Retiring Garciaparra knows what might’ve been

The Nomar Garciaparra(notes) I knew was post-Red Sox, post-Cubs, battle-scarred and creaky, yet still exuberant about putting on a major league uniform every day. It was 2006, he’d signed with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers, and it was soon apparent Garciaparra deeply appreciated the opportunity to play in front of his parents and lifelong friends.

Nomar Garciaparra was a six-time All-Star who captured the 1997 AL Rookie of the Year Award and won batting crowns in 1999 and 2000.
(Steven Senne/AP Photo)

Garciaparra, who announced his retirement Wednesday at the Boston Red Sox spring training site in Fort Myers, Fla., loved the game as much as any player I’ve covered. He was humble and team-first while also fiercely proud. If it bothered him that he was no longer able to play at the same level as the two shortstops with whom he’d stood shoulder-to-shoulder – Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Derek Jeter(notes) – he didn’t let on.

He realized he was already on borrowed time, that any sprint out of the batter’s box, awkward swing or diving play at his new position – first base – could tear another muscle or tweak another tendon. At the relatively young age of 32, Garciaparra’s body had become prematurely brittle, oddly unpredictable. Whether that was a result of poor choices he made earlier in his career, he wouldn’t say.

Eight years with the Red Sox made Garciaparra a master at deflecting tough questions in a genial manner. Performance-enhancing drugs weren’t a topic he’d discuss, and if steroids had helped him bulk up in Boston and break down periodically thereafter, he’d take that secret to the Manhattan Beach, Calif., home he shares with wife Mia Hamm and their young twin daughters.

Garciaparra’s name didn’t come up in the Mitchell Report. He never testified before Congress. He wasn’t implicated in BALCO. Yet numerous people in baseball, from executives to reporters to other players, talk about his career as if performance-enhancing drug use was a given.

Maybe because he went from a reedy shortstop with gap power to a chiseled physical specimen in 1996, when he hit 16 home runs in 43 games at Triple-A before getting a September call-up to the Red Sox. The next year he blossomed, belting 30 home runs, 11 triples and 44 doubles among a league-leading 209 hits en route to the Rookie of the Year award. He put up phenomenal numbers the next three years as well and became the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story on March 5, 2001.

It is the hulking figure on the SI cover, though, that everyone remembers. And in hindsight, with what we know about the era and Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds(notes) and A-Rod and Manny Ramirez(notes) … well, make sure to take a look at that cover.

Garciaparra’s 2001 season was aborted before it began when he reported to spring training with a wrist injury about the time the SI story hit the newsstands. He bounced back to put up outstanding numbers in 2002 and 2003, but after the Red Sox traded him to the Cubs in July 2004, physical ailments became commonplace. Garciaparra went on the disabled list 14 times in his career and never played a full season after age 29.

Last season Garciaparra told the San Francisco Chronicle that his connective tissue isn’t flexible enough to accommodate repeated muscular contractions, a condition that can be genetic. Garciaparra said his father and sister have the same ailment. But his injuries became so prevalent and were inflicted in such strange ways that he became the target of a lampoon in The Onion.

Whatever frustrations he felt – over ultimately losing out on $35 million when he rejected a contract extension from the Red Sox in 2003, over missing out on Boston’s first World Series title in 86 years in 2004, over being odd-man out while A-Rod and Jeter put up superior numbers – he mostly kept to himself. On a rare occasion, and only off the record, he’d say something to me that belied his seeming lack of regret. But he’d be buoyant again as soon as he tied the laces on his cleats and headed off for another ballgame.

And what a sight that was. Everybody who watched Garciaparra take an at-bat knows he is obsessive-compulsive. The repetitive strapping and unstrapping of the Velcro on his batting gloves, always the right hand first. The stepping in place while adjusting the tip of his helmet and twirling the bat counterclockwise. But the real treat was watching him walk up dugout steps to the field. He put both feet on each step, one beside the other, giving him the look of a man three times his age.

His parents attended every Dodgers home game and arrived early enough to watch their son take batting practice. After each round, Garciaparra – whose first name is his father’s name Ramon spelled backwards – would peek into the stands for validation. He and his dad often chatted before games began and afterward Garciaparra would graciously credit him for giving him expert hitting advice. Batting .358 in the first half of 2006 and making the All-Star team was Garciaparra’s last sustained hurrah.

Nomar Garciaparra cherished every day at the ballpark, every cheer from fans. He revealed at the news conference Wednesday of his recurring dream of playing one more time for the Red Sox. Sadly, I don’t think those dreams will end just because his career is over. He is retiring for one reason – an ailing body. Only he knows all the reasons it got that way.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010