Once upon a Nomar
This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on Monday, August 1, 2005.
IN 1979 my mother moved my younger brother and me to Pittsburgh from Ireland. She somehow knew enough to take her 9-year-old daughter to a ballgame within 48 hours of landing. All my life I'd been told that Ireland had the greenest grass in the world, but from my new vantage point in the upper deck in Three Rivers Stadium, I was sure I'd been duped: America's grass was greener. (I was 12 before I learned that the luminous surface I had been admiring was artificial turf.) The player in center field had the oddest name I'd ever heard. He was Omar. Omar Moreno.
Omar and the Pirates got me hooked. Baseball became my currency for belonging. I rattled off RBI totals, chewed Wrigley Chew so my cheek bulged out like Lenny Dykstra, snuck a pocket radio into math class, and earned a weekly allowance for the sole privilege of proving to my peers that their Fleer baseball cards were crap and Topps ruled. In my college years I remained afflicted. But there, even though I yammered away each week on a radio sports talk show, subscribed to the short-lived National, and lived by the clip-and-shake method of reading USA Today (clip the red section and shake the rest into the recycling bin), I discovered more serious things, and I went off to Bosnia to become a reporter.
In Bosnia my baseball ardor cooled. If mlb.com had existed back then, I may well have chosen to watch those maddening dots move around the infield while under siege in Sarajevo, but the technology of the early 1990s didn't give me that option. On the rare occasions I got a hold of the International Herald Tribune in Bosnia, I didn't even check the line scores.
In 1997, not long after I moved back to the United States, a friend brought me to Fenway. And there I encountered a fidgety, scrawny shortstop with a name that, though I had long since become familiarized with Latin names, still sounded damn strange: Nomahhhh. I was told that it was his dad's name spelled backward. But who had ever heard of somebody named Hhhhamon?
There was something about this Nomar. His acrobatic twirls and pirouettes in the field and his routinized twitches in the batter's box. His scrupulous avoidance of infield chalk and dugout steps. The way this Nomar swung at everything, and reliably gratified us one out of three times to the plate. That this Nomar had been anointed by Ted Williams. And that he had actually cared enough about tradition to hang out with the old grump.
As I became reacquainted with the sport, I quickly learned that shortstops performed different roles than they had in the 1980s. Gone were the lithe Ozzie Smiths who did backflips or led their teams in stolen bases. The new shortstops were power hitters. And while Nomar did a bit of everything, he wasn't the most talked about shortstop around. That honor fell to the two shortstops with pretty-boy smiles and swaggers, one of whom really liked to hear himself talk. And even Alex Rodriguez had the good sense to observe in 2000, "I'm the youngest, Derek's the richest, and Nomar's the best." The Red Sox finished Nomar's rookie season 20 games back, but Nomar, who belted in 98 runs hitting leadoff , brought me and thousands of other people back to baseball.
Along with Pedro Martinez's 17 strikeout game and his epic duel with Clemens in Yankee stadium, or David Ortiz's impossible walkoff heroics, my best baseball memories were delivered by Nomar. In May 1999 he crushed three home runs, including two grand slams, and drove in 10 runs against Seattle. In July 2001 I attended the White Sox game where Nomar made his first vaunted comeback from the wrist injury. We cheered him when he took the field to stretch. We cheered him when he ran out to shortstop to begin the game. And when he stepped up to the plate for the first time we gave him a minute-long standing ovation an ovation rewarded in the sixth when he hit a game-tying home run and then again in the seventh when he laced a game-winning two-run single.
The night of Nomar's comeback, I attended a fund-raiser for Dominican students at the Kennedy School, where Pedro was the guest of honor. Knowing Pedro, I'm not sure that he'd even attended the day game, but he had heard what Nomar had done. He shook his head. "Nomar's special," he said. A year later, Nomar created more magic, hitting three home runs on his 29th birthday. For a player who hit .357 and .372 in consecutive seasons, it was only a question of when, not whether, his number would hang in right field with the other legends. For a while my screen saver was the 2001 Sports Illustrated cover. Nobody slandered him by whispering about steroids then. They entered my office and just shook their heads, saying, "Nice bod, Nomar."
Nomar distrusted the media, but loved the fans. He signed autographs every single day. When the Sox lost in the playoffs to Cleveland in 1998 and New York in 1999, he hung around the field at Fenway after the losses to thank the fans for their support. And when he wasn't obsessively working out, he was helping the Jimmy Fund.
For all the interminable talk about Nomar sitting while Jeter bloodied himself, it was Nomar who kept rushing back from his injuries. He was the hustling player who ran out every single ground ball and routine pop fly he ever hit. He was the man who was plunked in the wrist the last week of the 1999 season, and had to be scratched from one of the Cleveland games in the epic ALDS, but who still managed to hit home runs in games 1 and 5 and .406 overall in those playoffs. He was the heads-up player who picked up the baseball as it trickled out of the cold limp hand of Damian Jackson after he collided with Johnny Damon in the deciding Game 5 of the 2003 Oakland series, firing to second base and retiring Jermaine Dye to preserve the Sox slim lead so as to reach the Aaron Boone-tarred ALCS Yankee series. And yet there are those who say that this same man Nomar Garciappara wanted to sit out a Yankee game? Please.
Last year, Nomar declined an offer he should have accepted. The Sox brass decided their shortstop was no longer the same player he'd been before injury. They pursued the short stop with the swagger and the big mouth, and the press hailed the chase. Nomar brought an Achilles injury to Fort Myers. The media suggested he was faking. The cracks widened. The trade deadline loomed. The unthinkable trade became thinkable, and then because Nomar would never have signed as a free agent necessary. So it happened. One year ago yesterday. No more Nomar.
We've all moved on. My screen saver is now Dave Roberts slithering under Jeter's tag at second. We are learning to love Edgar Renteria, who is almost as shy, but not nearly as weird, as Nomar. When I fly home to Boston, it is no longer Nomar who greets me as I walk along the Logan Airport parking lot overpass to my car. I have begun reading National League box scores again which was a pleasure in spring training, when Nomar hit .500 and seemed destined for a resurgence but which became less fun in April, when Nomar hit just .157 in his first 14 games and then slipped and tore his groin exiting the batter's box.
I hope for Nomar and for Cubs fans that he has many great years ahead of him, that they too grow spoiled by the smack his bat makes when it connects. But if Nomar doesn't make a comeback, Boston fans can thank GM Theo Epstein not only for the 2004 Championship, but also for sparing us the misery of watching a great player fade before our eyes. Our memories should remain as pure as the player who created them.
Samantha Power, a professor of human rights practice at Har vard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.