You know, I was watching the Dodgers and Phils play Sunday night, and in between all of the headhunting and the baseball-fighting (baseball-fighting is a very interesting style of fighting which consists largely of men leaning against each other while shouting and acting as if invisible hands are holding you back), there was plenty of good actual baseball to watch. Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers' Japanese right-hander, is really a lot of fun to watch pitch. Personally, I always enjoy watching pitchers from Japan and the like, largely because they seem to usually have funky, off-kilter deliveries with various stops and starts, and Kuroda is no exception.
The young position players on the LA squad are an exciting bunch, too. The Phillies boast perhaps the most imposing infield in all of baseball, and the old version of Brad Lidge, the version that we all feared and hated and secretly adored, the one with the slider that literally defies the laws of physics.
I'm talking, of course, about Nomar.
See, Nomar Garciaparra was one of my absolute favorite ballplayers a few years back. I'm not sure why, exactly; he played for a team that I can't stand (the Sawx), followed by one of the few teams I despise even more (the Cubbies), before finally washing up on the gentle shores of Chavez Ravine.
Maybe it was the fact that Jeter was the one who always got all the press, but Nomar was the one who was actually a great shortstop, nearly Gold Glove level. Maybe it was all the ridiculous tics, the batting glove rituals that he performed between every single pitch without fail. I've got a bit of an OCD thing myself; watching Nomar go through all that between every pitch was oddly comforting to me. Or, maybe, it was the Saturday Night Live skit. You know the one; it was probably the only sketch that Jimmy Fallon ever managed not to ruin by laughing. It was the one that featured a crazed Red Sox fan who worshipped Nomar, only, of course, it wasn't pronounced in that fashion. In true New England sports fan fashion, the name became something akin to "Nomaaahhhh!", every single time it was uttered. (Sorry, the video is nowhere to be found online.)
The thing about Nomar is that he's actually a bit (and maybe more than a bit), of a tragic figure to me. Now, don't get me wrong here, we're not talking actual tragedy. He's a multi-millionaire, gets to play baseball all day for a living, and then goes home to his gorgeous soccer goddess wife, Mia Hamm. Not really much of a tragedy there, I know. But hey, we're talking sports tragedy. The rules are different.
For a couple of years in the late '90s/early 2000s, there were three shortstops in the American League who just towered over the game. Never mind Miguel Tejada out in Oakland, even; these other three were good enough that you could comfortably call Miggy the fourth best at his position, and no one would question you.
- Alex Rodriguez, first in Seattle, then in Texas - Derek Jeter in New York - Nomar Garciaparra in Boston
All three put up tremendous numbers, especially when you look at the position they each played. But even amongst that triumvirate, Nomar somehow came up a little short. Jeter was the guy with all the rings, which, according to New York lore, he had won pretty much single handedly, with only an assist or two from Mariano Rivera. A-Rod was Mr. 40-40; the guy who was going to make a run at Hank Aaron one day down the road.
But Nomar, well, he was just Nomar. He had the funny name, and the pre-pitch routine, and the gaudy numbers that somehow got overlooked.
From 1997, when he took over as the regular shortstop for the Red Sox, through 2000, Nomar hit over .300 each season, averaged 28 home runs, 108 RBIs, 43 doubles, and a 143 OPS+. All of that on top of his defense, which, as I said earlier, was much better than Jeter's ever was. Nomar actually got to all those balls up the middle that just barely eluded the Yankee captain. In short, Nomar was, for those first four years, a Hall of Famer.
And then, he got hurt. A lot.
Following his signature season in 2000, when he hit .372/.434/.599, Garciaparra took only 83 at bats in 2001. That was the season that Jeter and his Yankees were finally defeated by the Diamondbacks, the year that Jeter somehow made himself look even more valuable by being hurt for the final play of the World Series. A healthy Jeter probably gets to that little blooper off the bat of Luis Gonzalez, and all is still well in the baseball world. It was the year that A-Rod made history by wrangling himself a quarter billion dollar deal, with an assist, of course, from the Prince of Darkness. And all the while, Nomar was on the sidelines.
He returned healthy, and stayed that way the next two seasons, taking over 600 at bats in both 2002 and 2003, while putting up OPS+ numbers of 127 and 121, respectively. Maybe not quite as ridiculous as his 01 season, but those are still beautiful numbers for a shortstop, particularly one who can really pick it in the field.
In 2005, he took only 230 at bats. The injuries, not just the big ones that forced him to miss time, but the small ones that he had played through, looked as if they had sapped something from him, as he posted a 97 OPS+, the first time he had been a below league average hitter since his initial callup in 1996.
In 2006, Nomar joined the Dodgers and played very well for them, playing in 122 games at a 120 OPS+ clip. Still, he played first base that year, as no team seemed confident that his body could handle the rigors of playing shortstop any longer.
In '07, Garciaparra stayed healthy again, playing in 121 games, but he played all over the diamond, basically becoming a utility player. He slumped at the plate, suffering the worst year of his career with the bat in his hands.
And in 2008, Nomar played in only 55 games for the Dodgers. He hit .264. He no longer has a position. Worst of all, he looks old. Time and injuries have taken quite a toll on Garciaparra; while A-Rod and Jeter now form the left side of the New York infield and continue on their merry ways to Cooperstown, Nomar finds himself starting twice a week and trying to nurse his legs through the dog days of summer.
For the first seven years of his career, Nomar looked like a Hall of Famer too. He had one season cut short by injury; the rest were all as good as you could ever hope for. In the five years since, he's fallen almost completely out of the baseball consciousness. And the worst part is, we've all been deprived of seeing just how good he really could have been.
There are a long list of players whose careers have been stunted by injury. Ken Griffey Jr., for all that he's accomplished, will always be a huge "what if." Nomar's in good company, at least.
Is it a real tragedy? No. Like I said, there are no real tragedies in sports, or at least not ones that you ever read about. But when it comes to tragic figures, those who were betrayed by their bodies or their minds or their habits, Nomar ranks right up there with the best of them, a supremely gifted athlete whose own road to Cooperstown hit one hell of a big detour on the way.