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One last, short stop

Fans applaud as Garciaparra, in sentimental turn, signs and then retires as a member of the Red Sox

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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Six years after Nomar Garciaparra left the Red Sox under a dark cloud, Pat Pink still tenderly dusts an autographed picture of him on her bedroom dresser, still dons a Garciaparra No. 5 jersey when she goes to Fenway Park.

Heartbroken that summer of 2004 when he was traded, she followed his career to Chicago and Los Angeles. He was no longer the sensation that made him one of the most beloved players in Red Sox history. But Pink still cheered. And when she heard yesterday that Garciaparra had been granted his wish to leave baseball in a Red Sox uniform, she felt a long-interrupted order had been restored.

“Going out as a Red Sox,’’ Pink said. “As it should be.’’

In Fort Myers, Fla., yesterday the 36-year-old Garciaparra announced that he had signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the Sox, and then promptly retired, so he could leave the game as a member of the team he loved. Just talking about it made him choke up, he said, and have chills.

Some around Fenway choked up, too.

“I teared up when I heard it,’’ K.J. Meline, a 61-year-old from Brentwood, N.H., said as she prepared to tour the park with her family. “I always loved him, and this just feels right.’’

For many, the man remembered yesterday was the “No Mah’’ who had electrified fans at shortstop and pushed .400 at the plate — and not the one criticized as a greedy, petulant ballplayer who let a contract dispute interfere with his play.

But there were those who scoffed. Garciaparra’s love of Boston and special connection to fans were not so apparent, some said, when he was here, especially near the end when he famously marked a red line around his locker to keep reporters at a distance and railed against fan criticism.

For fans like Dave McKenna of South Boston, the deal was a crude attempt to rewrite history and gloss over what they say was unforgivably mediocre play when he was mad at the team.

“He lay down on the Sox,’’ McKenna said. “All of this is just for show.’’

But those were hard-liners, and many others seemed willing to put aside any feelings of betrayal from that time. And the fact that Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who engineered Garciaparra’s departure in 2004, has now helped bring him back for his baseball sendoff struck many as a poignant note. However rancorous the split, Nomar and the Sox were meant to be together in the end, many said.

“Healing old wounds,’’ said Kevin St. Pierre, a 18-year-old from Dorchester who came of age as a baseball fan during Garciaparra’s heyday. “It’s a good day.’’

Garciaparra spent the first nine seasons of his 14-year career in Boston, wowing fans with an electric style of play and winning batting titles with a barrage of whistling line drives. Fans chanted “No Mah,’’ adopting the native Californian as New England’s own. Little Leaguers imitated his quirky batting stance and compulsive pre-pitch routine right down to the toe-tap. Even more than the brilliant pitcher Pedro Martinez, he was the face of the franchise.

But following the 2003 season, which ended with an agonizing playoff loss to the New York Yankees, the Sox tried to acquire Alex Rodriguez, the superstar shortstop from Texas, to replace Garciaparra. The deal fell through, but the relationship between Garciaparra and the team clearly soured.

By 2004, Garciaparra was in decline, and locked in tense contract negotiations with management. Battling injuries, he struggled in the field, and gained a reputation as an aloof teammate. At the trading deadline, in one of the biggest deals in Red Sox history, Garciaparra was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Many fans were devastated, but the team surged in his absence. That fall, as Sox fans well remember, the team won its first World Series in 86 years.

At the time, some fans were bitter toward Garciaparra, accusing him of nursing injuries, using performance-enhancing drugs, and angling for a trade. As the team thrived in his absence, even Garciaparra’s biggest fans came to support the trade.

“Some things happen for a reason,’’ said Bryan Valois, a 22-year-old Sox fan from Virginia visiting Fenway Park.

But over the years, most fans let bygones be bygones, a spirit of amnesty made easier by two championships.

Yesterday, the news of Garciaparra’s retirement sent many fans into fond nostalgia for his whip-like bat, grace in the field, and love of the game.

“He was the Red Sox,’’ said Juan Perez, a 61-year-old from the South End. “His best years were here, and he made such an imprint on the city. People just loved him.’’

At his press conference at the Red Sox spring training home in Florida, Garciaparra made it clear the affection was mutual.

“I just can’t put it into words what this organization has always meant to me,’’ an emotional Garciaparra said. “It’s my family, the fans — I always tell people Red Sox Nation is bigger than any nation out there. I came back home, and to be part of Red Sox Nation is truly a thrill.’’

Even fans of the rival New York Yankees agreed it was fitting that Garciaparra retire with his original team, where he reached his greatest heights as an athlete.

“I always liked him,’’ said Ian Kirschner, a 20-year-old University of Florida student visiting Fenway Park. “I always thought of him as a Red Sock.’’

Gar McLean was in grade school in 1996 when Garciaparra burst onto the scene, and he immediately became his favorite player. Long after Garciaparra left Boston, McLean rooted for him, even when he faced the Sox.

“Nothing to hurt the team,’’ McLean quickly clarified. “Just a single or double, if no one was on base.’’

Garciaparra played only 65 games last year for Oakland, and McLean, who at 22 is now the same age as Garciaparra when he made his big-league debut, had expected this day might come. Still, it was hard to see his career come to a close.

“I had braced myself for it,’’ he said. “But it’s still really disappointing. I grew up with him.’’