Nomar Garciaparra was set to be one of the greatest shortstops of his generation, but injuries cut short what could've been a Hall of Fame-level career.
In the mid-1990s, a trio of young shortstops burst upon the American League scene, forming a positional rivalry not seen since the centerfield heyday of Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez — known to some as the "Holy Trinity" of shortstops — were heirs of a sort to Cal Ripken Jr., who a generation earlier had opened up the position to bigger, more athletic and more offensively adept types. It was a development that helped move the game toward a higher-scoring era.
For awhile, all three appeared to be racing toward Cooperstown. Jeter had his World Series rings, A-Rod his video-game offensive totals, and it seemed only a matter of time before Garciaparra — the 1997 AL Rookie of the Year, a two-time batting champion and five-time All-Star who reached the postseason three times during his first six full seasons — would combine the best of his two rivals to help bring the Red Sox that elusive championship. Alas, it was his trade out of town in mid-2004 that set the stage for the end of Boston's 86-year title drought.
At the time the Red Sox sent Garciaparra packing, he had just turned 31, and while it seemed as though he might still have several good years ahead of him, he couldn't stay healthy and productive, even after switching to less demanding positions.In an era when testing for performance-enhancing drugs was just coming to the majors, high-profile scribes showed little restraint in drawling a line from his intense workout regimen to his frequent injuries and thus hinting at PED usage, though it should be pointed out that Garciaparra never tested positive or was otherwise connected to such activity.
While Jeter has just retired and Rodriguez is still playing out his 10-year-contract amid all sorts of drama, Garciaparra is already on the Hall of Fame ballot. Given his truncated career, he doesn’t have the numbers typically associated with a plaque in Cooperstown, but he certainly had the talent to get there, and it’s worth remembering that.
|Avg. HOF SS||66.7||42.8||54.7|
Born and raised in Los Angeles County, Anthony Nomar Garciaparra was named for his father, Ramon -- "Nomar" is "Roman" spelled backward -- and he chose to go by his middle name because, as he told Sports Illustrated in 1997, "when somebody yells out 'Nomar,' you don't have to worry about five people answering."
Though he weighed just 135 pounds when he graduated from high school, Garciaparra was a three-sport star in baseball, football and soccer who was offered college scholarships in all three sports. Bypassing the Brewers, who tabbed him in the fifth round of the 1991 draft, he chose the diamond and attended Georgia Tech. A 1992 Olympian and a two-time first-team All-America, he helped the Yellow Jackets to the 1994 College World Series title game, and was named to the All-Tournament team, along with teammate Jason Varitek.
The Red Sox chose Garciaparra with the 12th pick of the 1994 draft, one spot ahead of Paul Konerko and two ahead of Varitek. He showed little power in his first two professional seasons, hitting just nine homers in 702 plate appearances in High A and Double A, but nonetheless placed No. 22 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list before the '95 season. He found himself so worn down at the end of that year that instead of going home, he drove straight to the Red Sox' spring home in Bradenton, Fla., to work with Mark Verstegen, his trainer from college. Garciaparra packed on 15 pounds of muscle and entered 1996 as BA's 36th-best prospect. Despite missing three months due to an ankle injury, he hit .343/.387/.733 with 16 homers in 43 games at Triple A Pawtucket, and he made his major league debut on Aug. 31, 1996. Facing the Athletics' Willie Adams, he lined out in his only plate appearance and played two innings at second base, something he never did again in the majors.
Garciaparra's arrival bumped incumbent Red Sox shortstop John Valentin to third base, and he earned the starting job the following spring. Batting almost exclusively in the leadoff spot, he showed an overly aggressive approach at the plate, one that contrasted with an obsessive-compulsive batting glove strap-tightening routine between pitches; for as much nervous energy as he elicited, he was just as obviously slowing down the game, as Jeter did with his famously raised hand. Whatever Garciaparra was doing, it worked. He hit .306/.342/.534 with 30 homers and 22 steals and lead the league in both hits (209) and triples (11). His 6.6 WAR placed him fourth in the league, and in addition to making his first All-Star team, he was unanimously voted AL Rookie of the Year.
By mid-May of the following season, Garciaparra was moved to the third spot in the lineup, and he showed even more power, hitting .323/.362/.584 with 35 homers and a 140 OPS+. His 7.1 WAR again ranked fourth in the league, and he was runner-up to Juan Gonzalez in the MVP race. He helped the Red Sox reach the playoffs via the wild card, and while he homered three times and drove in 11 runs in the four-game Division Series against the Indians, it was in a losing cause.
Garciaparra helped Boston to another wild card berth in 1999 — the team's first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1915-16 — and won his first batting title with a .357 average; meanwhile, his .603 slugging percentage ranked third in the league, his 153 OPS+ fifth and his .418 on-base percentage 10th. His 7.2 WAR ranked second in the league, but he wound up just seventh in the AL MVP voting, with teammate Pedro Martinez (who turned in a season for the ages, going 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts and 9.7 WAR) placing a very close second behind Ivan Rodriguez. In the postseason, he again went bananas, hitting a combined .406/.500/.906 with four homers and nine RBIs in 38 plate appearances as the Sox beat the Indians in the Division Series and fell to the Yankees in the ALCS.
Garciaparra added a second batting title to his collection in 2000, this time hitting .372/.434/.599 with 21 homers; additionally, he was fifth in on-base percentage and WAR (7.2) and seventh in both slugging and OPS+ (156). That batting average was the highest in the AL since George Brett's .390 in 1980, and the highest mark by a righthanded hitter since Joe DiMaggio's .381 in 1939.
Shirtless and ripped, Garciaparra made a controversial appearance on the cover of the March 5, 2001 issue of Sports Illustrated, one that fueled the inevitable speculation of steroid usage. He then suffered a torn tendon in his right wrist during spring training, underwent surgery and played in just 21 games before being shut down due to inflammation in the same wrist. The Sox, who also lost Martinez for much of the year, slumped to 82-79, missing the playoffs.
Both Garciaparra and the Sox rebounded in 2002; though the team missed the playoffs despite winning 93 games, their All-Star shortstop set a career high with 156 games played, batting .310/.352/.528 with 24 homers and 6.8 WAR (eighth in the league). He more or less matched those numbers in 2003 (156 games, .301/.345/.524, 28 homers, 6.1 WAR), and the team, now augmented by Manny Ramirez (who had arrived in 2001) and David Ortiz (who arrived in 2003), won 95 games and claimed another wild card spot. Boston overcame a 2-games-to-0 deficit in the best-of-five Division Series against the A's, but lost to the Yankees in the seven-game ALCS that ended on Aaron Boone's famous home run.
By this point, money was on Garciaparra's mind. He had signed a five-year, $23.5 million deal in the spring of 1998, one that included club options of $10.5 million for 2003 and $11.5 million for '04. Teammates Ramirez and Martinez were both making much more money ($20 million and $17 million a year, respectively), Rodriguez had signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Rangers in December 2000, and Jeter netted a 10-year, $189 million extension with the Yankees soon afterward. In the spring of 2003, Garciaparra turned down a four-year, $60 million extension, an offer that against all logic was reduced to $48 million by December. In that timeframe, the Sox unsuccessfully tried to trade for Rodriguez, a deal that might have forced Garciaparra to switch positions if not uniforms. The trade fell through, of course, and after Boone blew out his ACL playing basketball before the 2004 season, Rodriguez wound up being traded to the Yankees instead.
Via their battles with Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, the Boston front office concluded that it would not be able to sign its star shortstop once he became a free agent. Things began growing even more contentious in early March, when Garciaparra was struck by a batted ball and suffered an injury to his right Achilles tendon. The team initially believed he would miss only a few games, and while he did see action during spring training, he missed the first 57 games of the year, not cracking the lineup until June 9. By then, all kinds of speculation as to the actual source of Garciaparra's injury (did it happen playing soccer?) and the pace of his rehabilitation was swirling. While the Red Sox went 34-23 without him, they meandered around .500 once he returned, slipping further behind the Yankees in the AL East race. During a July 1 game in the Bronx marked by Jeter's famous dive into the stands to catch a pop-up en route to a 13-inning win and a three-game sweep, Garciaparra remained on the bench the entire time, unable and seemingly unwilling to play.
By July 31, Garciaparra was hitting .321/.367/.500, having started 37 out of 44 games since returning, but his defense was noticeably off (-11 DRS to that point). In an effort to shake up the team and improve its infield defense, general manager Theo Epstein pulled the trigger on four-way blockbuster that sent Garciaparra to the Cubs and brought back Expos shortstop Orlando Cabrera. The move ultimately worked out for the Red Sox, who that October won their first World Series title since 1918, but it didn't work out as well for Garciaparra. He hit .297/.364/.455 the rest of the way as Chicago missed the playoffs, finishing three games out in the NL wild card hunt.
Eager to restore his market value after an injury-wracked season, Garciaparra re-signed with the Cubs via an incentive-laden one-year, $8.25 million deal. After starting the year in an 8-for-51 funk, he suffered a left groin avulsion — a tearing of the muscle that pulled the tendon off the bone and left him rolling around in the dirt while a nation cringed. He needed surgery to repair the damage and missed 93 games, though his bat perked up (.318/.347/.531) upon returning and shifting to third base.
The groin injury again sparked speculation about whether Garciaparra had used steroids, with the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan leading the charge:
Look, I'm hardly the first person to raise the question. When he was with the Red Sox, who was bold enough to link our fair shortstop, a noted workout guy, with the dreaded S-word? But he did go from, like, standard athlete issue normal to ultra-buffed in one winter, and he has been — there is no other way to say it — systematically breaking down for the past six years, so you can't help wondering just what he's been putting into his body other than Wheaties and sirloin steaks. If we're going to assume that Mark McGwire's physical breakdown was because of a reliance on steroids, then it would be quite logical to adopt the same line of thinking about Nomar.
Garciaparra took the attention in stride, quipping, "If I was taking steroids, then can I take them back and get the good ones? Because these ones sure didn't work. I just laugh because it's ridiculous." It bears noting that he never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was never implicated via the supposedly anonymous survey test, the Mitchell Report, or any other investigation. That doesn't guarantee he was clean, but it does cover a fair number of bases.
Eager to return to California, Garciaparra signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers for $6 million plus incentives, and he took up a new position: first base. After starting the 2006 season on the DL due to an oblique strain, he caught fire, batting .358/.426/.578 in the first half and even reeling off a 22-game hitting streak. Knee and quad strains took their toll in the second half, though he did hit a pair of dramatic walk-off blasts in the season's penultimate week, the first of which capped a game in which four Dodgers (including current Hall candidate Jeff Kent) bopped consecutive solo home runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. He finished the year hitting .303/.367/.505 with 20 homers in 122 games en route to a respectable 2.5 WAR, earning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors and a two-year, $18.5 million deal that owed something both to sentiment and the abrupt departure of J.D. Drew via an opt-out clause.
Alas, Los Angeles didn't get much for its money. Garciaparra hit .373/.443/.436 with runners in scoring position in 2007, but his power deserted him, as he batted just .283/.328/.371 in 122 games overall. A litany of injuries — a broken right wrist, an MCL sprain and strains in both calves — limited him to just 55 games in 2008 and 65 in '09 after he had moved on to Oakland. Amid his absences, he learned that he has a genetic disorder that causes an excess of scar tissue to build up at the sites of his injuries, making it easier for him to re-injure himself. He told reporters, "It would have been nice if I had found out a lot sooner that I had this." On March 11, 2010, he signed a one-day contract with the Red Sox and then retired, a move that brought out the worst in some.
Garciaparra's legacy is as one of the best offensive shortstops in history. His 124 OPS+ is fourth among players who spent more than half their careers at the position, behind only Honus Wagner (153), Arky Vaughan (136) and Hanley Ramirez (132), albeit at just a 5,000 plate appearance cutoff. Done at age 36, with just 506 games played over his final five seasons, he is otherwise unsurprisingly short of Cooperstown-caliber numbers. In fact, his 6,116 PA are fewer than all but 12 position players in the Hall of Fame; of the three who played after World War II, two (Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella) were prevented from having longer major league careers by the color line, and the third (Hank Greenberg) missed three full seasons and parts of two others due to military service. No player whose career entirely took place during the post-1960 Expansion Era has gained entry with less than 2,000 hits (Garciaparra has 1,747).
The strongest point in Garciaparra's Cooperstown case comes via Wins Above Replacement. His seven-year peak of 43.0 WAR ranks 13th among all shortstops, better than 11 Hall of Famers, and 0.2 wins ahead of the average enshrined shortstop. A voter whose ballot is based entirely on a player's peak performance — and I have no doubt such a creature exists in the wilds of press boxes — could do worse; in many cases, the writers and various Veterans Committees have. That said, Garciaparra's 44.2 career WAR ranks just 32nd, and his 43.6 JAWS is 23rd, 11 points below the standard and ahead of only five enshrined shortstops.
That isn't enough to justify a spot for him on a crowded ballot, and his career as a whole serves as a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. Then again, he hardly came out the worst from among the shortstop trinity, and the world saw enough of Nomar Garciaparra’s talent to remember him as a special ballplayer.