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Bob Ryan

Very few had a swing like his

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 11, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Never saw anybody hit the ball that hard, that often. Nev-ah.

Talkin’ ’bout the young Nomar Garciaparra, the 1997-98-99-2000-01-02 Nomah of legend. That guy coulda/shoulda been convicted of cowhide abuse.

“I note line drives on the scoresheet with an ‘L,’ ’’ says Joe Castiglione, who broadcast every one of Nomar Garciaparra’s 966 games with the Red Sox. “One time Jimy Williams said to me, ‘Would you see how many of those outs with L’s you’ve got?’ I had more than 50.’’

He was booked on the Cooperstown Express, Nomah was. Who’s the best shortstop? The choices were Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Garciaparra, and it was a healthy debate.

Writers are prone to hyperbole. But this time it’s no reach. In terms of style and modus operandi, Nomar Garciaparra was unique unto himself, and that’s before we get to the batter’s box ritual that made him the most identifiable and oft-imitated player of his time.

By the way, it’s generally agreed that the aforementioned Cooperstown Express was derailed by the injuries that brought him to City of Palms Park yesterday to announce his official retirement, but a second look at his career numbers will make him a fascinating case study for the next generation of baseball scholars.

Even though the 4 1/2 years of post-Boston play knocked down his career totals significantly, the fact is that the average 162-game Nomar Garciaparra season included a .313 batting average, 42 doubles, 105 runs, 106 runs batted in, and an .882 OPS. Very few middle infielders in the history of baseball will be able to make such a statement.

The ending in Boston wasn’t graceful. Nomar had lost a lot in the field and his disposition had soured. He really wasn’t much fun to be around. He was no longer a good fit in Fenway.

“He just got ‘Bostoned out,’ ’’ Terry Francona suggests. “Sometimes, you just have to move on. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Him coming back here proves that.’’

The beef was internal. Nomar Garciaparra always loved the Boston fans, and the Boston fans always loved him.

For seven years, there sure was a lot to like. He gave people a nice 24-game preview of coming attractions in 1996, but no one was really prepared for what he did in 1997, when he redefined, for Red Sox fans anyway, the concept of a leadoff man. Forget all that work-the-count stuff. Nomar Garciaparra wasn’t up there to read and react. He was up there to hack.

“First-pitch fastball, first-pitch curveball, first-pitch slider, it didn’t matter what it was,’’ says Lou Merloni, a teammate both in the minors and with the Red Sox. “He was barreling it.’’ (Translation: He would hit the ball square on the barrel and he would hit it hard.)

Francona was a witness way back when.

“Managing him in the Arizona Fall League was one of the highlights of my career,’’ Francona declares. “When you get a kid in that situation, and he’s not a member of your organization, you call them up to see what it is they want him to work on. They were concerned about his throws.

“One day the conversation was, ‘Hey, could this kid play second base?’ After a few games, I called them back and said, ‘I don’t know who you’ve got playing shortstop, but you might consider moving him to second base. You should leave him alone. The ball’s getting over there OK.’ ’’

There were no questions about the kid’s bat.

“He was aggressive, but he always got the barrel squarely on the ball,’’ says Francona. “At this time, he wasn’t pulling the ball yet. He was hitting mostly to right-center. But he was hitting the ball hard.’’

If you lived through it, you know. Nomar captivated Red Sox Nation in 1997, pounding out 30 homers and driving in 98 runs. Oh, and how about leading the league in both hits (209) and triples (11)? He scored 122 runs. You’d have to say he was a reasonably productive leadoff man.

If those numbers were sick, some of the ones that followed were positively epidemic. In 1998, he went .323-35-122 with an OPS of .946. He started to get somewhat ridiculous in his third full season, batting a league-leading .357 with a OPS of 1.022.

He sustained a right wrist injury when hit by a pitch thrown by Baltimore’s Al Reyes late that season, and I have always maintained he never again hit the ball as consistently hard again, an admittedly difficult premise to sustain when you consider that the following season he hit a career-high .372 with a career-high OPS of 1.033.

Here is what Merloni remembers about that season.

“I don’t know if they keep stats on hard outs,’’ Merloni wonders. “But the year he hit .372, he could easily have hit .400. He was doing nothing but getting hits or hitting hard outs.’’

The man just didn’t swing and miss very often. In the years 1999 and 2000, for example, he put up all those gaudy power numbers while accumulating 23 more walks (112) than strikeouts (89). He retires with a career total of one strikeout for every 9.78 at-bats, a number the storied old-timers can relate to.

Let’s see . . . hit, hit with power, field, throw, and — let’s not forget this — run. That just about covers it. With all due respect to Hall of Famer Joe Cronin, Johnny Pesky, or anybody else, if I could have only one Red Sox shortstop for a season or a key series (.975 lifetime postseason OPS), it would definitely be Nomar Garciaparra.

Bob Ryan can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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