There was a time Nomar Garciaparra was synonymous with Boston baseball. Following former MVP Mo Vaughn’s acrimonious departure for the free agent fields of Anaheim, the ‘97 AL Rookie of the Year carried the Red Sox offense on his wiry frame. “Nomah” was the franchise.
In 1999, Garciaparra popped 27 homers and drove in 104 for a playoff team that finished just ninth in the league in offense. Add to that his .357 average, .418 OBP, 14 steals, 42 doubles and a mere 39 strikeouts, and it was arguably the greatest offensive campaign by a shortstop in team history, ranking among the finest submissions from Joe Cronin (1938), Rico Petrocelli (1969), and John Valentin (1995).
For an encore, Nomar locked down the batting title in 2000, hitting .372 with a .434 OBP.
To quote Dan Shaughnessy, “He played harder than any superstar in Red Sox history. He ran out every grounder and every pop-up. At home plate, he attacked the baseball like no middle infielder in franchise history.”
But the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years without him.
Ten years after his trade to Chicago, Garciaparra’s contributions to the success of Boston baseball have largely been washed over, reduced to parents’ VHS tapes for those too young to remember pre-wrist injury Nomar, lashing pitches all over the “lyric little bandbox” in which he was its brightest star. By the time John Henry and Tom Werner bought the team and wanted to turn it into a TV show (Werner’s specialty), the differences between the buttoned-up Garciaparra – uncomfortable in the lead role – and the made-for-TV Idiots around him were glaringly apparent.
As Shaughnessy notes in “Reversing the Curse,” Nomar found the media too large, negative and intrusive. He likened the experience to having to play multiple games in a day. In the annals of Boston sports, this opinion doesn’t reside on an island. The state of Garciaparra’s contract amplified the media spotlight on his deteriorating relationship with ownership that overshadowed his seasons with the team, a shameful exercise in which all involved deserve blame.
Despite former teammate Vaughn’s oft-replayed assertion that “it’s not about the money,” it so often is the catalyst for baseball divorce. Former GM Dan Duquette had signed Nomar, coming off his rookie season, to a team-friendly five-year deal in 1998, paying Garciaparra a total of $23.25 million (with two option years at $11 million each). In the years following the agreement, the Sox signed Pedro Martinez for $75 million and imported Manny Ramirez at $160 million, while Nomar’s widely-regarded peers at the position, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, received $250 million and $189 million in Texas and New York, respectively.
Understandably, he wanted his.
So when Nomar met with the new Red Sox brass on John Henry’s yacht at the outset of the 2003 season, of course he was met with a four-year, $60 million offer. According to Seth Mnookin, Garciaparra pursued a signing bonus of approximately $8 million to accompany the pact; in lieu of an agreement, the two sides agreed to revisit things in the offseason.
Meanwhile, whether he knew it or not, Garciaparra was losing leverage on a long-term deal. New GM Theo Epstein’s philosophy valued two areas that weren’t exactly Nomar’s strengths, particularly following the wrist injury: defense and working the count at the plate. The Sox also anticipated a changing market heading into 2004; they were eventually proven correct when top free agent Vladimir Guerrero accepted five years and $75 million from the Angels, and Miguel Tejada, another top-of-the-line shortstop, copped six years and $72 million from the Orioles. These figures were greatly reduced from the millennial GM hysteria of previous years.
With the Sox blasted into the cold winter by the bat of Aaron Boone, the stakes were high. Larry Lucchino hit the ground running by cozying up to Rangers owner Tom Hicks and courting A-Rod; back home, Epstein continued to work on a long-term extension for Nomar, dropping down to four years and $48 million. With agent Arn Tellem fuming over the A-Rod reports and the lowball, the Red Sox leaked that Garciaparra had turned it down.
Ah, the leak. A tried and true tactic of Red Sox ownership. We can see it coming now, but back then, we were oblivious. The Sox played it perfectly, and the media piranhas ate it up.
For his part, Nomar made little effort to choke down his bile toward Red Sox ownership. He’d learned of the proposed A-Rod trade (shipping him to the White Sox in a three-team deal that would dump Manny in the Lone Star State and bring A-Rod and Magglio Ordonez to Boston) while on his honeymoon. The perceived slight exacerbated his displeasure with the way the new owners did business. “These owners do everything to make themselves look good, but nothing for the players,” he said.
To further complicate things, Garciaparra apparently injured his Achilles during spring training taking cuts in the batting cage (Peter Gammons suggests he may have been hurt during the offseason) and eventually missed more than two months of the 2004 season. Whatever the source of the malady, he’d come back from his 2001 wrist injury too soon and, given his rapidly deteriorating contract situation, this time he sat until he was ready to play.
This was interpreted by Tony Massarotti as Garciaparra “sticking it to” ownership for trying to trade him. Lucchino and Werner kindly threw gas on the fire by wondering aloud why he was taking so much time (a whole six games) rehabilitating in Pawtucket. And Nomar blanched at any suggestion he was dogging it. Why did he need to defend himself? He always played full tilt.
But there were physical bruises, emotional bruises, and media buzzards circling. Nomar wasn’t hitting out of the box, the Achilles hampered his defensive range (in Ortiz-like fashion, he questioned an official scorer on a critical two-base error) – maybe the Red Sox were better off trading their former franchise player? As the talk radio lines heated up with the onset of summer, Nomar stewed.
On July 1st, the Red Sox took on the Yankees in the Bronx in a 13-inning classic. The juxtaposition of Garciaparra, sitting due to soreness, and Yankee captain Derek Jeter, hurtling into the third row after snaring a flare off the bat of Trot Nixon, would haunt the Boston shortstop. Terry Francona insisted Garciaparra readied himself to be available as the contest wore on, possibly to pinch-hit, but the manager stuck with the players he had in the game. Nomar remained glued to the pine as the Sox went down in extras. And while Martinez was afforded mini-vacations around the All-Star break and Manny had no less than a half-dozen grandparents die during his Boston tenure, Henry was reportedly livid his shortstop would sit such an important contest.
Within a month, Nomar would be gone.
Gammons, Peter. “Let’s Turn the Page.” ESPN.com. 9 August 2004
Mnookin, Seth. “Feeding the Monster.” Simon and Schuster. 2006.
Shaughnessy, Dan. “Reversing the Curse.” Houghton Mifflin. 2005.