Even back in the days at Sorensen Park in Whittier, Calif., when
the coaches gave goofy nicknames to all the other kids on the
team--like Batman Freddy, who always lugged his bat with him
when running out a hit--he was so serious about playing the game
the right way that they called him No Nonsense Nomar. He was six
years old and playing T-ball at the time. Eighteen years later
the nickname still rings as true as a church bell on Sunday
morning. Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox catches
grounders with two hands, is as comfortable hitting balls behind
runners as he is hitting them out of the park, refuses to talk
about his gaudy statistics, curls the brim of his cap like a
Little Leaguer and, in the rare instances when he thinks his ego
might be sprouting like a weed from a sidewalk crack, calls his
mother, Sylvia, and humbly groans, "Mom, I need to come home and
take out the trash."
Oh, and there is this, too: He is having what may be the best
season ever by a rookie shortstop.
All of that would make Garciaparra unique except that the
National League also has a talented rookie with a refreshingly
retro respect for the game. Philadelphia Phillies third baseman
Scott Rolen not only gets to more balls than anyone else at his
position in the National League, runs the bases as smartly as
any veteran and already is his team's best hitter, but he also
is a marketing department's dream. The well-mannered son of
small-town schoolteachers from the Midwest, Rolen reads
Dostoyevsky on the team charter, visits national parks and
museums on road trips, and thinks the hot corner is Haight and
Ashbury in San Francisco, where he actually said, "I just like
to watch the different genre of people go by." If Rolen, 22, is
a five-tool player, a thesaurus must be one of the tools.
In a sport in which an amateur draft pick is insulted by a $2
million offer and players under investigation for spousal
battery, child abuse and crack cocaine possession are in major
league lineups, Garciaparra and Rolen are two antacid tablets
for what ails the game. They are Generation Xers who defy the
bleatings about multisport athletes' shunning baseball--both of
them spurned scholarships in other sports--and young players'
preferring to chase dollars rather than fungoes. Presenting your
runaway leaders for the American and National League Rookie of
the Year awards--two for The Show.
"The way they play the game, other people, including veterans,
should take notice," says Boston manager Jimy Williams, who as
third base coach for the Atlanta Braves saw Rolen play a few
games for the Phillies last year. "They don't play like rookies.
It's almost as if they're playing like there's another league
they're trying to get to."
Says Terry Francona, Rolen's skipper, who also managed
Garciaparra in the Arizona Fall League in 1994, "These two guys
are cut from the same mold. They have different games, but they
have great instincts for baseball, and they have a lot of
respect for the game. They're throwbacks. And they're a pleasure
to be around."
While Garciaparra and Rolen are the valedictorians, the rookie
class of '97 includes a lengthy honor roll (box, page 33). It is
the deepest crop of first-year men since 1986, a year that
produced four future MVPs (Jose Canseco, Kevin Mitchell, Barry
Bonds and Barry Larkin) as well as Will Clark, Wally Joyner,
John Kruk, Ruben Sierra, Danny Tartabull and Todd Worrell.
There are two other rookies from this season who are likely to
rise to an elite level, outfielders Vladimir Guerrero of the
Montreal Expos (.313, eight HRs in 268 at bats at week's end)
and Andruw Jones of the Braves (.248, 14 HRs and 53 RBIs).
Guerrero, 21, is such a dangerous hitter that he could win a
batting title in the big leagues just as easily as he could hit
40 home runs. He also has an outstanding arm, although his
defense has been erratic. Guerrero has what scouts call a higher
ceiling than Rolen, but for now he has much less polish. His
development has been slowed by three trips to the disabled list
that cost him 52 games this season and, according to Montreal
manager Felipe Alou, the Rookie of the Year award. "I don't have
any doubts about that," Alou says. "He's got the whole package,
but we're going to have to complete his development next year."
The 20-year-old Jones, who made a name for himself by hitting
two home runs in Game 1 of last year's World Series, has the
power, speed and defensive skills to be a franchise player.
"Most years," says Philadelphia scouting director Mike Arbuckle,
"you'll get one, maybe two guys who are real impact players.
This year you have four or five guys who are going to be
All-Stars on a regular basis."
None of them, by name or deed, is as rare as Anthony Nomar
Garciaparra. Though Sylvia calls him Anthony when she's angry
and Mijo (shorthand for "my son" in Spanish) when she's
endearing, he otherwise prefers the uniqueness of Nomar--his
father's name spelled backward. "He's going to make the name
famous," Ramon said after the boy's birth.
Garciaparra, who weighed just 135 pounds when he graduated from
St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., in '91, was
nonetheless drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the fifth round
that year and was offered several college scholarships. UCLA,
for instance, extended him invitations to choose among baseball,
soccer and football, in which he excelled as a placekicker. He
decided to play baseball at Georgia Tech.
"I always loved baseball, though now I probably like soccer even
more than I used to because I miss it," he says. "I never had a
baseball hero or anything like that. I loved the game just for
the sake of playing it. I'd tell my dad from the time I was five
or six, 'Teach me that. Don't tell me about who plays the game
in the majors. Tell me how to play it.' I wanted to learn as
much as I could about every position."
It wasn't until his high school years that Garciaparra
concentrated on playing shortstop. When a scout recommended he
hone his glovework by fielding balls thrown against a wall,
Garciaparra took 100 grounders a day off the asphalt beside his
house. Now, Williams says, "His hands are so quick--on defense
and offense--I call him the Viper."
Garciaparra, whose weight had increased to 165 pounds by the
time Boston took him with the 12th pick of the '94 draft, is now
a chiseled 180 thanks to weightlifting, protein shakes and his
mother's carne asada, which she has been known to deliver,
packed in ice, to Boston. In games against the Angels last
Friday and Saturday in Anaheim, about 20 miles from his home,
Garciaparra hit three home runs: one to rightfield, one to
centerfield and one to leftfield; one off a fastball, one off a
changeup and one off a curveball. "Wow," said Angels pitcher
Allen Watson, who served up two of those taters, "I didn't know
he had that kind of power to the opposite field. He's bigger
than he looks."
The jacks gave Garciaparra 24 for the season, already the most
by a rookie shortstop. By week's end he also had hit in 26
consecutive games--tying the American League rookie record set
54 years ago by Guy Curtright of the Chicago White Sox. The
streak lifted Garciaparra's average to .314. He led the league
in hits (173; only eight rookies have finished atop the category
in either league) and at bats (551) and was tied for second in
total bases (298), putting him on track to break the rookie club
records in those categories set respectively by Johnny Pesky in
'42, Tom Oliver in '30 and Ted Williams in '39. His 79 runs
batted in left him only five short of Dom DiMaggio's 1948 team
record by a leadoff hitter, a position he is fast outgrowing; he
seems destined to become a number 3 hitter.
"And he's one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, if
not all of baseball," says Angels manager Terry Collins.
Says Jimy Williams, "The kid plays like he's been here before. I
don't know when or who he's played with, but I swear he's been
Garciaparra did get a peek at the big leagues in '92 as part of
the U.S. Olympic team that played exhibitions before big league
games. "He saw some of the major leaguers in the dugout and the
way they acted, and lost respect for some of them," Ramon says.
"I told him, 'You remember that when you get there.' I think he
has. I don't think he'll change."
His Red Sox teammates, though, hope Garciaparra at least changes
his obsessive compulsion with superstitions and rituals. "He's
worse than [Wade] Boggs," says third baseman John Valentin.
"Have you seen him get dressed? Same way every day."
Garciaparra goes up and down stairs toddler-style, taking pains
to place one foot, then the other, on each step; doesn't change
his cap; never touches a batting weight; tugs on his batting
gloves between every pitch; and taps the toes of his spikes into
the ground in the batter's box when he's hitting and when he's
going on and off the field. "They tell me kids at clinics all
over New England are tugging on their gloves and tapping their
toes," says Williams.
Says Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn, "I'm not getting close
enough to his cap to smell it. I can see five layers of sweat
from the beginning of the year. He's got a pair of underwear
with about two strands left. But he'll lose all that soon, once
he realizes his talent and just plays the game."
Rolen may not be as quirky as Garciaparra, but he's every bit as
humble. For instance, though he participated in the
home-run-hitting contest for rookies (won by Garciaparra) on the
eve of the All-Star Game, Rolen wasn't on the National League
All-Star team and therefore chose to remain at his Cleveland
hotel rather than attend the official gala later that evening.
"I felt like I'd be looking in from the outside," he says. "I
hope some day I'll go to my own All-Star gala, not somebody
According to teammate Gregg Jefferies, Rolen will not have a
long wait. "Within two or three years he's going to be the MVP
of the league, and he's going to win the Gold Glove every year,"
says Jefferies, who on one team flight jokingly ripped out the
last 10 pages of Rolen's copy of Atlas Shrugged, only to have
his wife insist he return them. Rolen has since polished off
Crime and Punishment and moved on to The Brothers Karamazov.
At week's end Rolen led all National League rookies in home runs
(17) and RBIs (77) and was tied for second in average (.293),
validating his decision to reject several basketball scholarship
offers and sign with Philadelphia as a second-round pick in '93
out of Jasper (Ind.) High. "I like to play baseball," he says.
"I don't play it because I can see myself on TV. It's fun to
play--same as the intense Big Wheel races I used to have with my
That's the beauty of the two rookies--they balance a veteran's
polish with a child's joy. No wonder Garciaparra and Rolen are
fast becoming friends. In addition to competing in the home run
derby, they played against each other in two minor leagues,
attended a rookie orientation program together last winter and
played against each other in June in an interleague series in
Boston. It was then, in a feat at once unprecedented and
unsurprising, the two future Rookies of the Year popped home
runs in the same game. It was as if they had winked at each
other that night, acknowledging the similarity of their baseball
DNA and the possibility of parallel greatness that may come of
BEST CROP IN YEARS
Here are senior writer Tom Verducci's rankings of the top 10
rookies in 1997, based on potential as well as this year's
PLAYER, team, position
1. NOMAR GARCIAPARRA, Red Sox, SS
COMMENT Delivers superb offense and defense at a premium position
2. VLADIMIR GUERRERO, Expos, RF
[COMMENT] Three trips to the DL this year, but 21-year-old has
3. SCOTT ROLEN, Phillies, 3B
[COMMENT] Poised, and a clutch hitter; think of Chipper Jones
with a better glove
4. ANDRUW JONES, Braves, OF
[COMMENT] At 20 with speed and power, already one of the game's
most exciting players
5. MATT MORRIS, Cardinals, RHP
[COMMENT] Has the makeup and stuff to be a No. 1 starter
6. JARET WRIGHT, Indians, RHP
[COMMENT] Rare youngster with high-90s fastball and pitching
7. JOSE CRUZ JR., Blue Jays, LF
[COMMENT] Twenty home runs in 278 at bats through Sunday, but a
8. JASON DICKSON, Angels, RHP
[COMMENT] A veteran's knack for changing speeds makes up for
9. KELVIM ESCOBAR, Blue Jays, RHP
[COMMENT] Great stuff, but one question: Is his future in pen or
10. LIVAN HERNANDEZ, Marlins, RHP
[COMMENT] After losing 21 pounds, just starting to blossom (7-0
at week's end)