Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Updated: March 11, 8:11 AM ET
The love never died
By Gordon Edes
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It had ended nearly six years ago with a long walk alone down a corridor in the basement of the Metrodome in Minneapolis, trailed by a single TV cameraman, his white dress shirt untucked over blue jeans, his face masking the shock, hurt and anger at this most bitter of partings.
It was renewed again Wednesday morning in the very place it had all begun, this love affair twixt a town and a team, as Ken Coleman had once phrased it, this time with a smiling man surrounded by his wife and two daughters, his best pal from Boston, and his father, Ramon, whose name spelled backward is Nomar.
Irreconcilable differences? Not for Nomar Garciaparra. And not for the Boston Red Sox.
"I don't want to speak for the man," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who has known Garciaparra since they were teammates at Georgia Tech nearly 20 years ago, "but I know his heart has been here since he left."
The time was not all that long ago when the Red Sox were persuaded that Garciaparra no longer had his heart into playing for the Sox, that he was, in Terry Francona's words Wednesday, "Boston'd out."
Contract talks had broken down. The Red Sox had tried to trade for Alex Rodriguez and had a trade in place to send Garciaparra to the Chicago White Sox for Magglio Ordonez. Garciaparra had learned of the A-Rod talks while on his honeymoon. The sting of that slight had not lessened by spring training. It all fell apart a week before he was traded, in a meeting the same day that Varitek had rubbed his mitt into A-Rod's face, when Garciaparra could not assure the Sox that he would re-sign and that he would be healthy enough to play down the stretch. That day, they made the decision that he would be traded.
"That's really when the die was cast," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said Wednesday, "when we reached the conclusion we weren't going to be able to sign him."
And when it happened, Garciaparra was not the only one alone. Theo Epstein, the man who pulled the trigger, got a phone call that night from John W. Henry, the owner of the club. "You must feel," Henry said, mindful of the tumultuous reaction to the trade in Boston, "like the loneliest man in America."
Garciaparra went to the Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox won a World Series, their first in 86 years, and Garciaparra's teammates voted him a full Series share and Sox ownership presented him with a Series ring. Garciaparra went to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Red Sox won another World Series.
Garciaparra was looking for a job. He called Epstein, wondering whether the team might have a place for him. There wasn't a fit, but there was a thaw.
"Nomar's never held a grudge [about the trade]," Epstein said Wednesday, a sentiment that would have invited ridicule had he expressed it on any other occasion. " I've never looked at it as something that I wanted to do, and I feel very personally fortunate that we've been able to maintain a relationship."
This past summer, Garciaparra came back to Fenway Park for the first time in another team's uniform, that of the Oakland A's, and the ancient ballpark was shaken to its foundation by the cheers.
Now he's 36, and the idea that he could still play did not desert him, not until the day he came home and told his wife, Mia Hamm, the grande dame of soccer, "My tank is empty."
But how to say goodbye? His agent, Arn Tellem, who had lobbed grenades back and forth with Henry when contract talks were at their sourest, called Epstein and broached the idea that took form Wednesday: Nomar wanted to retire as a member of the Red Sox. Why not sign him to a one-day, minor league contract, then have him announce his retirement?
"It basically took one meeting," Lucchino said. "[Nomar] sat down with John Henry, Tom Werner, Theo and myself."
It didn't take much to sell the Sox on the idea that this was something Garciaparra truly wanted.
"The line I was thinking of when I walked in here," Lucchino said, "he left his heart in Fenway Park, and that's just the truth. It's a rarity. He's a very emotional person, and he spoke very emotionally about his feelings, and connection with the club. I think that never went away, even during the period of awkwardness."
And for the Red Sox, there was only an upside to reconciliation, which Hall of Famer Jim Rice expressed to Lucchino after learning Wednesday morning of the Sox's plans.
"Jim said, 'That's so great. It's not just great for Nomar, it's great for all of us connected to the team,'" Lucchino said, recounting their conversation. "Just the feeling that people feel such a pride in the Red Sox, that they want to be identified and connected with the Red Sox. It's a great thing."
This is where it all began, the saga of this skinny Mexican-American kid from Southern California who enthralled the great Ted Williams, who once predicted that Garciaparra would be as good as anyone who ever played the game, and made manager Jimy Williams sound a little spooky when he said, "This kid has been here before. He played with Cobb. He played with Shoeless Joe."
Garciaparra fell short of Williams' prediction, his body breaking down repeatedly, mocking the shirtless pose he had struck on the cover of Sports Illustrated when it seemed he was indestructible. Garciaparra blames his leg injuries in part on a genetic condition; others have intimated darker causes.
Now he is joining the media, as an analyst for ESPN, a startling career choice for someone who had complained incessantly to his bosses about the media, most famously when he said: "'I play three games every night. There's the media before the game, then there's the game, which is fun, then there's the media after the game.'"
But it will keep him in the game he has always loved, a passion that cannot be questioned. And now he has made peace with the Red Sox, and they with him.
"It says something about the appeal, power and uniqueness of the franchise," Lucchino said. "The franchise is bigger than any of us."
|Nomar Garciaparra, who signed a one-day contract with the Red Sox, takes the field to throw out the first pitch before Wednesday's game with Tampa.|
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.