The morning of August 1, 2004, New England awoke to the first day of the post-Nomar era — head pounding, stomach aching, swinging its feet over the side of the bed to find slippers misplaced and the alarm clock flashing.
Things were off.
You just never imagined Nomar leaving. Sure, he was fragile, as Boston rapper Akrobatik alluded in his Red Sox freestyle (“throw you on the disabled list like Nomar Garciaparra”), but he was the heart and soul of the everyday Red Sox lineup for seven seasons.
Think back to 1997. That was the year following Roger Clemens’ departure and the one before the arrival of Pedro Martinez. Dan Duquette imported Steve Avery and a damaged Bret Saberhagen to buttress the pitching staff. Tom Gordon took the ball on Opening Day in Anaheim while a blizzard raged back in Boston. “Way Back” Wasdin started seven games that season, Chris Hammond eight, Vaughn Eshelman six, Butch Henry five, Robinson Checo, two. Wil Cordero was arrested for assaulting his wife with a telephone.
And Nomar had a scintillating rookie season, hitting .306 with 30 home runs, 98 RBI and 22 steals. Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn were the only Boston players to crack 18 homers and 80 RBI.
When Vaughn departed for misadventures with the Anaheim dugout steps, Nomar became even more valuable, winning back-to-back batting titles. From SportsCenter to Saturday Night Live, he was synonymous with the franchise.
And yet, your 2004 Boston Red Sox now employed the unheralded Orlando Cabrera in his place, and Doug Mientkiewicz at first. Mientkiewicz rapped two hits to start his Red Sox journey. Cabrera popped a home run in his debut the following day. But he also committed a costly error, and the Red Sox dropped their first two games post-Nomar. In fact, Boston was just 8-7 minus the icon on August 16th, a full 10 games behind the Yankees and locked in a tight Wild Card race with multiple teams.
It was tough to buy the notion that, given their record, a defense-first approach had made the club any better.
But six of those seven defeats had been by just one run. They were still scoring runs. And then, they went on a run.
The Sox swept consecutive three-game series from Toronto and the White Sox, dropped a game, and then went on a ten-game spree. By the time I returned to the dorm for my senior year at Stonehill College, the Red Sox had piled up 20 wins in their last 23 contests. High fives were flying. And the spirited team that eventually became World Series champions was taking shape.
Baseball is a game of funny rhythms. For all the disappointment in Garciaparra’s departure, once the team overcame the inertia that had grounded them since May, the Red Sox started playing like a contender. There would be hiccups, no doubt. The Sox found ways to break, then un-break our hearts, Toni Braxton style, dozens of times in the course of that season.
But by Labor Day 2004, things were fun again. And oh, what a ride we were in for.