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The Boston Red Sox will be honoring former shortstop Nomar Garciaparra in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park on Wednesday, May 5. The move comes as little surprise after Garciaparra effectively ended his career with the Red Sox, signing a ceremonial one day contract to retire with the team on March 10. That day, he also threw out the first pitch in a Grapefruit League game in Fort Myers. On Wednesday he will be saying goodbye to the game once more on a far bigger stage in front of many more fans.
While Garciaparra will be received with reverence and ovation, his relationship with Red Sox faithful hasn’t always been so secure. Though he picked up where Mo Vaughn left off and prepared us for Pedro, Garciaparra’s final season in Boston was nothing if not strange. Plagued with injuries, his alleged refusal to play in a game against the hated Yankees came to define him. It was July 3, 2004 and the Aaron Boone Walkoff was still fresh in Boston memory. The Red Sox went to extra innings that night, and though he was promised a day off, Terry Francona asked Garciaparra if he could pinch-hit. “I gave him every opportunity,” Francona told Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat at the time. Garciaparra never played that night. Derek Jeter only complicated matters when he made a game saving catch, barreling into the seats and receiving a black eye in the process. The juxtaposition between the two shortstops, who were so often, if not unfairly linked, now made perception into reality. The following day, talk radio callers and local pundits lambasted Garciaparra, saying it was time for him to go. Many were never able to forgive the shortstop for turning down a four year $60 million extension prior to the 2003 season and had been looking for reasons to criticize him ever since. Boston fans are a loyal bunch, and many took the rejection as a personal affront. It was soon thereafter that Theo Epstein traded Garciaparra away in a career-defining move.
While the Red Sox went on to win their first World Series in 86 years without Garciaparra, they certainly couldn’t have got there without him. A homegrown talent who quickly ascended to reluctant stardom, Garciaparra helped restore the Red Sox to the upper echelon of the game. On the heels of Mo Vaughn’s acrimonious departure, he provided instant offense and personality. His quirks were charming and his effort was never questioned, he was as beloved as any Red Sox player in memory. He was known for playing the game the right way, often the highest compliment a player can receive in a game so steeped in history and lore. Garciaparra unanimously won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1997. His 30-game set an A.L. rookie record and his quirky name and his quirky game elevated him to the rarified air of cult status. His success continued as he won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 and 2000, and we installed him as the greatest right-handed hitter since Joe Dimaggio. In 2001 a beefed-up Garciaparra appeared topless on the cover of Sports Illustrated, looking like a linebacker, billed as “baseball’s toughest out.” A week later and Garciaparra would report to spring training with a serious wrist injury that would all but derail his entire season. Things were never the same after that. Highs and lows became as common as his trademark wristband grabbing and toe tapping. As Red Sox fans became increasingly impatient, his contract refusal led to a mixed response. For a player who had always been so worshiped, this was unchartered territory. It was something he didn’t deal well with. At the time of his departure, it was a likely sigh of relief for everyone involved, no matter where they stood.
As years passed and hindsight became increasingly clear, Red Sox fans again remembered Garciaparra more for what he did between the lines. The negative images and the misinformation of the 2004 were mostly forgotten. Boston fans solidified their sentiment by giving Garciaparra an extended standing ovation when he returned to Fenway last July as a member of the Oakland Athletics. While the moment was indeed poignant, his gray, yellow, and green jersey was difficult to overlook. Garciaparra has never looked right in another uniform and now it’s appropriate to finally send him off in Boston.
“What this organization has always meant to me and meant to my family, the fans … I always tell people Red Sox Nation is bigger than any nation out there, and to be able to say I came back home and to be back to Red Sox Nation is truly a thrill. It’s good to be back,” Garciaparra said on March 10.
It’s been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s safe to say that we’ve missed him as much as he missed us. Welcome back Nomar, farewell, and thanks for the memories.