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Garciaparra, adopted son of Red Sox Nation, comes home to retire

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It would be easy to remember Nomar Garciaparra as a tragic figure, the dealt-away former icon and struggling star who by three months missed being a part of the Red Sox' first World Series championship in 86 years, but that would ignore his brilliance with a bat and the hysteria he created.

On Wednesday morning Garciaparra, 36, flanked by his father, his wife Mia Hamm, his twin daughters Ava and Grace and a pair of his best friends in baseball, including former double-play partner Lou Merloni, entered the press box at City of Palms Park, the facility where Garciaparra trained for a decade with Boston, to announce that he was signing a one-day minor-league contract so that he could retire as a member of the Red Sox. Garciaparra, who spent the past five seasons with the Cubs, Dodgers and A's, had a .313 career average in 14 seasons, with 229 home runs, 936 RBIs and two batting titles.

He sat on the dais between club CEO Larry Lucchino and general manager Theo Epstein, to whom Garciaparra will forever be linked for the daring deadline deal in 2004 that sent the shortstop to the Cubs and, eventually, the Sox to their first world championship in 86 years.

The two insist that there are no hard feelings from the trade. Garciaparra even fondly recalled the '04 postseason run, of which he felt a part thanks to the frequent phone calls he received from his former teammates that October. (They even voted him a World Series share to go along with his championship ring.) And so on Wednesday morning, Garciaparra admitted that he cried at home on the day he got traded, but then sought the proper perspective of his role in the history not just of the Red Sox, but of Boston.

"Us as individuals always talk about being part of a World Series and playing in a World Series, but in Boston there's something greater than an individual player winning a World Series," Garciaparra said. "There was something bigger than us, which was winning the World Series for these people, these people that had bled, cried and cheered over the years.... It was winning the World Series for these people, for Red Sox Nation."

Though a born-and-raised Californian, Garciaparra became an adopted son of New England, which is why, noting that his fuel tank as a player had hit empty, he spoke of his recurring dream to retire as a Red Sox.

From 1997 until 2003 he was equal parts baseball superstar and cult hero. There was his splashy debut and unanimous AL Rookie of the Year award in '97, followed by a .372 batting average in 2000, the highest by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio in 1939. But there was also the idiosyncratic pre-pitch routine of batting-glove tugs and alternating toe taps and the perfect first name for Bostonians to accentuate their dialect. Nomahhhh was as much a mantra as it was a name.

"When the history of the Red Sox is written again," Lucchino said, "it will have a very large and important chapter to be written about Nomar Garciaparra."

Garciaparra is right in believing that he was an integral member of the 2004 World Series championship. In many ways he was a founding father of the reborn Red Sox Nation, the phenomenon that has swept through New England and nearly every opposing ballpark since.

"For a long time, the Red Sox really were Nomar Garciaparra," Epstein said.

That craze had its roots in Boston's trips to the ALCS in 1999 and especially 2003. Though Garciaparra's role on the eventual 2004 championship team was small, his play in '02 and '03 helped drive the Sox to the brink of contention. That close call in the '03 ALCS, of course, contributed to the motivation for Epstein to trade for starter Curt Schilling before the '04 season.

The cracks in Garciaparra's career first showed soon after the publication of the now-infamous SI cover from March 2001; coincidentally, days after it hit newsstands, Garciaparra split a tendon in his right wrist. He missed most of that season, and though he rebounded to have three more All-Star years, he was never quite the same player. He was still a .300 hitter, but the flirtations with .400 were gone. (Ted Williams had once anointed Garciaparra the best candidate to hit .400 since the Splendid Splinter had done so himself.)

Garciaparra was still a fine hitter in 2004 -- when he played, which wasn't often, given his considerable run of injuries. He batted .321 in 38 games before the trade deadline that year. That's when Epstein moved Garciaparra in a four-way deal that netted defensive-minded Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts, much to the immediate uproar of the local faithful.

"I didn't realize the effect," manager Terry Francona said on Wednesday. He then pondered the hypothetical, "If we didn't win..." He did not finish the sentence, but the meaning was obvious: The World Series win placated the masses.

The fans, too, who at times voiced frustration with Garciaparra's late-career moodiness, nevertheless gave him a hero's welcome upon his return to Fenway in 2009. Garciaparra said that ovation was especially meaningful and indicative of the genuine kindness that he has been shown by all members of Red Sox Nation wherever he has traveled. Garciaparra had a revival in his first year in Los Angeles, making his final All-Star team, but faded after that and was in danger of slipping to the status of journeyman veteran for hire.

Garciaparra's career once seemed bound for greatness, closely linked to those of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, his contemporaries as the so-called "holy trinity" of late-'90s shortstops, sharp fielders who brought uncanny offensive skills to the position. Instead, Garciaparra will be remembered as something of a great "what if" player, mostly due to the injuries in the later stages of his career. Could he have hit .400? Could he have been a Hall of Famer? Even still, he ought to be remembered as one of the best players of that seven-year stretch from 1997 through 2003.

In retirement Garciaparra will be joining ESPN as an analyst, but said that he is glad to be able to spend more time at home with his family. In filling out his retirement paperwork with the league, in the space next to "reason" he wrote:"because my daughters want daddy home."

His daughters will get their wish and, by retiring as a Red Sox, a Nation of fans got their man home, too.

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