With the close of the decade, it’s time to look back at the decade that was; the decade that completely changed the face of the Red Sox. (Yes, I’m aware that technically it’s not the end of the decade, but honestly, who cares? Everyone considers the 0-9 years as a decade, and I agree.)
Let’s head back to the turn of the millennium. The Sox were a middle-of-the-road franchise that made the playoffs every now and then. The handful of stars on the team weren’t enough to offset the poor supporting staff. The minor league was barren, Fenway Park was (supposedly) on its last legs, the Yankees were the class of baseball and Sox fans saw no end in sight to the World Series drought.
Fast forward ten years later and two World Series are under the team’s belt. Their minor league player development system is the envy of all, and the blueprint of the Sox are emulated almost everywhere. The Red Sox have it all: smarts, money, fans, prospects and a desirable destination for players.
In just 10 years, the culture and perception of the Red Sox has done a complete 180º. Cobbling together the Red Sox All-Aughts Decade Team shows a clear indication of the timeline where the Red Sox morphed into the franchise to be envied, but similarly showed that the early parts of the decade helped lay the foundation for the success to come.
We’re going to be creating a full 25-man roster and create the Red Sox Team of the Decade. Today, we’ll take a look at shortstop, with Nomar Garciaparra doing the honors as our shortstop of the decade.
Before we jump into the 2000s, let’s review where Nomar came from. He was drafted with the 12th overall pick of the 1994 draft, behind Paul Wilson, Ben Grieve, Dustin Hermanson, Antone Williamson, Josh Booty, McKay Christenson, Doug Millon, Todd Walker, C.J. Nitkowski, Jaret Wright and Mark Farris. (Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek were picked just behind Nomar.)
Despite hitting for a .775 OPS in High-A Sarasota in ’94 as a 20 year old, he was elevated to Double-A Trenton the following year, checking in at a .722 OPS. He reached Triple-A at the green age of 22, busting out for a .343 average before getting a cup of coffee in the major leagues, setting up his rookie year.
Nomar won the Rookie of the Year award in 1997, hitting an amazing 30 home runs out of the leadoff spot, leading all of baseball in at-bats while pacing the American League with 204 hits en route to a .306/.342/.534 lineup. Those 30 home runs was a record by a rookie leadoff hitter, later matched by former Sox farmhand Hanley Ramirez.
Nomar also turned in 11 triples and stole 22 bases, a season high. At the time, he looked like the quintessential five-tool player. ’98 saw him step up his game, slugging 35 home runs and having “NO-mah!” becoming a popular refrain. Here was this shortstop taking the world by storm, with movie-star hair causing girls to swoon, with tics at the plate that quickly became emulated by young ballplayers in the region. (I was one of them — I used to do the feet-tapping routine.)
The good times kept on rolling as Nomar set a career high in batting average at the turn of the decade (2000), notching a .372 average. He became the first righty to win back-to-back batting titles since Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio from 1939-1940. At this point, Nomar was a bona-fide star coming off his second straight season of an OPS over 1.000. Indeed, over the three-year period of 1998-2000, Nomar led the Holy Trinity of shortstops (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez) in offensive statistics.
Then the curse of Sports Illustrated hit. When Nomar reported to spring training after the article ran, he did so with wrist problems that aborted his 2001 season and in hindsight, began what would be a messy divorce three years later.
You wouldn’t know it given his 2002 season that saw him return to prominence, bashing 54 doubles and driving in 120 runs. 2003 was more of the same, appearing in 156 games both years. However, Nomar’s defense began slipping, his plate discipline eroded and questions arose about Nomar’s long-term value. It certainly didn’t help that he was cast as an outsider in the clubhouse during the ‘Cowboy Up’ year of 2003.
Nomar at this point understandably wanted to be paid on the same salary structure as the other members of the Holy Trinity and rejected an offer which has publicly been accepted to have been four years and $60 million.
Nomar’s — and Boston’s — world was rocked shortly thereafter when the A-Rod news hit and it seemed likely that Rodriguez was about to become Boston’s new shortstop. (Fire Brand archive: Nomar’s decline, A-Rod’s potential arrival.) He would have been acquired from Texas for Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester, while Nomar would have been shipped to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. The deal quickly fell apart when the players union (thanks, guys) rejected a restructuring of A-Rod’s contract. Never mind that A-Rod was willing to give up money to play in Boston: the MLBPA couldn’t have that.
In any event, Nomar’s confidence was shaken despite his continued plans to remain in Boston, buying a home. However, he never quite fit in with the 2004 Red Sox, seemingly milking his injuries (anyone remember him playing soccer in the outfield with wife Mia Hamm despite reported injury problems?). He was petulant on the field as well, and perhaps the most seminal image of Nomar’s rocky time in Boston came during the game in which both Derek Jeter and Pokey Reese made obscene plays. (I’m sure you remember the latter due to the fawning over the play — which was great in its own right — but Reese made a similarly unbelievable play as well.)
Shortly after that, The Nomar Trade happened. Theo Epstein agonized over the trade, having to cast aside his Red Sox fandom in order to make Boston the best team possible. It was clear at that time that the clubhouse was growing frustrated, that Garciaparra wasn’t giving his all, and the team was suffering from defensive shortcomings. Nomar’s head-flying, first-pitch-hacking weak popup routine became jokes among fans. (Fire Brand archive: I’m tired of Nomar.)
Boston’s biggest star since Carl Yastrzemski thus headed off to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team trade along with prospect Matt Murton, receiving shortstop Orlando Cabrera (from the Montreal Expos) and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (Minnesota Twins) in return. (Fire Brand archive: As Nomar hobbles away, a new team runs up.) Obviously, we know what the new corps did: engineered the greatest comeback in sports/ensured the greatest choke in sports of their rivals en route to a World Series title.
Nomar thusly ended his career in Boston, having hit .323/.373/.541 from 2000-’04, notching 154 doubles on the way. He wasn’t quite finished with Beantown, however, saving two girls from drowning in Boston Harbor in October 2005 outside his condominium. He continues to own a home in the New England area with Hamm, having purchased it just prior to the trade.
He returned to Boston as an opposing player for the first time in 2009. At this point, he was a bench player for the Oakland Athletics after spending the remainder of 2004 and 2005 as an inconsistent, injury-marred shortstop for the Cubs. He moved to Los Angeles — a destination many for years felt Nomar wanted to be at — and put together a turn-back-the-clock year, making the All-Star team for the first time since 2003 and finishing 13th in the MVP voting while serving as the first baseman.
At this point, Nomar was strictly a first- and third-baseman. He spent two more years in L.A. before being lured to Oakland after sending feelers to Boston about rejoining the team. (Fire Brand archive: Nomar called Sox to play.) He received a standing ovation upon his return to Fenway (Fire Brand archive: OAK 6, BOS 0: The Return of Nomar.) and by all appearances, was genuinely touched. (Nomar was good for one other thing: allowing me to reconnect with a high school friend who went to this game and is now my girlfriend. Hi, Sarah!)
The Sox’s two championships post-Nomar certainly had something to do with his reception, as those titles allowed the “dark days” to be pushed into the past.
But more important than those two titles as a reason for his ovation is what Nomar meant to Boston. An entire generation was weaned on Nomar. He provided a homegrown electricity to the team. Between him and Pedro Martinez, Boston was a team to watch.
Statistically, plus factors that can’t be put into words, Nomar Garciaparra is one of the most influential Red Sox players of all time. I am extremely fortunate to have been able to witness Nomar’s prime years, and I am honored to anoint Nomar the starting shortstop on the Red Sox All-Aughts Team of the Decade.
Here’s to you, #5.
Players who played shortstop for the Red Sox from 2000-9, sorted by first name: Alejandro Machado, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Andy Sheets, Bill Mueller, Cesar Crespo, Chris Woodward, Craig Grebeck, Damian Jackson, Donnie Sadler, Dustin Pedroia, Edgar Renteria, Freddy Sanchez, Gil Velazquez, James Lofton, Jed Lowrie, John Valentin, Julio Lugo, Lou Merloni, Manny Alexander, Mark Bellhorn, Mike Lansing, Nick Green, Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, Ramon Vazquez, Rey Sanchez, Ricky Gutierrez, Royce Clayton