The Star Player Who Made Me Fall in Love with BaseballDecember 17, 2021
When the Boston Red Sox first called up Nomar Garciaparra 25 years ago, I had no idea that he would become my all-time favorite athlete and basically the wellspring of my baseball obsession and the career that's somehow now a decade old.
To be honest, I didn't even know who he was.
In my defense, I was nine years old in 1996. And while pilgrimages with my dad to Fenway Park from our home in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, had familiarized me with the Red Sox and baseball in general, none of it interested me much.
Because, you know, what's a guy wielding a bat compared to Luke Skywalker wielding a lightsaber? Or a guy throwing a ball compared to Batman tossing a batarang?
Two years later, we're living in California and I walk into the living room to see what's on TV. The first thing that pops up is the Red Sox game. The batter is John Valentin. I remember the PA announcer calling his name at Fenway, so, sure, I'll watch for a second. Then Mo Vaughn, whom I recalled as that guy with the goofy hunchback stance. Might as well watch some more.
The next batter? Nomar Something-or-Other. Never heard of him. I'm sure I thought about changing the channel in hopes of finding an age-appropriate cartoon or a not-at-all age-appropriate action flick.
But then this guy swung and made contact, and the sound off the bat was like a freakin' sonic boom. The ball cleared the fence. Fenway Park went absolutely wild in a way that I don't think I ever experienced when I was there.
It was at that moment, with my jaw agape and baseball's hooks digging into my soul, that I wondered, "Who is this guy?"
He Was the Pure Fun of Baseball, Personified
By then, anyone with even half an ear to the ground in the baseball world knew "this guy" to be one of the game's rising young superstars.
Nomar had been a first-round pick in 1994, and he was firmly among baseball's best prospects when he debuted with Boston on August 31, 1996. As Tom Verducci reported years later in Sports Illustrated, the team's new shortstop reminded franchise icon Ted Williams of someone.
"DiMaggio!" he shouted in reference not to his former teammate, Dom, but to his legendary rival, Joe. "That's who he reminds me of. DiMaggio! The build, the face, the foot speed, the way he swings and the ease with which he plays the game. It's uncanny."
Nomar did the impossible of making good on Williams' high praise. In 1997, he won the American League Rookie of the Year after becoming the first rookie to hit over .300 with 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Then in 1998, he bumped things up to a .323 average and 35 home runs and finished second in the AL MVP voting.
That home run I saw? That was one of three Nomar hit in just four games in the '98 American League Division Series. A proper introduction, to be sure, as well as a kind of CliffsNotes on what I had been missing.
Above all, the swing of a god. Once in his stance, Nomar was so still that you could confuse him for an uncannily lifelike statue. And so he would stay even as the pitch was on its way to the plate, only to uncoil at the last microsecond with a smooth, mechanically perfect swing. More often than not, it was, "Hello, ball. Meet barrel."
I can't speak for how fast Joe DiMaggio was in his heyday—nine in '96, remember—but I'd wager that prime Nomar would beat prime DiMaggio in a footrace. My ace in the hole here is a hopefully accurate memory of an ESPN bit that timed Nomar at less than four seconds from home to first. That's Byron Buxton territory, folks.
Now that I've tiptoed into the apocryphal, I suppose I'll stay there by also positing that Nomar was an all-time shortstop when he was at his defensive peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I especially remember how he would play balls in the hole. Not with an awkward, contrived jump throw like that guy in New York, but with a smooth snag and whip-like underhand laser throw that all seemed to be one motion.
It sucks that there isn't any video either at MLB.com or on MLB's official YouTube page that can back me up here. But it's a decent consolation prize that there's surviving footage of the other thing that made Nomar such a delight to behold.
That is, the wholly strange and yet utterly delightful routine that preceded his monk-like stillness in the batter's box:
Whatever all that was, I loved it. So much so that I imitated Nomar's pre-at-bat routine as often as I could, regardless of the circumstances. I definitely had at least one teacher tell me to knock off that nonsense and sit down. Clearly, not a baseball fan.
All of it turned Nomar from "this guy" into "my guy." So long, Luke Skywalker. So long, Batman. My new hero is an Mark Fidrych-tier weirdo with a megaton bat, bullet-train speed and danseur gracefulness. For an 11-year-old, a vicarious living bingo if there ever was one.
Then again, it's entirely possible that I saw Nomar as such a larger-than-life figure precisely because I didn't get to actually see him that often.
He Was a Box Score God
That was my curse as an East Coast kid growing up on the West Coast in a time before you could view literally any baseball game at the click of a button. The only Sox games I could watch were whatever ones aired nationally, which weren't often enough for my liking.
That left me to fill in the blanks of what Nomar was up to from what I could glean from other sources. SportsCenter highlights were helpful, yet it was in 1999 that I discovered there was no greater bard for my guy's exploits than the morning newspaper.
The date I think of is May 11, 1999. Or, the day after Nomar had the game of his life:
I remember the headline in the sports page reading, "Garciaparra Slams Twice, Drives in 10." Attached to that was a box-looking thing with a bunch of numbers, a close reading of which revealed that Nomar had gone 3-for-4 in that game, with the other hit being a two-run home run that accounted for the runs batted in that he didn't get via his two grand slams.
This, folks, was my introduction to the best friend of newspaper-era baseball fans everywhere: the box score.
In 1999, it was through box scores that I kept tabs on Nomar's batting race with Derek Jeter. It was a tight one all summer, with the two separated by just four percentage points as late as Aug. 1. But then Nomar pulled away, ultimately finishing with a .357 batting average to win his first batting title. Take that, Jeter.
Improbably, that was nothing compared to what Nomar did in 2000. He came out of the gate and began racking up crooked numbers with reckless abandon, and I'll never forget opening the newspaper on July 15 and seeing that he had finally pushed his average to .400.
He didn't want to talk about possibly becoming the first player to hit .400 since Williams hit .406 in 1941. But everyone else? Different story.
"If home run records can fall, it could be that time where somebody hits .400, or somebody breaks the hit record," said Tony Gwynn, according to Jimmy Golen of the Associated Press. Gwynn himself had made a run at .400 six years prior.
Nomar's average touched .400 again on July 17, and he even got as high as .403 three days later. Even as he cooled, he stayed so hot that he was still hitting .390 as late as Aug. 17. Not quite .400, but I wasn't panicking. All the carefully curated images of my guy swinging his bat convinced me he'd get there.
Only, he didn't. Nomar got so cold that his average even dipped below .360 in September. It literally hurt to open the sports page and see so many threes where there should be fours. So even when he salvaged a still-superhuman .372 average, the taste was bittersweet.
And that was just the appetizer. It came out later that Nomar had been playing with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery, forcing him to miss almost all of the 2001 season. He was back in 2002 and 2003, but not really back. Then there was his contract dispute in 2004, followed by his unceremonious ouster by trade that summer.
It was at that point that Nomar basically fell off my radar. I resigned myself to check in on him only once in a while, though there wasn't much to see as flashes of his former brilliance became less and less common as he finished his career with the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics.
I don't think he was even on my mind when I went to see the A's play at one point in 2009. But it's just as well, because I don't think I've ever smiled so unexpectedly or so widely as when he came to the plate and, after performing his weirdo routine, smacked a hard single to left.
It was good to know that, at least on some level, my guy still had it.
As a biography of one Anthony Nomar Garciaparra, what I've presented here is, well, not a biography. For that matter, I doubt an overwritten 1,800-word screed is what my editor had in mind when he pitched me this concept.
But as a personal exercise in untangling webs, this has been deeply satisfying.
Maybe I've always known it intuitively, but it feels that much more profound to know consciously that without Nomar, there's no me, the baseball fan. And if there's no me, the baseball fan, there's no me, the baseball writer.
There's especially no way that I would have become such a statistically minded writer if Nomar hadn't been my gateway drug into box scores. I've long since moved on from worshiping at the altar of batting average, but I suppose it's telling that it's still the first thing I look at when I dial up a hitter's stats. Old habits, you know.
It's also because of Nomar that I feel compelled to write about players whose allure extends beyond their technical prowess. As he was for me, I see idiosyncratic stars like Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuna Jr. as the sort of folk heroes with the power to hook new generations of fans. May they all find their guys and stay forever.
Which is ultimately to say that if I should thank anyone after 10 years on the job, it's Nomar Garciaparra. If I'm lucky enough to have 10 more, I'll be sure to thank him again.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.