As a Red Sox fan, I was a big fan of Nomar Garciaparra in the glory years of 1997-2000. And after he got hurt - and before I was suspicious of his ripped Sports Illustrated cover appearance - I viewed his return to the Sox as the baseball messiah coming back to lead his charges.
Of course, it didn't really work out that way. Instead his wrist injury robbed him of some of the thunder in his historically quick bat. In 1999 and 2000, undeniably his best seasons, Nomar had an OPS (on baase + slugging percentages) of 1.021 and 1.033, respectively. After returning from injury in 2002 and 2003, his OPS was .880 and .869, respectively (despite averaging 26 HR and 112 RBI in those two seasons). Even worse for him, the Sox front office regime change placed immense value on plate patience and on base percentage - something Nomie wasn't known for - and many of the Fenway Faithful followed suit. His penchant for swinging at the first pitch (and popping up), regardless of how good it was, earned him the not-so-flattering nickname "Garciapopup." If you read Feeding The Monster, you are well aware of the ensuing sour contract talks, the paranoia, the sulking, and if resident jackass Dan Shaughnessey is to be believed, the moment the Red Sox decided to trade Nomar (as if it hadn't been a long and agonizing decision mulled for weeks and months before it happened) in 2004.
Of course, the fall just continued for Nomar after that. His numbers were decent enough but he couldn't stay on the field with the Cubs and they let him walk after 2005 was over. It got so bad that Nomar had to do a sales job to even get signed by the Dodgers this season.
Well, count me among the happy ones when Nomar came out swinging this year. I remember looking at the boxscores one day in June and seeing that he was hitting .360-something - a region he had not reached since his sick 2000 season - and delivering clutch hit after clutch hit. "Good for him," I thought. And I'm sure I wasn't alone in the Boston area. I think lots of people missed the old Nomar and had a soft spot for him and the Sox West team Dodgers GM Ned Colleti had assembled. Nomar fought some nagging injuries as the season progressed, playing in 122 games, and his April, May and June were demonstratively better than his July, August and September. But overall, the numbers were strong - .303 batting average, 20 HR, 93 RBI and a very impressive 42 walks against just 30 strikeouts. Guys who play regularly (500 plate appearances) don't strike out just 30 times in a season anymore. Joe Dimaggio did it (he struck out 13 times in 617 plate appearances in 1941 - that guy didn't stink) but that's pretty good company. In 2006, no major league player with at least 500 plate apperances struck out as few times as Nomar and only Juan Pierre struck out less frequently (Ks per PA).
Fast forward to Game 1 of the NLDS in Shea Stadium this evening. Trailing, 6-4, going into the 9th, the Dodgers manage to get a run off barely-hittable Mets closer Billy Wagner. With two out and a runner on second, Nomar has a chance to tie the game. I sat up to watch it.
Wagner fired two wicked fastballs past him to get out to an 0-2 count. At least Nomar hadn't wildly swung at the first pitch right? Maybe he is a different, more disciplined hitter now.
The third pitch is going nearly 100 mph toward the outside corner and Nomar manages to foul it off. Still has that bat speed.
The next pitch was a breaking ball (still pretty hard coming out of Wagner's hand) up near his head. Ball one. I've seen him swing - and hit those. ESPN cuts to manager Forrest Gump chewing on his tongue or whatever the hell he does (I'm not bitter, why do you ask?).
The fifth pitch is low. Didn't miss by much. The count is 2-2. Is he waiting for his pitch? Could he actually walk?
A quick aside . . . Red Sox fans are feeling pretty miserable these days. Our team went from first place to out of it in about a week. August was the worst month by a decent team that I can remember. And despite all that, there was some uncharacteristic optimism in The Nation when Varitek and Nixon came back and they started to win a little in September. Well, it didn't last and with no postseason baseball in Boston, there is a void. Nomar could fill that void for us. We could root for him - our old homey, Nomie - and his Dodgers.
This is getting exciting. Come on Nomar, lace one of those patented gap doubles and tie this thing.
Wagner's next pitch bounced in front of the plate.
He missed. Game over.
I think Nomar is back . . . it's just not the version I thought it was.