I was 23 years old when Nomar Garciaparra emerged as a star with the Red Sox. My brother was eight.
To me, Nomar was a nice player, the face of a franchise that had select few to display. Despite winning the Rookie of the Year in 1997 though, something about him never clicked properly with me until he hit that ninth-inning shot in Game 3 of the 1998 ALDS against the Indians. It was a significant clutch moment at an opportune time, far before any of us knew who David Ortiz was.
My brother plastered his bedroom wall with Garciaparra posters. He wore No. 5 in Little League, frantically adjusted his gloves at the plate, and attended Nomar summer baseball camps.
I liked Nomar, but never to the degree that his loyalists worshipped him. I was quick to criticize his swinging at the first pitch and his ornery attitude with the media, until, conveniently, he had something to promote. His recurring injuries subtracted from what some thought could have been a Hall of Fame career, and the whispers of performance-enhancing drugs didn’t exactly quiet down with the infamous Sports Illustrated cover. In 2004, when he turned down a four-year, $60 million deal, it was seen as the ultimate sign that he didn’t want to be here.
To my brother, he could simply do no wrong.
I was on a family vacation in Florida, strolling through Fantasyland of all places, when the call from my boss came. Garciaparra had been traded. As my mind reeled with the prospect of writing reaction for the site, tears swelled in my 15-year-old brother’s eyes, the sports icon of his youth no longer a hometown hero.
Garciaparra was an easy punching bag for his critics (remember “Pokey woulda had it?”), but the shortstop never did himself any favors for his red light antics. Surly and sullen in the locker room, Garciaparra would always find a smile when the camera was rolling, the kind of ambiguous disingenuity that turned many off to him. His fans saw a guy who loved to play the game. Others saw a guy who seemed constantly at odds over his comfort level in a city obsessed with him.
Nomar and Boston, a love affair destined to last for years,
Then, July 1, 2004 happened.
As his teammates battled it out against the Yankees, the game that featured Derek Jeter – theatrical or not – diving into the stands for a foul ball, Boston’s shortstop sat in the dugout and sulked. It was the very beginning of Nomar’s end in Boston, and it was all very public. TV cameras continually focused on Nomar in the dugout, a significant image that angered many fans who were convinced he was quitting on his teammates. It was the most critical the Boston fan base had ever been about the player who was once the object of all their affection.
One month later, he was gone, the regrets following him.
But if Ben Linus can find redemption, why can’t there be room for Nomar? Say what you want about today’s press conference being a gimmick orchestrated by the Red Sox. Sometimes we just have to take a step back and appreciate what something is. Countless players have left Boston and retired elsewhere only to be embraced. Frankly, the whole “retire as a player on the team that brought you up,” is an overblown concept.
Not in Nomar’s case. The history between this one-time All-Star and team was such that the gesture is meaningful. It doesn’t mean his number is eligible to hang from the right field rafters. It doesn’t mean that Red Sox fans who still were turned off by him, will now be apt to turn him on when he appears on ESPN. And it certainly doesn’t mean the Red Sox plan to sell more Nomar merchandise. (Well, I actually can’t speak for that.)
This was more about salvation than anything else on both parts. The ending was so messy, so ugly and sudden that you always felt a moment like this had to come eventually.
“I was constantly seeing Boston fans everywhere and telling me the same thing, and like I said, there’s a place in my heart for those teams that I’ve played for, but the biggest part in my heart is obviously here,” Garciaparra said. “And that’s why I felt like for me to really finish and ultimately retire, it wouldn’t have felt like a retirement if I couldn’t put this uniform on one more time.”
My brother turns 21 this weekend, long since having obsessed about No. 5. His generation grew up with Nomar as the player that this city was in love with. To me, he was a fine ballplayer, one I grew to enjoy watching tremendously over the years even if his inconsistency and demeanor greatly soured my view of him during the final years. My brother was at the epicenter of the unique love affair Nomar and Boston had together.
Today, it received its fitting, final chapter.