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March 12, 2010

One-Hoppers

Nomar In Blue

by Jay Jaffe

Having given you my professional take on Nomar Garciaparra elsewhere, I'd also like to accompany it with a more personal take. As a New York- based partisan of the Yankees-Red Sox wars over the past decade and a half, I spent Nomar's prime years rooting against him while appreciating and defending Derek Jeter. Which wasn't to say that I didn't respect Nomar's game, of course. On the contrary, he was a hitter who struck fear in opposing fans as well as hitters, and as I noted in today's piece, the sight of the 3-4-5 combo of Garciaparra-Manny Ramirez-David Ortiz in an inning sent me into a fetal position during many a tight ballgame. No lead ever felt safe with that wrecking crew looming.

Two years before Manny donned the Dodger blue, Garciaparra's migration to Chavez Ravine gave me an opportunity to set aside the partisan animosity and appreciate his gifts in the context of my favorite team. Though he wasn't nearly the ballplayer he'd been during his Boston heyday, his 2006 season (.303/.367/.505 with 20 homers) provided its share of joys along with the man's last sustained stretch of greatness. He was red hot during the first half of the year (.358/.426/.578), and while he battled injuries and slumps the rest of the way, he provided one of the most memorable moments I've experienced in 30-plus years as a Dodger fan.

I'm referring, of course, to his 10th-inning walk-off homer off the Padres' Rudy Seanez on September 18, 2006, capping a miraculous comeback in which four Dodgers (Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin and Marlon Anderson) hit consecutive solo shots in the ninth inning to tie the game. Riveted by the contest and its potential postseason implications — this was the fourth game of a crucial series that had seen the Dodgers knocked out of first place the day before — I stayed up past 2 AM watching the game, listening to Vin Scully on headphones while semi-silently celebrating as my wife slept in the next room. Here's what I wrote the next morning about Nomar's at-bat amid an epic account of the weekend series (having tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers had fallen behind 10-9 during the next half inning):

[Rudy] Seanez walked [Kenny] Lofton to lead off the inning. "Ball four! And the Dodgers have a rabbit as the tying run," exclaimed Scully. Up came Garciaparra, and though his injury isn't as severe as [Kirk] Gibson's, one could be forgiven for thinking of that fairytale moment on such a weird and wonderful night. Manager Grady Little — oh jeez, what a buzzkill to think of him at this moment — had sounded like he was risking Nomar's entire season the day before when he remarked:

"Unlike the knee injury, where he could play when the pain was tolerable, this thing, if you push it, could pop altogether and he'd be out for 10 days or two weeks, and we can't afford that right now... I think he'll play tomorrow, and he could pinch-hit today."

Indeed, Garciaparra struck out in the pinch in the ninth inning of Sunday's game. Little was only slightly more sanguine before Monday's contest:

"We'll try him today... We hope he gets through it. It's a little gamble. It could blow up if he gets overextended, but we'll take a chance with it tonight. When a player gets under the gun with a chance to beat out an infield hit, it's hard for them to back off... We're trying to win the game... We need him in there to win the game. He wanted to play yesterday. He feels he can play effectively and we feel he can play effectively and that's why he's going to play."

Wow. Nonetheless, there was Nomar, hitting just .224/.255/.469 in September, coming to the plate. Seanez fell behind 3-1, and then Garciaparra just crushed his next pitch.

Two-run homer.

Ballgame.

The second lead change in the division in as many days.

Are you ******* kidding me?

Leftfielder [Dave] Roberts had already turned back to face the plate as the ball went over the wall as pandemonium broke out both in Dodger Stadium and in my own private viewing box; somehow I managed to keep from waking my wife. The Dodgers dogpiled at home plate as Scully, with admirable restraint, let the celebratory scene do the talking.

Two minutes later, the master of the mic remarked enthusiastically, "I forgot to tell you: the Dodgers are in first place!" Another minute of crowd shots and stadium noise passed, un-Scullyed, before he finally signed off: "I think we've said enough from up here. Once again, the final score in 10 innings -- believe it or not -- Dodgers 11, Padres 10."

Best. Game. Ever.

Though he wasn't limping visibly like Gibson — he seemed to glide around the basepaths afterwards, pumped fist in the air, feeling no pain — it was truly a special moment on Garciaparra's part, one amplified by Scully's willingness to let the pictures tell the story. I still have that game on my TiVo, and I still can't resist watching it from time to time. Thanks, Nomar, for being at the center of it all.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: Trever... (03/12)
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One-Hoppers: Gone, Nom... (03/11)
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MLB 10 (03/12)

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