On July 1, 2004, after an instant classic 13-inning game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, Nomar Garciaparra’s career in a Boston Red Sox uniform effectively came to an end.
In 1996, 22-year-old Nomar Garciaparra made his Major League debut against Mark McGwire and the Oakland Athletics. In the 8th inning, Nomar replaced second baseman Jeff Frye, and in his first at bat lined out to left field. The next day,
Nomar got the start at SS over John Valentin (yeah, that guy had no chance), batted 7th, and proceeded to go 3-5 with a solo home run off John Wasdin. Soon after, Ted Williams called up then Boston Red Sox GM Dan Duquette and told him that the young Nomar Garciaparra that he had just promoted to the Major Leagues reminded him of the great Joe Dimaggio. To say the least it was extraordinary praise for the highly touted Georgia Tech product.
In 1997, when I was 8 years old, the young, exciting and energetic Garciaparra truly burst onto the scene in Boston. Immediately Nomar became my hero and an idol to young baseball players throughout Red Sox Nation. Sure enough I began to make my Dad charge me 50 cents every time I struck out, I hand curved my baseball cap in a child like manner just like Nomar, I never let anyone touch my glove, and you can bet I memorized his toe tapping, batting glove strapping batter’s box routine and performed it before I came to the plate in my little league games. I wished I had been born in California and that my parents had somehow figured out a way to name me in a unique manner adjacent to Nomar’s father naming him Ramon, his father’s name, backwards.
Nomar, thankfully, had effectively rid me of my Atlanta Braves fandom. Chipper Jones was long forgotten and I was sold on the Boston Red Sox. My Dad certainly was relieved and we began to watch any Sox games that were televised in the Atlanta area. This culminated in one of my first memories of Nomar’s career: Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS. Aside from Pedro Martinez’s magical Game 5 relief performance and Troy O’Leary’s 2 HR evening, I vividly remember the Fox camera showing the catcher’s cam of Nomar’s first inning home run. I was still a kid then, ten years old, staying up late on a Columbus Day school night watching the Sox game with my Dad; the fondest of memories that Nomar gave to me.
Then came Nomar’s magical 2000 season. An individual performance that gripped not only New England, but also MLB fans around the globe. It had been 59 years since Ted Williams hit .406, but in mid-July Nomar’s batting average was .403. Whispers turned to shouts; could Nomar finally be the first to hit .400 since Williams in 1941?
No, Nomar would not be the first in 59 years to hit .400; he wound up hitting .372, which is an astounding achievement in its own right. Astounding as it may be, it became even more prodigious when Sox fans learned that Nomar had been dealing with a serious wrist injury that would cost him the majority of his 2001 campaign.
After 2001, Nomar never seemed to be the same player. Do not get me wrong, hitting .310 in 2002 and .301 in 2003 while finishing 11th and 7th in MVP voting, respectively, is phenomenal, but I think we can all agree that he wasn’t that kid from 2000 anymore. He was a bit jaded. He didn’t seem to play with that same youthful fire and passion that had ignited an individual fanfare that Boston may never see the likes of again. Alas, during the summer following the 2003 season, Nomar rejected a 4 year $60 million extension from the Red Sox. Thus, the writing was on the wall that 2004 might be the last for the beloved Nomar in a Red Sox uniform.
On July 1, 2004, the Boston Red Sox found themselves on the verge of being swept by the New York Yankees and falling 9.5 games behind in the race for the pennant. Without a win in the Bronx on ESPN Thursday Night Baseball, all hope of a 2004 World Championship seemed lost.
Throughout their careers, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter had been compared, contrasted, and dissected side by side. Who was better? Who would you start a team with? Who was the better leader? Obviously I had always argued for my childhood idol, Nomar. Disgracefully, my mind changed on that summer night.
Nomar was not playing on Thursday due to a lingering Achilles injury that many media members deemed fairly mysterious. As a fan, I felt like Nomar should have been able to fight through the injury and play in a game that was an extremely important mid-season game against Boston’s bitter rival. Thus, as the game drew towards the 8th and 9th inning ESPN’s camera constantly kept zooming in on a nondescript Garciaparra in the dugout: slumped shoulders and an indifferent facial expression amidst an exciting, heart pounding baseball game. The question continued to come up: would he pinch-hit? The answer, as we would soon find out, was no.
In the 12th inning of a 3-3 ballgame, Cesar Crespo and Johnny Damon found themselves in scoring position with two outs. Trot Nixon came to the plate and flared a foul ball down the left field line that seemingly would fall harmlessly out of play and into the bleachers. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, charged Derek Jeter. Jeter flew head first into the stands (click) in an attempt to make a game changing catch (note: if you have not seen the video you need to click on the aforementioned link — it also shows Nomar in the dugout). As Jeter plunged full speed into the stands, so too did the baseball into his glove. Not only did Jeter emerge from the stands victorious, but also he arose and exited the game with a bloodied chin, swollen cheek, and bruised shoulder. He had sacrificed his body on a foul ball. As you may guess, the Yankees went on to win the game in 13 innings.
In the early morning hours of July 2, 2004, my perception of my childhood hero had changed. In my mind the Nomar that had brought baseball back to Boston had forever been tainted by those destructive, commonplace images of him in the dugout. I admitted to myself, “I would rather have Derek Jeter.”
Boston Red Sox ownership must have seen something similar (as well as a declining defensive shortstop) as they dealt Nomar on July 31st to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team trade that brought defensive wizard, Orlando Cabrera to Boston.
For nearly five years, and two World Series Championships, I refused to forgive my childhood hero for, in my mind, giving up on the Red Sox. However, on July 6, 2009 Nomar returned to Fenway Park, with the Oakland A’s, for the first time in 5 years. I was in attendance; my second ever visit to Fenway. When his name was called, I cheered and I forgave. I cheered along with all of Red Sox Nation and nostalgically reminisced upon everything he had done for us as fans. He brought excitement and passion back to Fenway Park. He is a future Hall of Famer. He cured the evils of 1986 by laying the foundation for 2004 and 2007. And, he was and is one of our hero’s.
Would I still rather have Derek Jeter? Nah, I’ll take “No Maaahhhhhhhh”.