In between, there were some trying times between the Red Sox organization, Red Sox Nation and Nomar Garciaparra. However, by signing a one-day minor league contract in order to retire as a member of the Red Sox, Garciaparra and the organization showed that it was all water under the bridge.
“The dream to play baseball and the big leagues started here with the Red Sox,” Garciaparra said at a late-morning press conference in Fort Myers. “Once I got to the big leagues, once I got to play in front of these fans, the way the city embraced me, I always just felt that connection. For me I always wanted that to be the last uniform I ever put on. And today I get to do that.”
With his family in tow, Garciaparra entered the press conference smiling and sat down between general manager Theo Epstein and team president Larry Lucchino. By saying he was fulfilling a “recurring dream” to finish his career with the Red Sox while sitting alongside those who once traded him away, Garciaparra offered a lasting image of a love affair with all the ups and downs of a cable TV drama.
The other images of his time in Boston are indelible.
We recall Garciaparra applauding the fans at Fenway after the team was eliminated in the 1998 AL Division Series, the rest of his teammates grimly marching to the clubhouse. The tapping of the toes and tugging of the batting gloves were pre-pitch antics trademarked by No. 5. There he was all ripped and oily on a Sports Illustrated cover in March 2001, a photo which preceded an injury-marred season and offered support for the SI cover jinx. And who can forget him sitting alone in the dugout for all 13 innings of a riveting July 2004 game in the Bronx while his teammates rested on the rail above, Garciaparra looking like the nerdy boy with whom nobody wanted to play.
That final portrait, more than any other, seemed to sway public opinion on Garciaparra. The player Red Sox nation once adored had given up on his teammates, some said. He could not remain healthy. No longer was he relevant in a clubhouse which had become a bit more brash and packed with players who fulfilled the new ownership’s mission of finding on-base guys with dynamic gloves.
No, Nomar was never a Dirt Dog. And when the trade that sent him to Chicago at the end of that month went through, a one-time Red Sox legend was hardly missed.
It was a remarkable turn of events. Yet, few ever recall that Garciaparra hit .386 with four home runs and 12 RBI in his last 21 games with the team before the trade. And as the shortstop languished through more injuries in Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland, even fewer could recall how special he once was.
Garciaparra’s first four seasons in Boston were as good as any in team history. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1997, leading the AL in hits and triples. He finished second in the MVP voting in 1998 and won batting titles in 1999 and 2000, hitting .359 and .372, respectively.
Even after the washed away 2001 season he bounced back to have two All-Star campaigns, hitting above .300 both times and driving in a combined 225 runs.
With a resume like that it’s easy to see someone taking issue with an organization wanting to say goodbye. But Garciaparra never held a grudge, and seemingly always kept his heart in the Hub.
“I was getting choked up [while signing the minor league contract] and I’m getting choked up now and I got the chills,” Garciaparra said. “But to be able to have that dream come true I really can’t put into words. What this organization has always meant to me, my family, the fans…to say I came back home to be back to Red Sox Nation is truly a thrill.”
It’s a bit ironic that Garciaparra is in Fort Myers as the Sox refine a team built around defense and run prevention. The 2004 trade was made largely to improve the team in those areas and it worked like a charm, ushering in defensive wizards Orlando Cabrera at shortstop and Doug Mientkiewicz at first base.
We all know what happened that year. Again to his credit, Garciaparra beamed from the sidelines, assured he had a hand in the franchise’s first championship in 86 years.
“I felt like I was there. I was getting calls from the guys that were there…and I was calling them as well, telling them congratulations,” he said of the 2004 title run. “When I was there I realized there was something bigger than us as players, it’s wining the World Series for these people [in Boston]. These people who had bled, cried, tears and cheered over the years.
In Boston it didn’t happen overnight. I knew I was a part of that. Building a team like that doesn’t happen overnight. There was a tradition of winning, getting the people there, getting all the pieces of the puzzle right. And I knew I had a factor in that.”
Perhaps it just took some time for the fan base to learn that as well. When Garciaparra finally returned to Fenway last year as a member of the Oakland A’s, he was given a warm greeting by the fans. He stepped out of the box, took off his helmet, tapped his heart and applauded the fans.
It looked a lot like 1998, when a 25-year-old superstar in the making offered up his love for the Fenway Faithful even after a playoff exit. By letting bygones be bygones, both Garciaparra and the Red Sox have allowed for that to happen once again.
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