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.

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