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March 19, 2010

Player Profile

Nomar Garciaparra

by Marc Normandin

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As sports fans, there are moments you have where time freezes: you remember where you were, who you were with and what happened with clarity like that it happened yesterday. It's a concept that may seem silly to those who have never invested themselves fully into a team or sport, but given where you are reading this, chances are good you are aware of this phenomenon. If any of you are Red Sox fans--especially younger ones—then July 31, 2004 could house one of those moments.

Nomar Garciaparra, still at that point one of the faces of the franchise, if not the face, was traded to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team, eight-player deal that brought Orlando Cabrera to Boston as his replacement at shortstop. To put it kindly, this was a bad breakup for the organization and Garciaparra, and it came out of nowhere to shock even the most attentive fans. Sure, his name came up in trade discussions a year prior, but that was when Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball was reportedly coming to Boston. At least, that was at a level everyone could understand, with a star going in a deal and a star coming back. The Red Sox traded away a player who had been an important part of their batting order since 1997 in exchange for a guy whose first failing was that he wasn't Nomar. Once you brought up the offensive comparison, it's little wonder why so many fans turned on Theo Epstein and company without waiting to see how things shook out.

This trade was about defense though, and Nomar was slowing down in that regard. The Red Sox felt Cabrera more than made up for the offensive differences with his glove, and that they could not compete at a high level without that upgrade. Contract discussions with Garciaparra were not progressing: the Red Sox made the mistake of letting Nomar know who his comps were, salary-wise, one of which was Miguel Tejada, a player Boston valued less than Nomar. When Tejada received a six-year, $72-million contract from the Orioles as a free agent the previous winter that was unexpectedly more than the amount Boston had in mind for him, The Red Sox knew Garciaparra would require more money than they were willing to play. This led to no deal at all, and was one of the factors that allowed them to trade Garciaparra.

I was torn. As a long-time supporter of Garciaparra (his is one of the few jerseys I have ever owned) it was sad to see him go, but as someone who had an interest in the statistical side of things (and knew how Boston's front office valued statistical analysis), I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something to it, especially given the trouble negotiating his extension. Nomar wanted to be in Boston, and the Red Sox wanted him, but maybe neither of them wanted each other for the same reason. Nomar wanted to extend his legacy with the organization, as he was easily one of the most popular and productive players in franchise history. The Sox are a tougher call. Did they actually want Nomar back, or were they just trying to save face with their fan base? That may seem like a pointless or accusatory question, but let's remember how the last stars to leave Boston were treated--constant media rumors and whispers, dismissal by trade or half-hearted extensions, and always done in a way where someone besides the Sox were at the center of the issue. That's not meant to be a negative, by the way. Boston has it tough with the media in town and demanding fans, and both parties want answers when a popular and productive player like Nomar, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez or Jason Bay exits town. So, it's understandable if they the Red Sox occasionally do their best to make it seem like it had more to do with the player than their own desires.

Whether or not it was the right move, it was a bold one that put more of an emphasis on the other hitters in the lineup to succeed on a daily basis, but also set the Red Sox's pitching staff up for more success in October. In a way, it relates to how the 2010 Red Sox are being built, and the doomsday cries coming from parts of both the fan base and media bring me back to '04 as well.

When the trade occurred, I was hanging out where my friends and I normally did, at Planet Syrinx, a LAN gaming place in my hometown. We had just graduated high school a few months prior, and were wasting away our last summer before college with rounds of Battlefield 1942 and Counterstrike. Sure, we could have been outside in the sunlight, but then I couldn't have followed the trade deadline. This was pre-Twitter, and before smart phones seemed to outnumber regular ones, so I had to actually log out of games to check up on how the day's transactions were going--tortuous to even consider, I know, but that's how things worked all the way back in 2004. When the news of Nomar's trade hit, everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to see and hear the details.

I remember calling my dad, who was also torn on the subject, but given the 2003 Red Sox had been so close to the World Series, partially thanks to the same front office, he was also willing to be patient. My dad had always been a pitching-and- defense kind of guy, so when he saw Cabrera was coming to town to replace Nomar's errant throws and botched grounders, he was relieved in a way. He always felt Nomar made some amazing plays, but then booted or plain missed balls that were hit right at him. Whether or not his defensive shortcomings were overstated, it's hard to argue with the ultimate result of the trade as the the Red Sox won their first World Series championship in 86 years by sweeping the Cardinals.

Nomar was a hero in Boston thanks to a strong career prior to 2004. While considered a good prospect who would become a quality big-league shortstop, Garciaparra turned it on in Triple-A in 1996, overshadowing his previous years in the minors, as well as his Olympic and college career. While Red Sox fans were a bit upset at first that he displaced John Valentin at shortstop, Garciaparra's production from the high minors carried over, with him winning American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1997. He set major-league records for most homers by a rookie shortstop and most RBI by a leadoff hitter with 30 and 98 respectively, which easily earned him unanimous RoY honors. He was an All-Star, as well, and had a top-10 finish in the MVP race. Thanks to his name and the Boston way of saying things, it was easy for fans to identify with him—"Nomah."

He would get better from there. In 1998, he was the Red Sox's top offensive player and finished second in the MVP voting thanks to 35 homers and a line of .323/.362/.584. He was part of the "Holy Trinity" of shortstops that included Rodriguez and the Yankees' Derek Jeter, but that was just the start for Nomar. While Pedro Martinez was on the mound tossing some of the best-pitched games in Boston history, Nomar was in the lineup putting his previous campaigns to shame: in 1999, he was the focal point in the offense thanks to a .357/.418/.603 season. Nomar was so on that year that he was intentionally walked twice in Game Five of the American League Division Series against Cleveland--once with a man on base, and another time to load the bases. Both trips resulted in homers for the man behind him, Troy O'Leary, but chances are good that if you asked then-Indians manager Mike Hargrove today, he wouldn't change a thing about his strategy, despite the outcome.

If Hargrove would stick with his decision, it would be with good reason as Nomar hit .372/.434/.599 in 2000, showing that 1999 was no fluke. Things started to go downhill from there, though. Nomar was hit on the wrist late in the 1999 season by a pitch from the Orioles' Al Reyes. While the wrist didn't affect his performance much at first (see: .372 batting average in 2000), it eventually became a problem. His wrist swelled during spring training of 2001, and when rest didn't allow it to heal, his production suffered and playing time suffered as he played in just 21 games and hit .282/.352/.470. The 2001 season would see Garciaparra rebound to have a .310 batting average.

Even as a younger fan, you could see what was causing part of the problem. Nomar's wrists had always been incredibly fast, and were the main reason he was seemingly able to make the kind of contact he wanted whenever he wanted. When he hurt his wrist, his approach did not change. He still swung at everything he could put his bat on. However, without the same quickness in his wrist, there were a lot more fouls and pop-ups. Garciaparra's 2003 was similar to 2002, but he  struggled in the playoffs: zero homers and a .241/.290/.310 line from one of your star hitters against the Yankees sticks out when your teams loses in seven games in the American League Championship Series, especially when you also strike out eight times following a poor September.

That offseason brought the trade talks, which effectively ended Nomar and the Red Sox working on an extension. Despite a strong start on offense (.321/.367/.500, though in just 38 games) No. 5 was shipped off to the Cubs, where he was forced to be No. 8 until Michael Barrett gave up No. 5. It was a shock. Even when the Red Sox were celebrating their victory of the Cards, one of the things I wondered was whether Nomar would be sent a championship ring for his contributions to the franchise. Thankfully, his former organization decided he should receive one.

The Red Sox looked more right as time went by, even beyond winning the World Series.  Nomar tore his groin in early 2005 with the Cubs (tore and groin are two words that should never be in the same sentence, never mind following one another), which was another injury that caused him to miss significant time. When he returned, it was as a third baseman to fill in for injured Aramis Ramirez, though Nomar had volunteered to make the shift.

Nomar signed with the Dodgers for 2006 to form what was basically Red Sox West: Bill Mueller, Derek Lowe and former Sox manager Grady Little were all with the Dodgers. Nomar was converted into a first baseman by the Dodgers because of his shaky health situation and declining glove. However, his bat was revitalized: Nomar hit .303/.367/.505 and made the All-Star team for the first time since 2003. Additionally, he had two walk-off homers while the Dodgers were fighting for a playoff spot that helped them to secure October baseball in Los Angeles. On Sept. 18, the Dodgers hit four consecutive homers in the ninth inning against the Padres to send the game into extras. The Padres went ahead in the top of the 10th but Nomar hit a two-run homer in bottom half of the inning to end the game. On Sept. 24, he hit a grand slam to end a game against the Diamondbacks. For his efforts, he won the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

That would be his final full and productive season, though, as 2007 saw him playing, but not particularly well, and he was pushed off first base by prospect James Loney. He missed most of 2008 due to various injuries: he had microfracture surgery on his hand due to being struck by a pitch in spring training, strained a left calf muscle in April not long after his return then was placed on the disabled list on Aug. 1 with a sprained knee to make room on the active roster for Ramirez, now a Dodger after being acquired from the Red Sox in a trade. Following the season, Nomar had a hard time finding suitors, but the Athletics signed him as a agent in the middle of spring training.

Garciaparra wore No. 1 on the A's because Matt Holliday had laid claim to No. 5, though he eventually got it back when Holliday was traded to the Cardinals in late July. On July 6, Garciaparra returned to Fenway Park for the first time since he was dealt, nearly five years prior. The fans cheered before his first at-bat, and even when he picked up the game's first RBI for the A's. This was one of the only highlights for Nomar in a season full of lows, as he appeared in just 65 games and had one of his poorest seasons at the plate.

In a surprise move, the Red Sox signed Nomar to a minor-league contract last year, so he could retire as a member of the organization. As a fan of both Nomar and the Sox, it was nice to see the healing process in action, and watch one of my childhood favorites come back to the organization where he was a star.

He may not have been able to finish his career with the numbers of a Hall of Famer, but I prefer to remember all of the times in Boston when he hit like one. I was oddly jealous to see him succeed with the Dodgers, even for one year and despite the Red Sox's success without him. All in all, though, I'm glad that the rift has been repaired, and that Nomar ended his career where he started it, even if it didn't end quite like you thought it would at the start.

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