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Being Nomar

The famously tightlipped shortstop opens up on everything from the angst of his off-season to his relationships with his family, his bosses, and his fans. Oh, yeah, he talks about that little contract squabble, too.

By Neil Swidey
Globe Staff / May 16, 2004

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Even here on Newbury Street, where the unspoken agreement is that the martinis will be expensive, the duck will be medium-rare, and the patrons will behave themselves and refrain from gawking, the deal falls apart when it comes to Nomar Garciaparra. The behavior begins even before he enters Sonsie, the stylish eatery with the French doors, as a pack of valet guys encircle him when he steps out of his black Jaguar. It accelerates as he walks past the long mahogany bar, and husbands jab their wives and point, and a nattily dressed guy yells, "No-maaah!" It continues throughout the evening, through a four-hour interview where the interruptions from autograph seekers come as reliably as the water refills from the wait staff.

There's the woman who professes to know nothing about baseball but wants his signature because her son's name is Omar. There's the guy who hands him a cellphone and says, "Hey, Nomar. I'm talking to my son in London. Say hi to him!" There's the woman who runs a private jet service who comes by twice, looking to line him up as a high flier. There are the two Spanish-speaking women who follow him with a digital camera as he makes his way to the men's room.

And then there's Mary Jane. A nurse with straight blond hair and a thick north-of-Boston accent, she comes up to the table, says, "I don't want to bother you, but . . ." and then plops down in an empty seat next to him. She hands him a silver pen to sign his autograph. The pen leaks blue ink all over his right hand. As he calmly tries to clean off his index and middle fingers, an unapologetic Mary Jane says in a slow, monotone voice, "It's my birthday -- 36. How old are you?"

"I'm 30 years old," Nomar says.

"No, sir!" Mary Jane says, slapping his arm. "You're older than that."

"Jeez," Nomar replies with a laugh. "Not only do I get hit with your exploding pen, but I get insulted on my age!"

"You'll wanna do Botox," she says. "I did."

In fact, despite all the recent off-field drama, Nomar looks as youthful as ever. He is wearing light-blue jeans and a red Nautica T-shirt whose short sleeves he tugs at regularly to cover his sculpted biceps. And despite his reputation for being a bit tightly wound, he remains smiling and relaxed amid the torrent of encounters, exploding pens and all.

But the most telling interaction isn't the one with Mary Jane. It's a split-second affair that occurs as Nomar is walking by a table and another blond diner impulsively grabs his arm and says, "Hey!" A startled friend sitting across from her says, "You act like you know him!"

Truth is, we all do. But it takes a gut-wrenching post-season and soap-operatic off-season like last year's punctuated by the media-leery Red Sox star interrupting his Hawaii honeymoon to call a sports radio show and say how much he wanted to stay in Boston, how much he had been misunderstood to drive home just how much of a blank slate he still is to us.

"I have feelings just like you," he says during our meal at Sonsie, with two-day stubble surrounding his goatee, his dark hair swept back except for a Superman curl descending onto his forehead. "People think I'm different. I'm not. I'm just like everyone else."

All these years later, and we're still starting from scratch.

e became ours a decade ago. The skinny kid with the funny name. That's all we knew about him, all we needed to know. The name, we'd quickly take care of that, bend it to our Boston ears, make it -- and him -- our own. Transforming his build, that would be his job.

In June 1994, we were told that first-round draft pick Nomar Garciaparra, a Georgia Tech junior and Olympic team walk-on, would be the future of our franchise. We were desperate enough to believe it. So we followed him, from Trenton to Pawtucket to Fenway. By the time we'd renamed him Nomah, we had convinced ourselves that he hailed from Southie rather than Southern California. Unlike the oversold saviors of the past, he did not disappoint. He homered during his first major-league start, in 1996. Who does that? And then Rookie of the Year. Two-time American League batting champion. Five-time All-Star. All the while, maintaining the work ethic of a factory laborer eager to pick up double shifts.

In a sports-obsessed and celebrity-deprived city, Nomar became the hot property. Women swooned, and men didn't seem to mind. No cause for envy. He wasn't one of those lucky specimens God blessed with a perfect face and chiseled physique. Ethnic without being foreign, every muscle and achievement earned through sweat and drive, a heartthrob with a handyman's nose. One of us.

On the field, we watched his every move. He gave us plenty to watch. Besides the acrobatics at shortstop, there was all that compulsive batting-glove tightening and toe tapping. It became so familiar, so set-your-watch-to-it consistent, that we felt as though we were right there in the batter's box with him. Off the field, we felt close to him as well. No black-tie galas to cement the distance between us. Instead, for his signature fund-raising event, he brought the limos and red carpets to none other than Town Line Ten Pin in Malden. On the Saugus line. Featuring celebrities in jeans, Nomar Bowl (about to make its fifth and final appearance next week) took on a life of its own. Through the years, we watched as one of People magazine's most eligible bachelors discreetly played the field and then settled down with his eerily compatible sports mate, Mia Hamm. Even in his pre-Mia days, there would be no bar brawls for Nomar, no embarrassing public displays of stupidity and entitlement that have proved irresistible to so many other sports stars.

During Boston's giddy courtship with Alex Rodriguez last winter, when we busied ourselves laying out a Sox uniform for "baseball's best all-round player" with the perfect smile, it was easy to overlook what we have enjoyed with Nomar. It's true that in some key statistical categories, A-Rod edges out Nomar, but the tenor of the trade talk obscured just how small the differentials are. Surely, none of the numbers could justify the sense in these parts that the "upgrade" at shortstop would have been the equivalent of getting Tom Hanks for Tom Arnold.

Of course, coming off the worst batting slump of his career, which came at the worst possible time for the game's most tortured fans, Nomar was in no position to argue the numbers. But he has always viewed statistical comparisons with suspicion, even during those stretches of his career when his numbers were the best around. He remains just as suspicious today, even playing for a Red Sox management that has elevated statistical analysis to an operating philosophy. "The problem with baseball is everyone's always focused on statistics and numbers and all this crap," Nomar says, throwing his hands up. "I can find any stat to make you look horrible. And I can find a stat to make the other person look good."

So this is what we have in him: a fierce, game-making competitor on the field who runs out every ground ball; a humble, reluctant star off the field who runs a respected foundation and steers clear of trouble.

"Isn't that enough?" he asks.

For seven-plus seasons, it was. But somewhere between becoming the most popular Red Sox star since Ted Williams and coming within a Bronx cheer of being shipped out of town, something changed, at least in the eyes of his bosses. After the A-Rod deal fell apart, the Sox front office issued the necessary apologies and talked about forging a future with Nomar. Clearly, management's main motivation for the deal was shipping left fielder Manny Ramirez and his $20-million-a-year contract to Texas in return for A-Rod. Nomar would have been traded as a consequence, since Boston isn't big enough for two high-priced shortstops. But left unsaid, at least publicly, was precisely why the front office felt Nomar was expendable.

Months later, this is how Red Sox owner John W. Henry explains it to me in an e-mail: "The Red Sox made a choice this year to return with our #3 and #4 hitters in the lineup over obtaining Alex Rodriguez. This was a choice I still believe made a lot of sense. Would I like to have seen some semblance of confidentiality as this was being discussed? Yes. But it didn't happen. Was it a trade that we had to consider? Yes."

A-Rod, Derek Jeter, and Nomar are universally considered the best shortstops in baseball. A-Rod, at 28 the youngest of the trio, was awarded the game's biggest contract. The New York Yankees decided that Jeter would be the face of their franchise, locking him up in a long-term, lucrative contract, naming him captain, and making it clear he would never be traded. But to find meaningful differences in their talent levels, you almost have to look off-field. Jeter and A-Rod are at home in the spotlight. Nomar, despite his ease in dealing with fans one-on-one, remains more or less allergic to it. In the business realities of Major League Base-ball, does that make him less valuable?

Nomar stresses that he doesn't want to dwell on the trade saga. But press hard enough, and it's clear the sting is still there. "It's like your wife says, 'I'm going to get rid of you for a new husband.'[Long pause] 'Damn it! I couldn't find anybody in time! I thought I had one, but you know what, on second thought, we couldn't come to terms. Darn it! [Another long pause] Um, I want you back now. I want you back now to take care of our kids. We're all right, right? OK, good. Everything's cool, right? I know I said you were a bad husband, but I didn't mean it.'"

Can this marriage be saved?

omar was supposed to be Monica. Sylvia Garciaparra was pregnant with her first child, and her husband, Ramon, was sure that the baby was going to be a girl. They both liked the name Monica. But Sylvia held out hope for a boy, and over dinner in a restaurant one night seven months into the pregnancy, she reminded her husband that they needed to come up with a boy's name. Ramon did not want to make his son a junior, and he wanted something distinctive. A graphic artist, Ramon, as usual, found his answer by using his pen. He wrote his own name backward on a piece of paper, liked how it looked, and handed it to his wife across the table.

"That's what it's going to be if it's a boy."

"Oh, no, it's not," Sylvia shot back.

"Yes, it is," Ramon said. "And he's going to make it famous."

For the next two months, anytime someone asked if they had picked out a boy's name, Ramon would say it was going to be Nomar, and Sylvia would interject, "No, it's not!"

"It's bad enough with our last name," she told her husband, "and then to give him a name like Nomar."

They eventually settled on Anthony. (Sylvia was a fan of Anthony Davis, the star tailback for the University of Southern California.)After Sylvia delivered their son, the nurse handed her the birth certificate to fill out. She wrote in Anthony. "I left the middle name blank," she says, smiling. "I felt that way I'd have nothing to do with the name." When Ramon came into the room, he wrote Nomar into the official record.

But no one called the boy anything but Anthony until he got to kindergarten. That's when he encountered three other Anthonys in his class, and every time he heard the name called, it seemed to be for somebody else. He came home one day and said, "Mom, I want to be Nomar."

It was the first of many unlikely victories for Nomar.

He grew up the oldest of four children in a middle-class neighborhood of Whittier, California, southeast of Los Angeles. Sylvia was born in LA, though her family came from Guadalajara, Mexico, where Ramon was born. Both moved to Whittier as children. They met in high school and married shortly after graduation. Both were athletes. Ramon coached the adult softball team that Sylvia played on when she was pregnant with Nomar. They are a warm couple, easy to talk to, and as they proudly discuss their kids while sitting in Nomar's Arizona home, they often finish each other's sentences, like the closest married couples.

Not long after kindergarten, Nomar began playing soccer and baseball. When Ramon worked with Nomar on his fielding skills, he had him keep his soccer shinguards on so he wouldn't hesitate to get right in front of the ground balls.

Nomar followed the pros in both games writing book reports about Pele, savoring the memory of the day Don Sutton waved at him at Dodger Stadium. But a future in professional sports seemed an unlikely prospect back then.

"Everybody always asks me, 'Was he the best ballplayer?'' says Ramon, who coached his son for years. "No. He never was. There were always other people who were better than him." What set him apart? "It's the desire in Nomar that's the key."

As a freshman at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California, where he also played football and soccer, Nomar became the shortstop on the junior varsity baseball team only because the starter got hit in the head with a ball in practice. But Bill Yurak, his coach, says Nomar quickly became the team standout by proving himself to be a student of the game, meticulously working to improve, skill by skill. "Nomar has always been in tune with his desire to be the best player he can be," Yurak says. "But he never acts as if he has realized his potential."

Classmates and faculty at the high school, whose campus is lined with palm trees and crowded with ball fields of every type, say Nomar brought the same ferocious discipline to his schoolwork. Some student standouts are the products of pushy parents. But Nomar says any pressure came from him alone.

"If I got a 90 on a test, I would ask myself, Why couldn't I get a 93, a 94? Why couldn't I get a 100?" he says. So he would analyze his performance. What did I miss? Math came most easily. So he factored that into his routines. When he got home from school, he would do his math homework first, leaving more time for the tougher subjects, like English. "When I was younger," he says, "I believed everyone could get straight A's. It was just a matter of who wanted to work harder than others."

He continues to rely on that same mix of preparation, self-criticism, and concentration. But, of course, there's something a little more obvious that the rest of us see him relying on.

t's an unusually overcast day in Peoria, Arizona, as Michael Garciaparra steps onto the field at the Seattle Mariners training complex. Michael, who was drafted by the Mariners in 2001, plays for their Class A-advanced farm team. The 21-year-old bears such a strong resemblance to his older brother, not to mention that he wears the same number 5 (their father's favorite number) and plays the same position, that it is jarring to see those same letters filling up the back of another team's uniform.

Sitting in the stands, fiddling with a toothpick, Ramon recalls being at the same field 10 years ago, watching Nomar, then the Red Sox' newest draft pick, playing in the Arizona fall league. With him are Sylvia, their 18-year-old daughter, Yvette, and two friends. As Michael gets up to bat, one of the friends turns to Ramon and asks, "Does Michael have superstitions like Nomar?"

"They're not superstitions," says Ramon, smiling and gesturing with the toothpick. "They're rituals."

Michael tightens his gloves before each at-bat and does the same kick-tap-kick-tap dance before each swing. But his routines are much less elaborate.

Nomar's rituals, which have even been incorporated into various PlayStation baseball games, are so insistent, so baroque even, that people assume they must extend to every corner of his life. So much so that when I sat down for dinner with him, I half expected to see him compulsively cut his pork tenderloin into ever smaller pieces and rearrange his silverware after each bite. He didn't.

He says his rituals help him focus -- the way a pilot cycles through a pre-flight checklist. "I can handle failure a little easier if I did everything I could do to prepare myself," Nomar says. "And part of my preparation is my routine. The minute I wake up, I've got a routine that takes me through the day. I'm like, 'All right, this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm doing.'"

Every ballplayer has rituals. But Nomar does his exhaustive adjusting and tapping at the moment when he is most visible -- in the batter's box, after each pitch, while the cameras are locked on him. Does his routine draw more attention because it's less subtle than others'? "Yeah. Some are a lot more subtle," he says. "C'mon, mine's subtle. Mine is real subtle."

Rituals also are part of his conditioning. In 1995, following his grueling first season in the minor leagues, Nomar's body was so worn out that he tracked down Mark Verstegen, his trainer from his days at Georgia Tech, and asked him to remake him into something more durable.

"Nomar was my project," says Verstegen, a well-built 34-year-old with a buzz cut. He now trains around 250 professional athletes at his Athletes' Performance center in Tempe, Arizona. But his intense blue eyes get almost misty when he recalls the purity and improvisation of that first off-season, how he did things like tie an old steel-belted radial tire to Nomar's waist to strengthen his base-running ability. Through thousands of hours of training over several years, 6-foot-tall Nomar transformed himself from a 155-pound wire into a 190-pound coiled-spring power hitter. Verstegen says that Nomar's tedious, methodical process of posting modest gain upon modest gain stands as an antidote to the scourge of steroids and other shortcuts currently roiling professional baseball.

Every year before noon on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Verstegen says, he gets a call from Nomar, signaling his readiness to start his intense, six-day-a-week off-season regimen. "Mark, it's Nomar. I'm ready to go." The call came as scheduled last November. This time, Nomar was calling from Hawaii.

"Nomar, it's your honeymoon!" Verstegen said. "You can relax a little."

THEY ARE, OR AT LEAST they appear to be, exquisitely paired. Nomar and Mia. Iconic sports stars for whom first names suffice. Singled out for stardom while playing team sports, resisting, every step of the way, the notion that they should be singled out. Reluctant celebrities whose coupling makes their demand for privacy that much harder to sustain.

"My wife and I have similar views on a lot of things," Nomar says.

If he has been the face of a storied franchise, Mia Hamm is in many ways the face of women's sports. Her soccer-field exploits leading the United States to gold in the 1996 Olympics and victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup inspired a generation of girls to take to the field. And like Nomar, her looks -- all-American athletic, slightly exotic -- have attracted the attention of the editors of People magazine, who named her one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in 1997. (Nomar dismisses his own standing as a heartthrob, saying, "I'm ugly! I'm lucky that my wife thinks that I'm good-looking. Maybe she doesn't, but she keeps telling me that she thinks I'm good-looking, and that's enough for me.")

They met at a promotional penalty-kick shootout at Harvard in 1998. She won. They began dating in 2001 after her first marriage ended in divorce. They were engaged a year later. One of the many ironies of this past off-season is that just as certainty was coming to Nomar's personal life, it was evaporating from his professional life.

They were married at a seaside hacienda in Santa Barbara, California, reciting vows they had written themselves. After the honeymoon, they saw each other most intensively when they trained together with Verstegen. Their current schedules keep the newlyweds apart for much of the time. Asked how often they see each other, Nomar says, "Here and there."

She's mostly in California these days, training for the 2004 Olympics. "She's got to get ready," he says. "It's difficult to see her, but we do. We manage."

So they spend a lot of time talking on the phone. Nomar also talks to his parents just about every day. (Sometimes when you'd least expect it. Mike Alvarez, a family friend who also oversees Nomar's high school, recalls once sitting with Ramon and Sylvia in their home watching Nomar on TV. He hit a pop-up. "A minute later, Ramon's cellphone rings," Alvarez says. "It's Nomar, asking, 'Dad, what did I do wrong?' Right in the middle of the game.") Ramon downplays his son's reliance on him, saying only that he spent so many years watching his son swing that he can spot very subtle things.

Nomar says he's happy to live an unexciting life off the field. His Catholicism remains important to him, though he says the clergy sex-abuse scandal shows how no religion is perfect. "Religion is created by man," he says. "Man is not perfect. So neither is religion."

He enjoys good food, good wine, good movies. His favorites? "Rocky I through V. You can't go wrong."

Even Rocky IV?

"Even Rocky IV. If you like 'em, you like 'em all. Take the good with the bad. They're all good to me."

That's Nomar -- loyalty above everything else, right down to disappointing sequels.

His favorite television program comes around only every four years: soccer's World Cup. "I will record all the games. I will watch all the games."

"I'm a simple guy," he says repeatedly. Then again, he concedes at one point, "My wife will say, 'You're not simple.' ' And later, when I ask him who knows him best, he says, without hesitation, "My wife."

Mia Hamm calls her husband "conscientious, loving, and caring," and says, "I'm just extremely grateful for him in my life." But is he a simple guy? On one level, absolutely. "What you see is what you get with Nomar," she says. The complexity springs from the intensity of his commitment. "He is someone who is very conscientious about everything I think sometimes to a fault, where he cares what everyone thinks rather than differentiating between what he should take in and what he shouldn't."

The couple recently bought a new place in Boston, but even that has not quieted the speculation that he wants to leave.

But does he want to stay in Boston? "I've never said anything different. What's funny is that no matter how many times you say yes, people still question you. C'mon, Nomar. Maybe actions speak louder than words."

Among the actions he cites: putting his heart into his Nomar 5 Fund to support causes around Boston, signing autographs, training and playing as hard as he can. "Am I going to do all of that if I don't love it?"

Why, then, turn down the Red Sox offer last spring for $15 million a year for four years? He says he didn't feel he was turning down anything. He made a counteroffer and thought the negotiations were still active. He says he didn't learn otherwise until the Red Sox came back late last year, citing a market correction, and lowering the offer (reportedly to $12 million a year -- just slightly more than he makes now).

But every time conversation drifts to his contract, Nomar tries to steer it back to his foundation. (And apparently not for the self-promotional value, since he has been known to ask that cameras not accompany him when he meets with kids in the community, believing that they -- and no doubt he -- would be more comfortable without the extra attention.)

He talks about the notes he gets from kids his foundation has helped, such as the one from the young resident of a group home who was able to keep in touch with a friend thanks to a computer from the Nomar 5 Fund. "Man, I just wanted to cry," Nomar says. "Something simple like that -- it's awesome."

He says he is committed to keeping that work going. The fund has doled out more than $600,000 in four years. But it will have to happen without his marquee fund-raising event, since his superstitions -- or rituals -- appear to extend to his charitable work. "Everything seems to be around the number 5," he says, laughing. "Call me crazy, but this is our fifth one. So this will be our last Nomar Bowl."

What has been most striking about the Nomar Bowl is the way in which the publicity-shy star has been willing to court coverage for the event. It's a simple equation for him. "I know where that celebrity attention is going," he says. "It's about kids smiling."

It's the media attention the other 364 days a year that he has never quite figured out how to handle. The frostiness between Nomar and the media is a fascinating tangle, because even he acknowledges that he's gotten a pretty good ride.

"The media, for the most part, has been good to me," he says. "Only a couple of times have I ever come back and had to defend myself. Have the writers been respectful? A lot of them have. At the same time, I don't think I've done anything to constitute anything else."

In some ways, it appears to be a philosophical disconnect. "I don't like when people say that I hate the media. I don't hate them. It's just that my job is not to perform for them. My job is to perform for the people who come to see me play and for my teammates." While many sports stars understand that their interplay with the media is what shapes their image in the eyes of the fans, Nomar seems to view it as an impediment -- especially when the questions come flying while he is trying to concentrate on his ritualistic pre-game checklist. His wariness of the media goes back to his minor-league days. "I learned you've got to watch everything you say," he says. The lesson came in the summer of 1995, after he made a couple of dazzling fielding maneuvers while playing for the Trenton Thunder. Following the game, a reporter from the local paper asked him if he was disappointed that the fans didn't clap or even seem to notice. "You mean when you could hear the crickets in the stands?" Nomar replied, laughing. "The next day," he says, "the paper comes out and the headline says, 'Nomar Blasts Fans.'"

After telling me about this story, Nomar makes a calculation. "If you write about it, the people in Trenton are going to be mad. They'll be like, 'Oh, he's blaming us now?' The people here will be like, 'Oh, we've never done this or done that.' So you're in a no-win situation, no matter how you phrase it. That's why I don't talk much. Because you're damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Then again, is it possible he overthinks this sort of minutiae? After all, the fans of Trenton moved on, and Nomar's was one of two Thunder jerseys ever to be retired.

What's striking about Nomar's views on privacy is that he is concerned with not just protecting the intimate details of his personal life but also thoroughly innocuous recollections about him from friends and family. Most public figures understand that the latter material provides the grist for coverage about them and that, quite frankly, friends and family typically enjoy sharing it. Nomar takes a different view. "Those moments are why these people know me, or know me in that way," he says. "The minute it's out there and written, everyone else knows it, too. So [friends and family] don't know me that well anymore."

But here again, what's remarkable is the kind of details he is talking about how he loves French toast, say, or the fact that his real name is Anthony. "There are only two people in this world who I allow to call me Anthony," he says. "And that's special to them."

It's a level of sensitivity that you simply do not expect in someone who has been in the public eye for so long.

Nomar's father recalls one stretch when his son was close to hitting .400. "He hadn't had a hit in three at-bats. He hears a fan yell, 'C'mon, Nomar. You stink!' It's weird, but behind all the cheering you always hear that one person."

Or maybe Nomar's hearing is just better.

IT'S OPENING DAY AT FENWAY, and the sun is shining bright and the fans are smiling broadly, because they have no idea that their boys will soon collapse and give away what should have been an easy win.

Everything is new on opening day -- except the brigade of former Red Sox greats who are trotted out as the star attractions of the pre-game ceremony. Some of them -- from Johnny Pesky to Dennis Eckersley -- look far younger than their years. Others have seen their waistlines expand, an evolution made more obvious by the requirement that they suit up in uniforms.

No matter. The fans reward them with hearty applause, with the longest bursts coming for the biggest names -- Eck and Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans and Jim Rice.

Saved for last, looking as if he'd rather be stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive, is Carl Yastrzemski, Nomar's predecessor as reluctant Red Sox star. The place erupts in cheers. He grimaces the whole time, before releasing the most fleeting of smiles, which alert photographers manage to capture for the next day's papers.

But even the cheering for Yaz doesn't match what the Fenway faithful unleash a few minutes later, after announcer Sean McDonough has moved on to introducing current players: "And now, one of the greatest Red Sox in history, shortstop, number 5, Nomar Garciaparra!"

Nomar makes his way through the tunnel of former stars, who have assembled on opposite sides of a red carpet stretching from the dugout to home plate. The applause does not let up.

It's easy to imagine Nomar drawing the same reaction as an honored old-timer 20 years from now. But will the welcome be different if he returns having played the second half of his career somewhere else? Fans forgive Dewey for playing his last year in Baltimore (the Red Sox released him, after all). They overlook the fact that Eck pitched two-thirds of his career someplace else. But there's no denying the relationship is different with other former faces of the franchise whose exits were messier -- think Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn. Would Yaz be Yaz if he'd packed up his grimace and his crazy cocked batting stance and headed to Oakland after '67? Would Ted Williams have a tunnel named after him here if he had moved to Pittsburgh to pick his fights with the press?

A few innings into the home opener, in the standing-room-only crowd, Dan Summerlin and Kevin Murphy, a pair of tall 26-year-olds from Billerica, are talking about Nomar. Summerlin wears a number 5 Garciaparra jersey, by far the most popular in the stands despite the fact that Nomar is absent from the lineup to rehab an Achilles' tendon that forced him to miss the beginning of the season. Murphy makes the sign of the cross with his right hand when Manny Ramirez gets up to bat, the same hand Murphy uses to hold his beer. He doesn't spill a drop.

"Nomah is what Boston is all about," Summerlin says. "You hear that cheer for him before? The fans were trying to say:

'Don't leave.'"

"It's Nomah's team," Murphy says. "He's bigger than Ted Williams. It's a new generation."

But, as with all Red Sox fans, there is a limit to the adoration. This is Murphy's: "Nomah got substantial contract offers in the past year and turned them down. If he really is the hometown guy, he's got to realize the market has changed. He can go play in California, but he'll disappear. He's never going to be as big as he is now."

Although he continues to refer to A-Rod as "the best player in the game," Sox owner John Henry says he feels "great excitement at the moment Nomar steps to the plate -- as does all of Fenway." He calls him "a throwback to the great players of the past."

Will those "throwback" credentials extend to his joining Yaz and Teddy Ballgame in the club of Red Sox lifers?

"The fervent hope of our entire organization is to have Nomar spend the whole of his career in a Red Sox uniform," Henry says. "However, what Nomar and his representatives may deem as fair and what our general manager -- who makes our player decisions -- decides makes sense for the competitive future of the Boston Red Sox will determine this."

The betting in the press box and in the chat rooms is that this marriage is over, that Nomar won't get over feeling spurned and that the Red Sox, despite the embarrassment of getting caught trying to bed A-Rod, won't sign over the house to keep him around. It's hard not to see some logic in that interpretation. Despite all their talk about wanting to resign Nomar, the owners have yet to put even their original $15 million offer back on the table. Despite his talk of reconciliation, Nomar is the one who offers the analogy of the wandering wife who returns and says, "I want you back now. Everything's cool, right?"

Then again, plenty of marriages survive lapses in fidelity. We had one splayed out for us in the White House. After all the revelations, every breathing American, right down to the white-haired widows fingering rosary beads at daily Mass, predicted that that marriage would end the moment the couple left the White House.

Ultimately, people will do what they feel is in their best interest.

Maybe Nomar will realize he wants to end his career being cheered by the same fans who launched him, and he'll swallow a little pride.

Maybe Red Sox management will realize that the magic they have in Nomar can't be quantified even by their most advanced spreadsheets, and they'll pony up a little more cash.

Maybe this will finally be the year.

Everything's cool, right?

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe Magazine staff. He can be reached at swidey@globe.com.

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