Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nomah Retires

If there are two more frustrating words in sports than "unrealized potential" when talking about a player, they don't immediately come to mind. To see rare ability somehow fall short in achieving its full flower can drive a fan .. .a coach ... a team to exasperation. Even when some of it is out of the player's control.

When Nomar Garciaparra broke in with the Red Sox full-time in 1997, he won the Rookie of the Year award in a walk, finished eighth in the MVP voting and made the All-Star team. He hit .306 with an .875 OPS while cracking 30 homers and ringing up 98 RBI. He was a vacuum cleaner at short, making impossible plays seem simple. With Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada, Garciaparra helped to redefine the shortstop position in the late 90s.

Through the 2000 season, Nomar just improved each year. The fanbase embraced him, worshiped him and yes, loved him. In 2000 he hit .372, the best single-season average for the Sox since 1957 when Williams hit .388.* He put up a 1.033 OPS and continued to make remarkable plays in the field. He won consecutive batting titles in 1999 and 2000, the first right-handed batter to do so since Joe DiMaggio. He was an icon, a legend in the making. People talked about him getting into the Hall of Fame when he retired and no one thought that talk was premature.

The first dent in the armor came in 2001 when he came to spring training with a serious wrist injury. The season was essentially lost. When he came back in 2002, he could still stroke the ball (24 homers and 120 RBI). But his on-base percentage plummeted relative to 2001 (.434 to .352) and his defense began to slip. His decline continued in 2003, albeit at a much slower pace. But now the talk of being a legend, a Hall of Fame lock, of having his number really didn't hear that anymore.

And then came the 2003 off-season, when Theo Epstein looked into trading for A-Rod and moving Nomar to the White Sox. The details of that aren't for this post, except to say that Nomar was less than pleased with that decision. And his disenchantment became abundantly apparent during the first half of the 2004 season. What many saw as the point where Nomar's time in Boston ran out was the three-game set in New York at the end of June. In the last game, Derek Jeter dove into the stands in the top of the 12th inning to make an amazing catch and propel the Yanks to a three-game sweep. Meanwhile, Nomar sat on the Boston bench, asking out of the game to nurse a tendon injury.

We know what happened from there. Nomar was part of a massive trade that brought Boston it's first title in forever. Nomar went to the Cubs, played decently there in his limited playing time as injuries continued to plague him. In 2006 he signed a three-year deal with the Dodgers and was good his first two years, averaging roughly 120 games per season and making the All-Star game in 2006. But then injuries hounded him again in 2008. In 2009 he signed a one-year deal with the A's. And now today, Nomar signs a one-day contract with the Sox as he announces his retirement.

He retires as one of the best shortstops in Boston's history, but also as a player who should have been...more. Granted, injuries played a major role in limiting Nomar. But he also got a little tired of Boston in his last couple of seasons and I think that also impacted his playing. I don't think he'd ever admit it, but the trade action in 2003 affected him mentally and that affected his playing through the rest of his career. In the end, he was a good player that could have been a great player, someone with Hall of Fame talent that got derailed on that ride to Cooperstown.

But he is still, still, one of the most beloved players to ever wear a Boston uniform. And he always will be. I consider myself lucky to have seen Nomar play numerous times at Fenway Park. And he is still a huge part of Boston's history. He is fourth in team history with a .323 career average, fifth in slugging (.553), sixth in OPS (.923) and ninth in doubles (279).

Thanks for the memories, Nomar. And good luck to you.


* It's still the best single-season average since 1957. No one has come close to it.

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