From Minor League Baseball to Childhood (and Back)

Soon after one of my adult front teeth got knocked out, I went to a Red Sox game. (The tooth is still healthy and in my mouth, believe it or not.) It was the fall of 1996, and I discovered a new player that day while at Fenway with my dad. At that point in the season, the team was mediocre, meaning the September call-ups had plenty of playing time. I thought one of them had the same initials as me, which I guess was the clincher. He was my new favorite player. Sorry Mo Vaughn, but I was onto another guy. This one could run and field and did all sorts of funny stuff at the plate. I found out later that “Nomar” was his middle name, not his first, but that didn’t matter. Nomar Garciaparra was awesome.

***

I saw Nomar on ESPN.com today in a segment with Karl Ravech, talking about the outlook of the 2011 Red Sox. It’s weird to think it was almost 15 years ago that he broke into the majors and gave Bostonians something to cheer about (and yell incessantly [special thanks to Nicole Pappas for finding the video clip] ).  I was an avid Nomar fan the entire time he was in Boston. Teenage me wanted to believe the media turned the fans against him before he left in 2004, dooming him to miss his best shot at a World Series Ring by three months.

I hated Derek Jeter for his smugness and his near-handful of rings. (Now he’s trying for rings on hand #2.) I hated the Yankees. I hated Jorge Posada. I hated Paul O’Neill. I hated Roger Clemens. I hated pretty much everyone except for Bernie Williams (since he almost became a Red Sox). Though my parents never said a bad word about them, I grew up hating the Yankees. It took living in Yankees territory for a baseball season to help me realize my anger was aimed at the wrong target.

Weeks before the first 2010 Hudson Valley Renegades game, I remember sitting in Zolz’s (the PA Announcer’s) office. He had a giant photo of “The Dive” hanging above his window.

I had lunch with a few ‘Gades people: Jason, Ellissa and Zolz, and we sat at the table near the photo. By that point, they had figured out I was a Red Sox fan. I don’t remember the exact words in our conversation, but in the process, I came to a realization that I shared with them. I don’t consider it selling out; I still enjoy watching the Red Sox play.

As I described my baseball fandom history, including my favorite players, it dawned on me why I hated Jeter so much. Many Red Sox fans always respected Jeter because of the way he played the game. I discovered that wasn’t quite my new stance. My man crush on Nomar was the reason for my “hatred.”

I didn’t actually hate the Yankees that much. To a certain extent, I was jealous of their success. However, it was more for Nomar specifically than the Red Sox or any other team. I was mad at how Nomar was treated. I was mad at how he acted, especially that game, sulking in the dugout. It amazed me how a player like Nomar, with so much potential and a previously great track record, could be completely derailed. If he had been in a more supportive environment or refrained from moping around, he could have shared the same type of success Jeter had with his team. Nomar lost many games in his career to injuries, namely from being plunked in the wrist by a fastball. If he hadn’t lost his most important asset, his quick wrists, he could have been a Hall-of-Famer. He had the popularity. He was on track with the numbers. He could have won a championship. It was all there. To me, Nomar’s story is the stereotypical woulda-coulda-shoulda, a tragedy that was partially unavoidable.

Every season in every major sport, there’s at least one good team that underachieves, whether it’s because of injuries or coaching or whatever else. More often than not, the fans of that team are right: without a few bad breaks, they could have been in the playoffs, and they had the talent to succeed once they got there. (New England Patriots fans don’t need to be reminded of 2008, although it was nice to know they won their last game that year.)

Nomar was quirky. He was quiet. He shied away from the media. He only signed stuff for fans in a specific part of the stands. He always placed each foot on each step going in and out of the dugout. He tapped his toes and adjusted his gloves more times than anyone could count. All those things helped make him human.

He wasn’t some boring guy that never speaks to anyone. He wasn’t a diva. He was a guy who played the game hard. He hustled stepping out of the box all the way through his last step, whether it was crossing home plate after a homer or running down the first base line after a 6-3 ground out. He made tough plays look routine (and sometimes routine plays look tough). It was all part of why I liked him.

I’m glad I got to see him play a few years ago, when the Athletics came to Fenway for a three game set. He went 3-for-4 that day, but the Sox still won. (Sounds like one of those crazy scenarios you only experience in fantasy baseball, right? You root for an outfielder, but then hope the opposing team gets a save opportunity because you have their closer.)

I look forward to seeing more of Nomar on camera. Not so surprisingly, I wish him the best (and not in a Cee Lo Green kind of way).

Thanks for being Nomar, Nomar. I hope someday my kids can find a favorite player like you.

/end lovefest

Who is your favorite player of all-time? Do you have any stories about how they came to be your favorite?

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