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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Shortstop delivered in grand way

There hadn't been a night like this in a while for Nomar Garciaparra.

His 2003 season ended badly, with the star shortstop swinging, missing, and failing for the first time in his Red Sox career. Then came the winter of discontent when his team tried to trade him, wounding his pride and psyche. That indignity was followed by a spring training Achilles' tendon injury that took him out of the first 57 games of the season, raising (in some corners) questions about his desire to return to the lineup.

Finally, he came back and played . . . and struggled. Wiseguys were putting "Pokey Would Have Had It" bumper stickers on their cars and the Nation seemed to have forgotten seven years of stellar service.

Nomar was hitting .243 with no homers and a mere 3 RBIs in 10 games when he stepped to the plate in the seventh inning last night against the Twins and made everything right for one shining moment. It was still a 4-1 ballgame and Manny Ramirez had been intentionally walked to load the bases. The immortal Joe Roa (No. 71 in your program) was summoned from the bullpen.

And then Nomar did what he's done so many times in his career. He swung at the first pitch and put the game out of reach, hitting a heat-seeking grand slam to the bleachers in straightaway center. The homer at once silenced his critics and reminded a forgetful Nation that he's still one of the best players in baseball, a player worth keeping now and forever.

"That must have felt good," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "To get a pitch and drive it like that, it's got to feel tremendous."

Ever one to downplay his deeds, Garciaparra settled for, "It was nice. I was just glad I was able to pick us up. David [Ortiz] and Manny and Curt [Schilling] all did great. The guys played good defensively."

Typical Nomar. He's not one to stand on the mountaintop and say, "Take that, you bozos!" He's never going to give us the Ali or Barkley sound bite. He spoonfeeds vanilla, even when the moment calls for Cherry Garcia or Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. We're never going to know how he really feels. Not even when it's too late and he's gone.

He came close last week when he spilled some truth on a Herald reporter while the team was in Colorado. He made references to anonymous critics, those straw men who think he "sucks." He said his skills would still be valued -- if not here, somewhere.

"I think those comments were in response to fans or someone who was doubting him," said Epstein. "We want him to succeed and see him stay here and succeed a long time. If you want to focus on a comment from him, focus on all the times that he says he wants to stay here and believe the man."

Garciaparra wasn't getting into the sensitive stuff last night. He wouldn't even take the bait when asked if there was any extra satisfaction out of a grand slam after Manny was intentionally walked to get to him.

"You expect stuff like that," said the shortstop. "Manny's been swinging the bat great."

Manager Terry Francona, speaking for all hitters of the world, said, "I think hitters always take it personally when you're on deck."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "You're picking your poison out there when you get in those situations. Walking through a grenade field as I'm walking back. You know you've got a good chance of stepping on something, something whacking you. A minefield or whatever you want to call it. Not a good feeling to have to walk the bases loaded for Garciaparra, that's what I'm trying to say here."

Well put, skip. Sox fans certainly take heart in finally seeing the lineup they envisioned last winter, finally seeing some protection for Messrs. Ortiz and Ramirez.

It's just too bad Nomar can't lay off that first pitch.

"Yeah, I've got to quit that," the shortstop said with a smile.

We haven't seen him smile much lately. This has been the toughest stretch of his professional career. Last night he finally exhaled. He unloaded all of his frustration on one swing and got a well-deserved curtain call from the standard sellout.

"The fans are fantastic and I've been saying it since Day One," he said. "And I appreciate every single one of them. I'm just glad I'm back."

A month ago, the Globe ran a story profiling a group of homeless men who like to watch the Sox every night at the Pine Street Inn. The fellows were watching the game on a 17-inch TV in a second-floor common room. After the story ran, several folks donated tickets to the fellows. Some even offered to improve the TV situation at the shelter. Yesterday, social worker Eileen O'Brien confirmed a rumor that a new television was being sent over to Pine Street -- courtesy of Nomar Garciaparra. This was done without fanfare, without press releases. It was done because it was the right thing to do. Discovery of the good deed was entirely accidental.

So there. There really is a baseball god, keeping score of much more than hits, runs, and errors.

Two grand slams in one day for Nomar. Not bad at all.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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