ATLANTA -- Trade Nomar.
Nomar Garciaparra is one of the best and most popular players in the history of the Red Sox franchise, but it's time for the Sox to make a deal for their star shortstop. Thursday night's ridiculous "day off" in what turned out to be the best, most important, and most painful game of the season was the final indication that it's time for Nomar to go.
This is no attempt to bash a guy when he's hurt and struggling defensively and at the plate. Garciaparra battled back from an Achilles' injury and always gives 100 percent on the field. But the idea that he could play Wednesday and again last night, when he had three hits -- but not Thursday when Red Sox Nation needed him most -- is absurd. Manager Terry Francona can take the blame (like he always does) if he wants, but it was a ridiculous decision by both player and manager. Better to have urged Nomar to play Thursday night, then home to Boston for a four-day holiday weekend.
This was a situation that called for Warren Zevon's philosophy of "I'll sleep when I'm dead."
Thursday was not the day to rest. Not in the series finale against the Yankees. Not after what happened the first two nights. There was urgency in New York for that final game. The SS Red Sox was taking on water and the Sox needed all hands on deck. But according to his manager, Nomar told his boss he couldn't play. "I gave him every opportunity," Francona told Yankees broadcaster (and former pitcher) Jim Kaat before Thursday's game. Francona tried to qualify that yesterday, saying, "That doesn't sound like it came out like I would have envisioned. If I misled Jim, maybe I made a mistake."
Both Francona and Garciaparra tried to put a better face on the decision after the 13-inning epic -- a game punctuated by Derek Jeter's game-saving catch and stage dive into the seats. But the damage is done. The manager and the shortstop made hollow statements about Nomie wanting to play and working to get loose when the game went into extra innings.
In every way, the Nomar Problem has reached a critical mass. The Red Sox know they can't sign him at the end of the season. He's already turned down boatloads of money ($60 million over four years before the 2003 season), and is admittedly (and rightfully) wounded by the offseason attempt to replace him with Alex Rodriguez. Garciaparra says he wants to stay here, but virtually no one believes him and his demeanor suggests he'd rather stick needles in his eyes than sign on for another tour of duty at Fenway.
Until now, the shortsighted Sox pretty much had to let him play out the season. Same with Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, and Derek Lowe. The mantra for 2004 has been "fire all your guns at once" and the front office has said it is willing to risk losing these players if the Red Sox can win a championship this year. Before now, dumping any of the Big Four in a midseason trade would have been an admission that the playoff quest is over. But events of the first half of the season have produced a situation in which the Sox can trade Garciaparra without sending a signal that they're running a white flag up the pole in center field.
Trading Martinez or Lowe or Varitek would be dumb given Boston's chance (two games out going into last night) for a wild-card spot. But they can sell a Nomar trade by telling fans the infield is stable with Bill Mueller back at third, Pokey Reese at short, and Mark Bellhorn at second.
Think about it Sox fans: if the Sox went with the aforementioned infield and could pry Randy Johnson from Arizona or Francisco Rodriguez from Anaheim, could you live without the final three months of Nomar?
Of course, an addition like Johnson or Rodriguez is probably unlikely. The struggling Diamondbacks don't need a rent-a-player. But somebody will. And a team such as the Angels or Dodgers might be willing to part with some talent to borrow a five-time All-Star who once hit .372 and longs to play closer to home in California.
This is hardly a groundbreaking idea, but for the first time, management can make a Nomar deal that might improve the ball club and won't be universally deplored by the Nation. A whopping 70 percent of 6,893 reponses to a Boston.com survey Thursday said Nomar should be traded. Stunning. And that was before Garciaparra took the night off in the most important game of the season.
One has to wonder why it always ends like this for Boston's star baseball players. Go back through time. Mo Vaughn. Roger Clemens. Mike Greenwell. Jim Rice. Bob Stanley. Wade Boggs. Bruce Hurst. Carlton Fisk. Fred Lynn. Rick Burleson. All home-grown stars who left the franchise spitting nails at the front office. Nomar Garciaparra played harder and was more popular than any of them. Ted Williams compared Nomar with Joe DiMaggio. Now this. Everybody's favorite Red Sox appears to have become a wildly unhappy ballplayer, struggling to return from an injury, resentful of the front office, and determined to walk at the end of the season.
Time for everybody to move on. Time for the Red Sox to trade Nomar Garciaparra.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.