If ever there was a promising career turned irrelevant by injuries, it is Nomar Garciaparra’s. The once-elite shortstop burst onto the scene with huge numbers, but was seemingly unable to avoid the disabled list. Although he managed to stick around the majors for a 14-year career, things went sharply downhill after his 2003 season. Once Nomar turned 30, his days of being an effective everyday player were essentially over.
Severe wrist and groin injuries highlighted the laundry list of ailments that dogged Garciaparra through the latter stages of his playing days. His constant health issues raised eyebrows following the revelations regarding steroid use in baseball- though many athletes use performance enhancing drugs to recover from injury, numerous medical studies have found that abuse of the subtances can lead to increased chances of muscle and tendon problems. Nomar’s troubles led to speculation that he was juicing throughout the prime of his career; suspicion which will likely dog him for years to come. For his part, Nomar scoffed at such allegations, saying in 2005:
“Are you kidding me? If I was taking steroids, could I send them back and get the good ones, because obviously, these didn’t work. I didn’t get my money’s worth. That’s ridiculous. These [accusers] are the same people who said I didn’t want my [World Series] ring. We all know that wasn’t true. That came out to be a hoax. It’s probably the same people who said I faked my injury last year, so what does that tell you? Fake an injury in a contract year? That’s pretty smart. It makes me chuckle.”
Those comments were made in response to a suggestion by Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan that tendon injuries to Nomar’s wrist and groin raised the possibility of steroid abuse. Garciaparra’s response to the direct question of whether or not he used?
“Absolutely not, without question.”
Such denials are a dime a dozen these days, and do little to assuage our doubts. But it’s nicer to think that he posted his prodigious numbers thanks to natural ability, because his on-field performance was simply incredible. His career included a Rookie of the Year Award in 1997, MVP runner-up in 1998, and back to back batting titles in ’99 and 2000. Overall, Nomar finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting five times in seven years, reflecting his dominance during that period.
From his first full season in 1997 to his final full season with the Red Sox in 2003, Nomar was one of the game’s best all-around hitters. Along with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, he was part of a trio of power-hitting shortstops that would help change the way people perceived middle infielders. Though he lost the 2001 season to a severe wrist injury following an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated (curse?), the other six years of the ’97-’03 stretch looked like this:
Nomar’s average seasonal line was .326/ .362/ .559 for an OPS of .921. He averaged 110 runs, 28 homers, and 108 RBI per year during the span and was often Boston’s best player. At various points he led the A.L. in doubles, triples, and hits while earning 5 all-star selections.
Overall, Nomar’s career in Boston amounted to more than 1,300 hits, more than 700 runs, nearly 700 RBI, 178 homers and an OPS+ of 133.
Unfortunately, his lack of durability was an obvious and alarming issue, and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein capitalized while his value was still high. In 2004, Epstein traded Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team deadline deal that brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston. While Nomar went on to play only 81 games that year, the Red Sox famously ended an 86-year drought by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. As much as Garciaparra had meant to Boston, he narrowly missed helping the team win the first of two titles in four years. I have always considered that to be a sad reality. He got a ring, but wasn’t truly part of the glory.
After a lackluster stint with the Cubs, Nomar would bounce to the Los Angeles Dodgers, then to the Oakland Athletics. He failed to make much of an impact for either team, and so now, after 1,434 career games, he is expected to sign a one-day contract with Boston so that he can retire as a Red Sox.
Despite the missed time, the unfulfilled expectations, the whispered rumors, Nomar was an unforgettable personality. His prowess at the plate was spectacular to watch, and his quirky style endeared him to Boston fans everywhere. Who could forget the endless ritual of foot-tapping and glove-tightening that preceded each and every pitch?
In the late ’90s and early aughts, it was tough to go anywhere in Beantown without hearing shouts of “NOMAH!”
In 2005, Garciaparra and his uncle rescued two women who had fallen out of a high-rise into Boston harbor, further adding to his local notoriety despite the fact that he no longer played for the team. His high-profile marriage to soccer star Mia Hamm kept in the news year-round, especially following the birth of their twin daughters.
On the field and off, Nomar was larger than life and will remain etched in the collective memory of Red Sox Nation. I for one wish him luck in his life after baseball.