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BOB RYAN

Tough out for injured Garciaparra

BALTIMORE -- The video is gruesome. Nomar Garciaparra hits the ball, takes a step or two, and down he goes. The close-up reveals a man in severe pain.

That was Wednesday night, and yesterday we received the sad announcement. Nomar has a torn left groin and will be out for "two to three months." That's the official word. Already the whispers in Chicago are that he might be done for the season.

Things just keep happening to Nomar. There was the first wrist injury in '99. There was the second wrist injury in '01 that limited him to 21 games and 83 at-bats. There was the mysterious Achilles' tendon injury in spring training last March. He said he was hit by a foul ball while standing on the sideline prior to the Red Sox' exhibition game with Northeastern. No one on either team remembers seeing any such incident, and you'd rightfully think if something happened to a player of Nomar's stature, it would have been a Story, right then and there. Even by Nomar standards, it was a strange, inexplicable story.

The July 31 trade last season to the Cubs changed nothing. He hurt his wrist again. And now this.

Hmmm.

Look, I'm hardly the first person to raise the question. When he was with the Red Sox, who was bold enough to link our fair shortstop, a noted workout guy, with the dreaded S-word? But he did go from, like, standard athlete issue normal to ultra-buffed in one winter, and he has been -- there is no other way to say it -- systematically breaking down for the past six years, so you can't help wondering just what he's been putting into his body other than Wheaties and sirloin steaks. If we're going to assume that Mark McGwire's physical breakdown was because of a reliance on steroids, then it would be quite logical to adopt the same line of thinking about Nomar. It's a legitimate question.

But let's say steroids have nothing to do with it, that Nomar's body is the product of more standard activity. Then perhaps he should rethink just exactly what he's been doing in that realm, because his body isn't responding very well to that. How many times are we told that someone's groin muscle has been torn away from the bone? Sounds to me like a body under a great deal of physical stress.

So what does the future hold for Nomar, who will be 32 July 23? We know one thing: The really big payday is never going to materialize.

Things have changed dramatically since the spring of 2003, when Nomar, according to numerous reports, spurned a Red Sox offer of four years and $60 million. It's easy to sit here now and say, "What was he thinking?" But what was he thinking? Apparently, he was thinking he could command Derek Jeter money. That was silly. Derek Jeter never even deserved Derek Jeter money.

A little perspective is in order: There should be no need for any Nomar Garciaparra benefit nights in the near future. The $8,250,000 he's scuffling for in Chicago this year brings his estimated career earnings to more than $50 million, and that's not including the more than $900,000 the Red Sox threw at him just to get his signature on a contract when he left Georgia Tech. You can be sure his wife, Mia Hamm, has made a little money, too. They'll eat just fine, and my guess is they'll have a proper roof over their heads, too.

But the super money, the kind of money that enables you to buy teams or small countries, well, that's not going to happen. From now on, Nomar will be just another garden-variety baseball millionaire trying to eke out a living.

Financial security is not the issue. What's at stake is his legacy. He was on track for a first-ballot election to Cooperstown, with five All-Star selections, two batting titles, a Rookie of the Year Award, a career slugging percentage of .549 (entering the season), postseason numbers of .323-7-21 (plus a .625 slugging percentage), four times driving in 100 runs, and a top-six ranking in total bases four times, which sure isn't bad for a shortstop. But the resume needs padding. He's not even a 10-year guy.

It's hard to exaggerate just how electrifying the young Nomar was. He came out of the chute in 1997 with an American League rookie record 30-game hitting streak. He was a unanimous pick as the AL rookie of the year, and why not, with .306-30-98 totals (as a leadoff man), and don't forget the 122 runs. In his second full year, he put up .323-35-122 numbers and was the runner-up to Juan Gonzalez as the AL MVP.

Ted Williams was ready to fill out the adoption papers, and as for Johnny Pesky . . .

Said No. 6, "I remember hitting him ground balls in spring training a couple of years ago and thinking to myself, `Geez, if this kid was around when I was playing, my butt would be on the bench, and I'd be doing what I'm doing today -- watching in amazement at how good he is and how many things he can do.' "

At that point, he had Red Sox immortality written all over him. He was our very own talented and flat-out eccentric power-hitting shortstop. Though he resisted the tag, he was the playing face of the franchise. No one signed more autographs or communicated better with the fans. Nomah should have been a lifah. Instead, he never even made it through Year 9.

He did have a killer spring training for the Cubs, hitting .433 and slugging .850. Dusty Baker was immensely pleased with him and was looking forward to big things. Dusty even thought he had the quirky shortstop figured out.

"The guy works hard," the Cubs skipper told the Globe's Gordon Edes. "He's quiet. But there's a surly, moody quiet and there's a pleasant quiet. To me, he's a very pleasant quiet."

But he got off to a terrible start (.157, with no homers and 4 RBIs), and on the night he was injured he had volunteered to drop to sixth in the batting order. And then came the fateful at-bat that may have ended his season.

Now, if for all these years he happened to be hiding a dirty little secret, he was obviously not alone. And if he was not, in fact, on the juice, and is simply overtrained, that's a cautionary tale of another sort. Either way, his body is paying a horrible price. Now, he could just be unlucky, but I think we all know better than that.

I hope I'm wrong, but I fear the good times are over for Nomah.

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


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