The kid was sitting in a place of honor beside the 80-year-old legend in a wheelchair, surrounded by Hall of Famers. He was, Ted Williams assured his listeners, exactly where he belonged. "Boy, I'm looking at someone who is going to be as good as anyone who ever played the game," Williams said, in a voice that may have lacked its characteristic boom but still held everyone within earshot in thrall. "I say that, and boy, I believe it, too. And the best thing about it, he's a terrific kid.
"Boy, he's got so much going for himself. You'll be here, 10 to 15 years from now, singing the praises of Nomar Garciaparra. I can't say enough about him."
That was in Florida in the spring of 1999, when Williams was still alive and Garciaparra already had stirred in all of us, a mere two seasons into his career, the realization that we were witnessing one of the greatest players to put on the uniform of the Olde Towne Team, a toe-tapping, glove-tugging manifestation of all the qualities we hold so dearly in the ballplayers who steal our hearts: an obvious love for the game, a run-out-every-popup effort, a priority list that placed winning as a team over individual achievement.
It took former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams only weeks to decide Garciaparra had been here before, a contemporary of Cobb and Shoeless Joe and the Babe, a throwback to an era which, in memory, seemed more pure. In the first game he started for the Red Sox, in 1996, Garciaparra hit a home run. Three weeks into his rookie season, 1997, the Globe deemed him front-page news. Three months into that season, one writer (me) likened his impact to the first 100 days of the Kennedy administration.
And now, seven years later, in one of the stunning trades in this or any season, he is gone. Gone to Chicago, and the Cubs, and a team besmirched by a tradition of failure that eclipses the Sox' sorry tale by a full decade. The Cubs won their last World Series in 1908, the Sox in 1918.
Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs yesterday in a complicated four-team deal in which the Sox gained a fine defensive shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, who can pop a few over the Monster, too, and a Gold Glove winner at first base, Doug Mientkiewicz, who had lost his starting job for a small-market team, the Minnesota Twins. What the Sox lost was a role model for an entire generation of Little Leaguers who refused to step into the batter's box until they had completed a ritual committed to heart from watching Garciaparra night after night.
From Amesbury to Bangor, there were certain to be tears last night.
But in the end, we shouldn't have been surprised. The genesis of yesterday's deal was found not only in last winter's pursuit of Alex Rodriguez by the Red Sox, but in a history replete with examples of the greatest Red Sox players ultimately changing address.
Babe Ruth's sale to the Yankees is only the most famous example of how Boston bids farewell to its finest players. Consider the list of players the Sox have sold, traded, or allowed to escape via free agency over the years: Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Herb Pennock from the distant past, Tony Conigliaro, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Rick Burleson, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Mo Vaughn.
Garciaparra was the American League's unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year in 1997, surviving a tense spring in which he supplanted a popular incumbent, John Valentin, at shortstop. Jimy Williams said he should have been the league's MVP, after a season in which he hit .306 with 44 doubles, a league-high 11 triples, 30 home runs, and 98 RBIs (out of the leadoff spot). He set an AL rookie record with a 30-game hitting streak, broke Johnny Pesky's rookie club record of 205 hits, and shattered Ted Williams's rookie record for total bases.
He swung at the first pitch, seemingly indifferent to its proximity to the strike zone, and he fielded his position with a disregard for the orthodoxy that says a shortstop should set himself before he throws. He threw on the run as he charged a ball, threw on the run as he ranged deep into the hole, threw on the run as he intercepted a ball headed toward center field.
And while he always eschewed the spotlight -- his teachers at home in Bellflower, Calif., said he was just as shy in school -- Sox fans embraced what they heard.
"I love playing this game," he said. "That's where I'm happy, that's where I'm most content, being out there with a great bunch of guys and playing a game I love."
Garciaparra was a Mexican-American kid from Southern California whose father reversed the letters of his own name to name his son, in part because he and his wife had been expecting a daughter, or so the story goes.
The brilliance of his debut season was appetizer to what was to come. Twice, Garciaparra won the American League batting title, the first righthanded hitter to do so since the great DiMaggio. He became the first righthanded hitter to bat as high as .372 since DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939.
Five times, he was named an All-Star.
Just as schoolkids in New York in the 1950s debated who was the game's best center fielder -- Willie Mays, Duke Snider, or Mickey Mantle -- a new debate raged over the game's best shortstop -- Garciaparra, Derek Jeter of the Yankees, or Alex Rodriguez.
Garciaparra collected his 1,000th hit faster than any player in Red Sox history, doing so in 746 games, one fewer than Boggs. He began this season with a .331 career batting average, tied with Manny Ramirez for third among active major league hitters with at least 2,000 at-bats. He hit two grand slams and drove in 10 runs in a single game. On his 29th birthday, against Tampa Bay, he hit two home runs in a single inning.
Before he injured his right wrist and underwent surgery that cost him most of the 2001 season, the expectation was present on every Garciaparra at-bat that he would rocket a ball to right-center, or apply another dent to the Green Monster, or scorch a line drive past an infielder unprepared to react to the ferocity with which the ball hurtled by. He seldom broke a bat.
"I came out here -- I think they know," Garciaparra said yesterday, "every day I came out and gave it my all. Bringing lots of smiles to fans -- that's stuff I'll always remember."
The smiles on Garciaparra's face were few in the final months. There are places other than this space that detail the reasons for his disenchantment -- the negotiations for a new contract that took a bitter turn, the discovery that the Sox, in an effort to get out from under Manny Ramirez's bloated contract and uncertain of whether Garciaparra really wanted to stay, were willing to sacrifice him in their pursuit of Rodriguez.
Here, we choose to remember the Garciaparra whose offseason workouts were legendary -- he fielded ground balls with three high-tension bungee cords attached. The Garciaparra who may have had contempt for the media but was unwavering in his expressions of affection for the fans. The Garciaparra who for the better part of eight seasons performed in a way that reminded us of Yaz, and Bird, and Bobby Orr . . . and Ted.