Friday, April 23, 2010

Nomar Part I

It’s a cool, clear evening at Fenway Park. A lazy breeze fans the uneasy crowd. Summer, having just broken out from the clutches of a rain-filled spring, paints a comfortable, almost cliché picture of classic New England. The sun has just set and the Boston Red Sox, oblivious to the weather, are clawing their way back into a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. They still trail by one as Boston’s franchise player comes to bat.

The home team’s three-hitter strides to the plate, exuding a buoyant swagger that seems to indicate how much he’s feeding off of the crowd’s excitement. He pauses, leans back and begins readjusting the straps on his gloves as if he’s taking a breath before the plunge. Finally he steadies himself and steps confidently into the batter’s box, before rhythmically twirling his bat and clicking his heels five times, a neurotic habit born out of superstition.

Swinging at the first pitch (a style befitting his relentless aggression) he belts the ball so hard that it seems to send reverberations through the entire foundation of the ageless ballpark. Missing the top of the wall by mere inches, the ball explodes back into play, but not before the newly crowned hero is dusting himself off on third base, the game now tied and extra innings looming.

It seems an eternity ago that I saw that game at Fenway Park in 2003. (I remember it primarily because it was a great game, but also for the fact that All Star Woody Williams threw a ball into the stands during the pregame that I greedily snatched away from a flock of unsuspecting Cardinal fans.) It was an instant midsummer classic, with two traditional powerhouses battling a war of attrition. After adamantly cheering that game tying triple in the 9th, we erupted again in the 10th as the same man tied it once more to prolong the struggle.

Unfortunately, that’s all it was: a prolonging. And like a perfect microcosm for the career of the man who had tied the game twice, it ended in ultimate disappointment. An under strength Sox bullpen could not hold back the floodgates (manifested by Cardinals slugger Jim Edmonds) and eventual ALCS hero and caveman Johnny Damon popped out in the bottom of the 13th with two men on to end it.

For any Red Sox fan of that generation (pre-2004), you know it was Nomar Garciaparra who hit that clutch triple. You knew that as soon as I described the mannerisms. That was one of his many idiosyncrasies (of which there were many.) I suppose those were the things that made Nomar unique and endearing.

What really set him apart during his peak years was his style. Nomar did everything like he knew the next play would be his last. His swing (after he finally concluded his marathon pre-pitch routine) was a sight to see. It was as if he utilized every muscle in his body to generate maximum bat speed. His whole body would explode into the ball like a predator pouncing on prey. Fenway was a dream for him, since his tendency to pepper the Green Monster with line-drive missiles led to a predictably insane batting average. His fielding was also eye catching. They never measured who made the most “putouts while throwing across your body”, but if they had, Nomar would’ve had a monopoly.

Nomar’s retirement this past March prompted me to make some final conclusions about his quizzical career. No star had shined brighter in his youth in Boston, a city at that point still gripped by self doubt and “the curse.” Yet not even five years after that June game where Nomar had carried the Red Sox to the brink of victory, he was gone. Marginalized by injuries that robbed him of much of his natural talent, Nomar cut a forlorn figure. No longer a Red Sox, he never settled anywhere else in the majors, a shell of the man many had once picked as the heir to Ted Williams.

Yet even in his decline, there was no major catastrophic event that drew media attention. It happened ignominiously over the course of years, not minutes. In this, the true tragedy of Nomar’s career is first exposed. Forever trying to shun the spotlight, he got exactly what he wanted in the end: public apathy. His divorce from the Red Sox may have been manifested only his differences with the front office, but in reality it was enough to sever the ties with fans. He wasn’t a Red Sox anymore. More than that, he had been cast as the cancer in the team that, when removed, allowed them to go onto the curse-breaking World Series only months later.

He came to represent everything about the old Red Sox (aka, the guys who didn’t win.) He played with his heart on his sleeve and the stat oriented general managers (like Theo Epstein) didn’t value that as much. All they saw was his poor plate patience, his diminishing defensive range and, most of all, the exorbitant salary demands.

Probably the most tragic part of all of this was that so little of it was actually Nomar’s fault. The timing of his career was nothing he could control. It was the period just before the Red Sox broke the curse and become flooded with other homegrown talent. He was also crippled by injuries, starting with the infamous 1999 Al “Burn in Hell” Reyes incident. The salary demands his agent put on the new ownership were out of his hands, but then again he was only trying to get his market value. He was, after all, the guy who had at that point a career average of .323 and a whopping .925 OPS.

It’s for this reason that I wanted to do something about Nomar. He was without a doubt my favorite player as a kid (along with Pedro Martinez) and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. There was an entire generation of kids who grew up watching Mia Hamm’s future husband crush extra base hits for fun and laugh off the suddenly resurgent Evil Empire Yankees. He gave us confidence in a time when confidence was a scarce commodity in Boston.

Yet I feel his status as a tragic hero is worth more than just a 20 second blurb on SportsCenter marking his retirement. Everything about him screams complicated (I intended this intro to only be a couple paragraphs, yet here we are over a thousand words.) I want to chronicle his career in its entirety. Were I rich and bored enough, I could probably write his biography, but instead I’ll settle on a multi-part series for this month’s Random Discussion of a Random Athlete.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The complicated nature of such a "basic" game...

It’s surprising, but there’s a perception that baseball isn’t as interesting as it was during the steroid era. Like the inevitable end met by the old wild west, the no-rules ‘anything goes’ characteristic that was a steroid era staple is drawing to a close. (And no I’m not quite ready to land on the aircraft carrier and have a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background, but we are making progress.) Truly, given the horrendous (and some would say conscious) ignorance of MLB officials to the massive steroid culture for nearly two decades, the progress that the league has made in the last couple years is encouraging.

From a hazy, indefinable start date of sometime in the mid-80’s (when steroids began to directly affect league-wide numbers) to around 2003 (when the BALCO thing exploded), the MLB looked the other way in a morally deplorable way. This completely unjustifiable strategy screamed of the idea that record breaking home run totals get fans interested and brings money back to a game that was almost crushed by labor strike in 1994 (when they actually cancelled the fucking World Series over a money dispute…try explaining that to a 10 year old.)

Since 2003, the MLB officials have slowly turned the heat up on steroid users. Many could definitely make a case that commissioner Bud Selig only acted when independent investigations and the bizarre involvement of congress made it plainly clear that an exceedingly large number of ballplayers were shamelessly cheating their asses off. Nonetheless, Selig and his office of monkeys-with-typewriters finally appear to be producing a model to pin back the hitherto unchecked cheaters.

The reemergence of the balanced team

So now that the previously full reservoir of steroid abuse is evaporating faster than the Aral Sea, it leaves a void that is being curiously filled. In the place of meatheads like Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco are players who compensate for their power drop-off by being a combination of speed, versatility, defensive prowess and plate discipline. The inability to use steroids, coupled with the emergence of front offices utilizing sabermetrics has rekindled the diversity of skill-sets in baseball. Gone are the days when even the Red Sox number nine hitter will win the American League batting title.

Out of the gigantic shadow cast by steroids are an entirely new generation of players who are not predicated around crushing homeruns, but instead contribute in more subtle ways. In back to back years, Dustin Pedroia and Joe Mauer have won the A.L. MVP. (Whether you think they should have won is another debate but it’s impossible to say that they didn’t belong in the discussion.) Neither hit even 30 homeruns in that year, yet were absolutely indispensible to their team’s causes because of their defense as well as their bats (and in Mauer’s case his innate ability to call a good game).

What’s even more interesting is that no matter how impressive some of the steroid era lineups were, none of them ever won a world series. While every World Series winner in that time carried several users, no team ever won a World Series that had any player who hit more than 50 homeruns during the 1990’s and right through 2003 (save Luis Gonzalez and the 2001 Diamondbacks). And this is a fact that has less to with the will of the baseball god’s (who some would say were bound and determined to deny Barry Bonds a ring), but more to do with the universally true fact that a good team is one that carries balance.

The ‘David Eckstein’ role

It’s true that in any sport the entire team needs to play well to win a championship, but this is probably truer in baseball than in almost any other sport. Whereas Peyton Manning can lift the Indianapolis Colts from a surefire sub .500 team into the Super Bowl, even Albert Pujols is unable to lift the Cardinals from mediocrity if they’re pitching sucks, or if they can’t find a guy to ensure that Pujols isn’t walked every time.
Thus there has been a perfect storm of sorts in the circumstances around player development in the past several years. The diminished steroid effect, coupled with front offices gaining confidence, has led to a reevaluation of talent.

A perfect example of this would be David Eckstein. The diminutive shortstop is the antithesis of everything Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa represented. Unlike those two, Eckstein remained a scrawny little guy, completely unable to hit for power. However, Eckstein has two more World Series rings then both of those two colossal stars. Is it more to do with the fact that he played on better teams? Certainly there is truth to that. Yet he symbolizes baseball from a different age (and one that is returning with greater frequency to the current setup of the league.)

I’m not saying having a team of David Ecksteins will win a World Series (since a lack of power is crippling), but what I am saying is that a team composed of only juiced-up power hitters will definitely not win in October. You need guys like Eckstein, who hustle constantly, play solid defense, show mental toughness (because they’ve always had to deal with adversity) and fill out the intangibles. Only the Yankees remain a team composed mostly of power hitters (but they’re constructed well enough to the point where they cover every category including power). Nearly every other team in the majors has evolved. And the direction of MLB teams seems more to be in the direction of the Grady Sizemores and David Wrights of the world; a far cry from ten years ago.