When I was a kid, I worshipped Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans. After those stars retired or moved on (the last one being Dwight Evans), I never felt the same about any of the new Red Sox players. This probably has more to do with growing up than anything — although it was hard to muster a lot of passion for Wade Boggs or Mike Greenwell. And Roger Clemens was great, but it was clear even then he was a Texas oaf.
But then Nomar Garciaparra joined the Sox and I suddenly felt that same exuberance I felt as a teen. His passion for the game was evident in the way he played with intensity and a sense of the tradition of Fenway Park. Ted Williams loved him, which should be enough for any fan. After Manny showed up I often said that I’d rather have one Nomar than a whole team of Mannys. Nomar exhibited so much spirit and enthusiasm, he was a joy to watch. Where Manny was just Manny — an idiot savant who could crush the ball, but couldn’t have cared less about where he played.
There has been some revisionist history in the years since Nomar left — namely that he was a weak defensive player. That is nonsense. He may not have been the best defensive short stop in the league, but he was aggressive and athletic, getting to balls which seemed as if they were going to be hits. One day I was watching a Sox game with my brother-in-law (whose brother pitched in the major leagues). He told me that Nomar wasn’t much of a fielder, then Garciaparra made a great play on a ball up the middle, gobbling it up and gunning out the runner and my brother-in-law changed his opinion then and there. I remember one game shortly after Nomar made his aborted attempt to come back early from his wrist injury. It was a close game in the late innings. The opposing team had a man on third with one out. The batter hit a blooper that looked as if it was going to fall near the foul line between the third baseman and Manny. Then, coming out of nowhere, Nomar made a sliding catch, leapt to his feet and threw out the runner trying to score from third.
Nomar made those plays routinely. What he had trouble with was throwing accurately to first. But he wasn’t Chuck Knoblauch. A decent first baseman, even Mo Vaughn, could almost always scoop up those balls. Unfortunately, in Nomar’s final two seasons in Boston, Kevin Millar played first — and he might as well have been Kawlija the Wooden Indian.
The sad thing is how Nomar’s time in Boston came to an end. He proved to have a thin skin and seemed unable to cope with the press. But the hard feelings were not all Nomar’s doing. John Henry unfairly made the team’s negotiations with Nomar public at the same time the Sox were trying to deal Manny AND Nomar to acquire Alex Rodriguez. Nomar’s legacy with the Sox has been bound up with Manny. When Manny pouted his way out of town last July, everyone compared him to Nomar and suddenly they were both disgruntled players of the same ilk. That, too, is nonsense. Manny was always a selfish player. Nomar never was. It wasn’t about the money for Nomar. It was about respect, and he didn’t feel he got that from the Henry ownership, and I can’t say that I blame him for feeling that way. When friction arose between George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter, Steinbrenner made Jeter team captain. That’s the way to respect a player.
Tonight Nomar will be making his first return to Fenway Park after five years. I hope the fans remember what it was like to watch Nomar play his first five seasons in Boston. If they do, they will give him the same kind of ovation they’d give to Jim Rice or Dwight Evans. Nomar deserves that much.
UPDATE: This column by Tony Massarotti over on Boston.com illustrates perfectly the media mindset that sent Nomar over the edge. Instead of writing a story recalling the brilliance of Nomar during most of his seven plus seasons with the Sox, this article implies that casting off Nomar helped the Sox — and, in fact, ALL Boston sports teams — shed the loser mentality. Is it any wonder Nomar grimaced every time he had to face these people. Sure, if he had had thicker skin, he would have shrugged it all off for what it is, the idle ramblings of a sports writer hoping to say something relevent. Nomar couldn’t do that, unfortunately.
Mazz also draws a comparison between Nomar and John Smoltz — a winner, in Mazz’s eyes — conveniently forgetting that Smoltz left Atlanta feeling betrayed and bitter. I know that Mazz will claim the article is about the perception of Boston sports, and not an idictment of Garciaparra — but I think it is clear that Mazz is making a direct correlation here.