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BOB RYAN

Who was hustling in all this?

The couldas, shouldas, wouldas, and what-ifs no longer matter. The best shortstop in the history of the franchise is gone.

History buffs will recall that the nebulous "they" blamed Harry Truman for "losing" China, and around here, "they" undoubtedly will say that (pick one) John W. Henry, Theo Epstein, or the media "lost" Nomar Garciaparra, but the truth is, this was a story that did not have the slightest chance of a happy ending since the December machinations regarding Alex Rodriguez took place. It was a Murphy's Law scenario, highlighted by a mysterious injury that no one remembers happening and whose severity is, in the minds of many, in doubt. Only Nomar can answer the pertinent questions, and either you believe him or you don't.

If he is a liar, he is a magnificent one. A man could not speak with more apparent conviction than he did when he made the famous honeymoon phone call to WEEI proclaiming his fidelity to Boston (and, by extension, the Red Sox). No matter how many second- and third-hand conversations were repeated to the contrary, not once in his time in Boston did Nomar Garciaparra ever say publicly that he was unhappy with any aspect of his life here.

He embraced Boston. Did you catch his Q & A in the Sunday Globe Magazine a few weeks back? He was Mr. Chamber of Commerce, happily revealing his favorite haunts. And anyone who has made the trip through the new parking garage overpasses at Logan Airport these past several months knows that the voice greeting you belongs to Nomar Garciaparra. Not Tom Menino, not Keith Lockhart, not Ben Affleck. The man chosen to speak for all of Boston was Nomar Garciaparra.

No player in recent Red Sox history has bonded better with the fans. He played the precise kind of aggressive baseball geared to ensure popularity. His mistakes were those of passion, not apathy. He seldom walked because he saw more value in hitting the baseball. Purists simmered over his disappointing on-base percentage, and many were frustrated by his propensity for swinging at the first pitch (a tactic that served him very well), but Joe Average simply loved his approach to the game. He ran out every ground ball, every popup, and every routine fly ball. He tried to make impossible plays in the field, when eating the baseball might have been the better decision. He just flat-out played hard. And the fans loved him for it.

Autographs? No player signed more. No player made it clearer to the Boston fans that he appreciated their support.

Yet we are told he felt the atmosphere here to be suffocating, that people cared too much, that the whole curse thing was a major pain to deal with. Is that the gospel truth? I don't know, and neither does any other member of the media. He was here from late 1996 until Saturday last. Let the media person step forward who ever heard him declare his distaste for all that is Red Sox baseball.

If it was an act, it was a good one, and I bought it. He raged against statistics and streaks and spoke only of winning. That's the Nomar I saw and heard.

But he's still a modern player, and they are all business-oriented. Whatever their ideals at the beginning, and however much they talk about team this and team that and all-I-want-out-of-life-is-a-ring, they also want to get paid, and get paid in proportion to their presumed status. Nomar Garciaparra is no exception to that rule, otherwise he would not have a high-powered A-list agent such as Arn Tellem.

Would Nomar still be here if Rodriguez had not popped up on the market last fall? We will never know. Absent that development, would the Red Sox and Tellem have come to some agreement for a new contract over the winter of 2003-04? Very possibly. Much was made of the supposed fact that Tellem and Nomar turned down a reported $60 million offer for four more years before the 2003 season even began. Yeah, so? And even more was made of the fact that the Red Sox supposedly made a major market correction offer later on. Yeah, so? Negotiations are not straight-line affairs. They usually have many twists and turns.

Let's suppose there was a difference of opinion between management and player about just where Nomar fit into baseball's hierarchy. Let's suppose management had come to believe that there was a difference between the '97-99, pre-wrist injury Nomar, and the post-wrist injury Nomar, which I believe there is. There would have to be some earnest discussion. After all, Nomar did win two batting titles and twice hit more than 50 doubles, post-injury. We're not talking Eddie Brinkman here. But no one can seriously suggest there is the same consistent pop in his bat nowadays as there was in those first three years. That would be delusional. And power was a major part of the Nomar package. That raw power is no longer there.

Yet even a diminished Nomar is a very good player, and his value was further enhanced by the fact that he was a local icon. The ultimate face of Red Sox baseball was neither Pedro nor Manny nor Curt. It was Nomah. That should have mattered -- to both sides.

He was clearly hurt by the flirtation with A-Rod, and isn't that understandable? Then the situation was hopelessly complicated by the Achilles' tendon injury, the source of which remains a mystery to this day. How does something like that, supposedly incurred in a harmless way -- most people who tear their Achilles' immediately say, "Who shot me?" not "Ouch, I just got hit by a baseball." -- escalate into such a long-term deal? Everyone was trying to read the tea leaves and gauge body language and place meaning on everything Nomar did or didn't do.

Did he want to play or didn't he? Would a man who has consistently played as passionately as Nomar suddenly become a loafing, sullen albatross? Was he always devious, or, if not, what had come over him? Or is he still quite injured, quite despondent, and quite concerned over his long-term future?

Those were the questions. That was the atmosphere. Obviously, the situation was untenable. The scenario had an entire life of its own. It had come to the point where management didn't think he could ever be re-signed, so Theo made the best deal he could. It wasn't what any fan or media member believed was equitable, but that is what happens when you are not dealing from strength.

Nomar exited by saying he never wanted to go anywhere and had hoped he'd be a one-team guy (like Bob Stanley, Jim Rice, and Mike Greenwell, the last three Red Sox players of any consequence who could make that statement). Was he lying? Was he simply maintaining the fiction because it fit his self-image?

It was a sticky and unpleasant situation. It was not the way one of the great players in the history of the franchise should leave. Five years, 10 years, 50 years from now, people will be asking "Why?" "What happened?" "Could it have been avoided?" "How could everyone have been so foolish?"

We will never have the answer. It just was.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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