Retires A Red Sox
On March 10, 2010 the Boston Red Sox and Nomar Garciaparra took part in what appeared to be a final publicity stunt to sell #5 jerseys. The team signed Nomar to a one-day contract so he could retire a Red Sox. It may sound cynical, but I actually thought the Red Sox had signed Nomar to a minor league contract so he could pepper a ball over the Green Monster in one ultimate Nomar love-fest call-up game, similar to what happened in his first game against the Sox for the A’s back in 2009.
Yet this was not to be. The Nom-ah we knew and loved is now gone, and he isn’t coming back. I believe that astute Red Sox fans knew that Nomar would never be the same after his wrist injury in 2001, even though everyone held out hope for the next few seasons. Remember the Sports Illustrated cover back then? What a jinx! Nomar appeared all buff on the pre-season prediction issue, which pegged the Red Sox to win it all. I STILL have that issue. I should have tossed it out right after he got hurt, but memories of so many great plays over the years compelled me keep it as a dusty memento.
Nomar was the best shortstop in the world at the end of the 1990s. Jeter could tuck it, A-Rod could stuff it, but nobody, I mean nobody, hit better from the shortstop position. Nomar achieved two consecutive batting titles, in 1999 (.357) and again in 2000 (.372), and he was certainly on a pace to have the most homeruns at shortstop, with 30+ round-trippers in each of those seasons.
I will never forget a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon in 2002, when on his birthday he hit two homeruns in one inning, en route to a 3 homerun and 10 rbi performance in a 23-7 shellacking of the Devil Rays. I had actually left Fenway Park after Nomar’s third blast because it was intolerably hot. Or also after Damian Jackson and Johnny Damon butted heads in pursuit of a pop-fly in the 2003 ALCS against the A’s, when Garciaparra alertly threw to second base to snipe-out the batter-runner.
After much promise going into the 2001 season, even with the signing of the great masher Manny Ramirez, without Nomah's bat, the Sox seemed deflated. We were offered a brief respite that summer—a mid-July game where Nomar finally made it back to the Sox in a savior role—getting key hits in a win against the White Sox, but the season's hope were already sunken, and it just was not to be. I remember listening to the car radio at York Beach in Maine—I didn’t bring a portable radio—but I traded the surf and sand for AC and the dulcet tones of Jerry Trupiano and Joe Castiglione that day.
Nomar ended the 2003 regular season with a disastrous September, hitting around .195 for the month, yet still managed to keep his average above .300 for the season. But this was the beginning of the end for him in Boston, and Game 6 of the ALCS against the Yankees would be the last great playoff performance for Nomar, when he got a key double in the 8th inning and scored a run on a throwing error by Hideki Matsui.
After the disastrous season-ending loss in Game 7 to the Yankees, Red Sox fans had some lofty expectations for 2004 with the signing of Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. Nomar anchored the most prolific offense in baseball history, and things were really looking up for the Sox. Yet Nomar held out in spring training for a new contract, and the Sox offered a four-year $60-million dollar deal, certainly a lot, but not that much considering the benchmarks of other elite players such as Manny Ramirez’s $180-million dollar deal, or Alex Rodriguez's $250-million dollar albatross. They are typical examples of salaries homerun-happy owners were willing to dole out in an era of bloated contracts and widespread steroid use.
I presume Nomar believed he should have received a contract along the lines of those two players, but the Sox were definitely stingy (or prudent) for good reason due to a non-particular and possibly dubious Achilles tendon injury, which Nomar had suffered in spring training via a pitch off his foot. Nomar's expectation was that he would be shown the money, but appeared snake-bitten after contract negotiations, and missed the first couple of months with his "injury." This is speculation of course, and there may be truth to this injury. He played sparingly even when he did come back, and did not participate in a key game against the Yankees, with the Red Sox 9-1/2 games out of first place. Derek Jeter dove head-first into the stands to catch a pop-up, then victoriously ascended from the seats all battered and bloodied, while Nomar sat conspicuously on the bench with a stone-cold stare. The spectacle was nauseating to loyal Nomar devotees.
Nomar hit almost .400 in his limited role in 2003, but it appeared he was playing out his string with the Red Sox. The infamous trade that came minutes before the July 31st deadline to the Cubs was shocking, but only by the fact that Nomar was so deeply ingrained in the minds of Red Sox fans. There have been many articles, books, movies, photo collages, babies, poetry, religious ceremonies etc., devoted to what transpired in the next 3 months, so I will not mention the results here.
Garciaparra continued to struggle with the inside fastball with the Cubs, a pitch he used to spank out of the ballpark, and another general leg injury ensured he had a limited playing-role for the rest of his career. Also in 2005, the Red Sox made their first trip to Wrigley Field since the 1918 World Series, but Nomar was nowhere to be found.
After two injury-plagued seasons with the Cubs, Nomar swapped his shortstop glove for a first baseman's mitt, and played surprisingly well for the LA Dodgers. The Dodgers could have been nicknamed Red Sox West, with a roster of former Red Sox players that included Derek Lowe, Bill Mueller, Nomar Garciaparra, and then later Manny Ramirez after another blockbuster trade. Nomar was actually put on the disabled list to make room for Manny in an ironic move. The Dodgers made it to the NLCS against the Phillies, and the series went all seven games. After watching Nomar make the final out, I thought he was going to hang ‘em up.
But Nomar surprised almost everyone by signing a deal in 2009 with the Oakland Athletics to once again play first base. The Oakland Athletics made only one trip to Fenway Park, and it was a big Nomar lovefest during those three days. He batted .281 for the A’s in 2009, although he was playing in the canyon that is Oakland Coliseum.
Garciaparra's time in the sun ended too soon, as it always seems to do, but he could have been the shortstop everyone was compared too. Steroid rumors abounded. Will Nomar's hitting prowess always be cast in a dubious light like so many others from that era? The way he bulked up, promptly injured himself, and incurred nagging injuries thereafter, while before he was one of the most durable players on the team. We can only dream of what could have been, but how could we ask for anything better in 2004, even if Nom-ah wasn't along for the ride? He still got a ring!