How Nomar Garciaparra became a cultural icon in Boston
It's easy to forget, after 15 years, three World Series titles and a boatload of stars who have called Fenway Park home, just how big of a deal Nomar Garciaparra was. We remember that he was darn good, of course. All it takes is a quick glance at his player page: AL Rookie of the Year in 1997, five top-10 finishes in AL MVP voting, the first right-handed hitter since DiMaggio to win back-to-back AL batting titles.
But just rattling bullet points off his resume doesn't really do Garciaparra justice. At the height of his powers, he wasn't just a baseball star -- he was a cultural icon, quite possibly the most beloved figure in New England, so famous that his first name became its own sort of proto-meme (and single-handedly shifted American baby name conventions):
As he celebrates his 45th birthday on Monday, let's take a look back at how Nomar became Nomah™️.
He helped rejuvenate the Red Sox
Before Nomar, Boston's last postseason trip, in 1995, ended in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Indians. Roger Clemens left for Toronto the next year, Mo Vaughn signed with the Angels not long after and the team slid to third and then fourth in the AL East. But as the Red Sox core seemed to be falling apart, Nomar filled the void: He led the league in hits as a rookie in 1997, then went nuts in 1998, slashing .323/.362/.584 with 35 homers. He could do it all -- hit for average, hit for power, field a premium position -- and he helped lead Boston to a Wild Card berth.
After more than a decade without a 90-win season, the Red Sox averaged 91 wins a year for the next seven years. He wouldn't be around to break the curse, but the Red Sox as perennial contenders began with Nomar.
He genuinely seemed like a really nice guy
A large part of the reason why everybody liked Nomar? Nomar was, well, extremely likable. From the moment he got to the big leagues, he was almost preternaturally cool -- never losing his temper, always making time for fans and still loose enough to, say, tie Pedro Martinez to a pole in the Red Sox dugout:
Nomar was the kind of guy who just seemed larger-than-life. When he did something amazing -- like his two-grand slam, 10-RBI game against the Mariners back in 1999 -- he'd just bust out that little grin, like he knew it was coming. Of course he saved two women who had fallen in to Boston Harbor and then refused to talk about it, because that's just what Nomar did.
He offered something for everybody
No matter what brand of baseball you liked, you had plenty of reasons to love Nomar. If you were more of an old-school fan, he was a throwback, a star with humility and single-minded focus who'd received the blessing of none other than Ted Williams himself. And for the younger fan, he was like a vision from the future, a six-foot shortstop with 20-steal speed (he even led the league in triples once!) and 30-homer power. There was nobody you'd rather be in the backyard -- if only to recreate the entire pre-pitch routine:
He was the most quintessentially Y2K player imaginable
But really, for all the charm and the talent, nothing says "baseball and culture at the turn of the millennium" quite like Nomar. On the field, he was at the forefront of the group of young stars -- from Jeter to A-Rod to Edgar Renteria -- reinventing what a shortstop could look like. And while he didn't get to take part in That Photo, he did get his very own extremely buff Sports Illustrated cover in the spring of 2001:
Off the field, meanwhile, Nomar 1) formed a sports power couple with 1999 Women's World Cup champion Mia Hamm and 2) discovered the most early 00s of fashion trends: colored sunglasses.
He even made the requisite cameo on an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Kate Hudson with musical guest Radiohead, which is like winning turn of the millennium bingo:
Injuries took a big bite out of Garciaparra's career, and he may have since been eclipsed in Red Sox lore by guys like Pedro and Papi. But it's a testament to how special he was, and how much he meant, that -- even for those who never got to see him at his peak -- shouting "Nomah!" as loudly and spontaneously as possible remains a New England pastime.