Garciaparra was heart and soul, and Fenway Faithful remember
Before we go anywhere, let’s try to remember just how big Nomar was, and how much he was loved around here.
Nomar Garciaparra was a legitimate diamond god at Fenway Park. And he deserved it. In 1999 the man hit .357. One season later, he hit .372. And those were the two years after he finished second in the voting for American League MVP.
He played hard and he played hurt. He was every bit as good as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. He was Cooperstown-bound. He hit two grand slams in one game. He hit three homers on his birthday. Ted Williams compared Nomar with Joe DiMaggio. Fans worshipped Nomar the way they now worship Tom Brady. Chicks dug him, guys wanted to be him, and little kids imitated his quirky OCD routine in the batter’s box. He was “No Maaahhhhh,’’ the best and most popular Red Sox player.
Last night Garciaparra came back to Fenway for the first time in five years. He was showered with even more love, just as he was for his entire Red Sox career. When he stepped into the box to face John Smoltz at 7:27, you would have thought Bill Russell and Bobby Orr had been introduced. The standing ovation was long and loud.
“I love ’em,’’ a teary Garciaparra said before the game when asked about Sox fans. “I don’t know how else to put it. I love the way they treated me the whole time I was here. It’s emotional. When I was gone - Boston fans are everywhere and I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘Thank you. Appreciate everything you did.’ And I can’t tell them what that meant to me. I can’t believe the wonderful experiences that I’ve had here and it’s all because of them.’’
Proving beyond doubt that he is a changed man, Garciaparra did not swing at the first pitch (a called strike!) from Smoltz. He grounded to third on a 1-and-2 pitch. He hit an RBI single in the fourth, flied to right in the fifth, and reached on an infield single in the eighth inning of Oakland’s 6-0 victory.
It’s hard to process the fact that this was Nomar’s first appearance at Fenway since July 25, 2004, the Sunday night before the start of the Democratic National Convention at the Boston Garden. John Kerry threw out the first pitch and Fenway was still abuzz with events from one day earlier, when all hell broke loose after Jason Varitek put his mitt into the face of A-Rod.
The Sox went on the road the next day and Nomar was dealt to the Cubs six days later in the final hours of the trading deadline. The rest is hardball history. The blockbuster deal brought Orlando Cabrera to Boston, shored up the Sox’ defense, and erased the abject gloom that enveloped Nomar’s final days at Fenway.
For the first time in his life, Theo Epstein needed an Ambien tablet to get to sleep the night he made the trade. It still stands as the boldest move of Theo’s administration. And it changed everything for everyone.
Since the deal, Nomar has played for the Cubs, Dodgers, and now the moribund A’s. He’s no longer a shortstop or an everyday player (in an odd twist of fate, Cabrera is the Oakland shortstop). Garciaparra’s an oft-injured 35-year-old infielder/DH who still can hurt you with his bat. He is hitting .270 with two homers and 11 RBIs in 74 at-bats over 32 games.
The Sox have changed, too. No longer frustrated by October folds, they’ve won two World Series and switched places with their nemesis in New York.
It simply has to kill Nomar that things turned around here the moment he left. He’s only human. He bled for this team for eight seasons, enduring the ultimate indignity with the Grady Game 7 in 2003.
Asked if it was hard not to be part of the miracle of 2004, Garciaparra said, “No, actually I felt so much a part of it. That’s what people don’t realize. I was getting phone calls from guys on the bus after they’d win. Getting the ring was important. I felt so much a part of it because it’s a championship season, not just a series. I was a part of that season.
“This is where my career started. I was excited to come back. I don’t know if I could pick one favorite memory. There were so many . . . For me, the Red Sox and this organization and what it has meant is such a big part of my heart and my life . . . On the field, I gave it everything I had and I know the fans always appreciate that . . . It just meant that much every time I put the uniform on. My appreciation for this place has never stopped.’’
Fans have no reason to doubt Nomar’s sincerity because they loved him and he always played hard for them. It’s charming to hear Nomar talk about his Boston years as if they were a nonstop succession of flowers, balloons, and winning scratch tickets. But those who were around at the end are glad he isn’t wired to a polygraph. The machine might explode.
It was bad at the finish here for Nomar. His feathers got ruffled when the Sox pursued A-Rod in the nuclear winter of 2003-04. Nomar turned down a four-year, $60 million deal that proved to be an unfortunate read of the tea leaves. He hated the media more than Bill O’Reilly hates Keith Olbermann. And he told the Sox he wanted out July 24, which was three weeks after he sat out the epic, 13-inning, 5-4 loss at Yankee Stadium (a.k.a. the game in which Jeter dived into the stands to make a catch).
What about it, Nomie? Any regrets about the way it ended?
“Here, there’s so much passion, so much emotion,’’ he started. “What gets lost is the business side. The business side comes into it and the business side isn’t always pretty. It was even new to me. Stuff to me that I didn’t know and when it all went down it just surprised me. It’s an unfortunate part, but that’s the reality of baseball.’’
Mass media is another part of the reality - a particularly unpleasant dimension for the young Nomar in Boston. This is the man who ordered a red line in front of player lockers in Fenway’s home clubhouse. Woe was the scribe who crossed the Nomar-Momar line of death.
“I learned a lot,’’ Garciaparra said. “Would I have done things differently? Sure. Definitely would have done things differently. I would have done things different, probably handling this [media] a little bit different. And it’s helped me grow.’’
In that moment, he sounded a little like an aging Ted Williams. The Splinter had legendary feuds with the Knights of the Keyboard when he played and late in life he said he probably could have handled it better.
Does Nomar wish he played his entire career here?
“Always,’’ said Garciaparra. “The minute I put that uniform on, I always had a dream I was going to start my career in a Boston uniform and end my career in a Boston uniform. I still have the dream. The only difference from the original dream is that I wasn’t supposed to put another uniform on. But that dream is still there.’’
Never say never.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.