind. The etched-in-marble kind. The bases were loaded, and it was Daniel Nava’s debut, and the pitch came in on rails, and I waited for deliverance. I’m still waiting.
Let’s back up two innings. Then 27-year-old Nava hit the first pitch he ever saw in the majors for a grand slam. It is as crazy now as it was then, a full 10 years ago next month, coming in an interleague game against the Phillies. But don’t take my word for it:
Nava later said that he felt compelled to swing at the first pitch at least partially because Joe Castiglione told him you only ever got one chance to maul your introduction to baseball, and you might as well take it. Small sample size and all, but the proof is in the pudding. If Daniel Nava’s story proves literally nothing else, it should be that the upside of striving for glory often outweighs the cost; greatness is in reach if we just grab for it. Immortality, even.
First off, imagine if there’s no advice. Let’s go as far as to say: no advice; no advice, no swing. Let’s further say no swing on the first pitch, no home run. This is real butterfly effect stuff, but I have thought about it more than once. It’s hard to separate oneself from a killer origin story, and in this case, why would you? It’s the stuff of dreams.
One’s first at-bat is, in essence, completely divorced from the rest of one’s career the same way Opening Day is from the rest of the baseball season. It’s not just a semantic difference. It’s psychological. The first day is for piss and vinegar — the other days are not necessarily for either. It’s a slog. It’s hard to conceive now that we’re so desperate for it, but it’s a terrible, terrible slog.
Anyhow. Nava hits the grand slam. It really is something else, and the rest of his career will justify its wonder.. It is probably the best moment of Daniel Nava’s life outside of getting married, having children or winning the World Series. It might be better than those. I will never know, and that’s what makes me different from him. He lived the dream. I just imagined it.
But what I knew then, that I know now, and has bothered me for a decade, is that unlike Nava, I was — apparently — cool-headed enough to fully realize the enormity of the opportunity that lay beyond his historic achievement. The second at-bat laid it all bare.
Look at Fernando Tatis. He’s probably better known at this point for his son, who figures to be a better ballplayer by a pretty decent margin, than he is for the fact he hit two grand slams in a single inning, a stat that only gets more insane as the years pass. Even accounting for the fact that big innings exist, the first grand slam would necessarily happen at least four batters into an inning, by definition. Which means the odds of things coming back around to a 13th spot in the order are very bad, like tiny percentages bad, and the odds of the bases loaded even less, and then, you know, the second homer. But it happened.
And why did it happen?
It happened because Tatis swung the bat. There is a lesson here. You must swing the bat.
Let’s get to it. Against all odds, Nava’s second at-bat came against the same pitcher, Joe Blanton, in the third inning. Blanton had stopped the bleeding, but if anyone was capable of giving up two grand slams on consecutive pitches to a baseball player making his debut, it was Blanton. It’s not even an insult. It’s Major League Baseball. You gotta be good to be bad.
Anyhow as I’m watching this game the only thing I care about is whether or not the bases will be loaded when Nava comes up again and reader, they are. The tension, if only in my chest, could suffocate a rhino. This is it. This is the moment. This is the moment everything changes. Blanton is dying out there, as someone who has given up a grand slam and is fixing to surrender another is likely to be. He cannot waste a pitch. It is time to party.
At this moment in time, the only other player in baseball history to hit a grand slam on their first career pitch was Kevin Kouzmanoff, who did so in 2006. Think of the odds, then, of a second grand slam, on the second pitch, after the first — in the long list of records that would never be broken, you’d have to have put it near the top. Daniel Nava. In the history books, forever. What a world!
It’s not this world. Nava does not hit a grand slam. Here is what happens. Try not to scream:
He takes the 82 mile per hour pitch down the middle, and that is it. After that, I know it’s not happening. That was the one. The career, the life that Nava has built for himself — it’s all wonderful, and the start was so good as to be scarcely replicable. Still, almost none of us will have a similar chance at history in our lives, and when we do, I hope we are keen enough in the moment to go for broke, if not for ourselves for everyone else.
It didn’t take “What if?” week for me to mope about this; I think the sheer magnitude of the opportunity from time to time. It is quite a thing to see a portal to immortality open before your very eyes. It’s also quite a thing to watch the opportunity vanish for it to be immediately memory-holed. Maybe everyone else forgot about this, but I didn’t. I can’t. And now you can’t either.