'No Nonsense Nomar' played hard, gave his all
19 years ago, shortstop hit 3 homers, including a pair of grand slams
Nomar Garciaparra had never seen Brett Hinchliffe pitch. He had never seen video of him pitching.
It was May 10, 1999, exactly 19 years ago, and Garciaparra didn't know a thing about Hinchliffe, and he didn't want to know. Hinchliffe was a hard-working young pitcher. He had been around the Minors for years. Hinchliffe drove a UPS truck just to make ends meet, and he kept plugging away even as Minor League hitters battered away. He was called up from the Minor Leagues to make this start. He was an interesting story.
Garciaparra didn't know the story. Garciaparra didn't care about the story.
Despite his unimpressive Minor League performance, Hinchliffe was a surprisingly confident young pitcher. During Spring Training that year, no one expected him to make the Mariners. Seattle manager Lou Piniella asked him to throw some pitches out of the stretch. Hitchliffe responded: "I don't plan on pitching from the stretch." Piniella was impressed by the kid's chutzpah.
Garciaparra didn't know. Garciaparra didn't care.
Garciaparra stepped to the plate that first inning, the bases were loaded and Fenway Park was already hopping. Garciaparra didn't know what kind of pitches Hinchliffe threw. He didn't know what plan Hinchliffe and Mariners pitching coach Stan Williams had devised to get him out.
Garciaparra didn't know. Garciaparra didn't care.
Garciaparra hit the third pitch he saw over the right-field fence for a grand slam, and his greatest day had begun.
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There are different kinds of pure hitters. Rod Carew, for instance, was the sort of pure hitter who seemed to change his batting stance for every pitcher. Tony Gwynn was the sort of pure hitter who spent countless hours studying video, contemplating pitchers' weaknesses, always calculating where the fielders stood.
Wade Boggs was a man of habits and superstitions. He ate chicken before every game, drew the Hebrew word "Chai" -- "life" -- into the dirt before each plate appearance and changed shoes whenever he went into a bad stretch of hitting. Ted Williams had great eyes -- it's actually a myth that he had some sort of 20/10 supervision, but it's no myth that no player in baseball history could tell a ball from a strike like he could.
Garciaparra had a little bit of Boggs in him. He was a man of obsessive routines each time he came to the plate -- remember the way he would tap his toe when in the batter's box. But otherwise, Garciaparra was his own kind of pure hitter. He believed in simply seeing the ball and hitting the ball. That was it. Garciaparra didn't care if it was fastball or curve, up or down in the zone, in or out. He wouldn't complicate things. He wouldn't burden himself with a million thoughts.
They called him "No Nonsense Nomar." They named him that when he was in T-ball.
Garciaparra was fanatical about baseball all his life. When the Red Sox took him with the No. 12 pick in the 1994 Draft (two spots ahead of his college teammate, Jason Varitek), he was projected to be a thin, relatively light-hitting shortstop. At age 21 in 1995, Garciaparra played for Double-A Trenton and flashed some speed (35 stolen bases) and superb defense, but he only hit .267 with no power.
He could not stand for it. Garciaparra had big ideas about his game. He began an insanely intense training program to develop strength. It was eight hours a day for six weeks, a routine involving weights, pulleys, bungee cords and whatever other torture device you could imagine. Garciaparra's trainer, Mark Verstegen, kept trying to find something that Garciaparra couldn't do.
"I wake up in the middle of the night trying to find ways to challenge him," Verstegen told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci.
The next year, Garciaparra was a different player with a different body. He obliterated Triple-A pitching (he slugged .733 with 16 homers in 43 games), then the Red Sox called him up. The great Williams saw Garciaparra hit one time and was struck with this overpowering feeling that he had seen him before. It took him a few days before he realized who it was, and he called Boston general manager Dan Duquette in a fury.
"DiMaggio," Williams shouted into the phone. "The kid reminds me of DiMaggio."
Well … yeah. He did. He hit like Joe DiMaggio. In Garciaparra's rookie year in 1997, he led the American League in triples (just like DiMaggio did in 1936) and hits.
DiMaggio as a rookie: .323/.352/.576, 367 total bases, 132 runs, 125 RBIs
Garciaparra as a rookie: .306/.342/.534, 365 total bases, 122 runs, 98 RBIs
That's reasonably close.
The next year, Garciaparra put up numbers that looked even more like DiMaggio's, hitting .323 with 35 homers, 122 RBIs and 111 runs. He finished second in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting to Juan Gonzalez, and just ahead of his great rival, Derek Jeter.
Then, Garciaparra became the first AL right-handed hitter to win back-to-back batting titles since … DiMaggio. In 2000, he hit .372, the highest batting average for a right-handed hitter since … DiMaggio. Going into the 2001 season, agent Scott Boras developed a statistical study that estimated Garciaparra would finish with more than 500 home runs, more than 3,500 hits and a .336 career average.
It didn't turn out that way, as you know. And looking back at the type of player Garciaparra was, maybe it never could have turned out that way.
* * * *
Let's go back to Garciaparra's greatest game. He came up against Hinchliffe again in the third inning. This time, there was only one runner on base. It did not matter. Garciaparra poked the second pitch of the at-bat over the right-field wall for his second home run.
Five batters later, Hinchliffe was removed. He never faced Garciaparra again. In the record books, Garciaparra will always be 2-for-2 with two homers and six RBIs against Hinchliffe.
Garciaparra fouled out his next time up, and he walked in the sixth with first base open. Then, in the eighth, he came up with the bases loaded again. Opportunities like this so rarely come along. This time, Garciaparra was facing a pitcher named Eric Weaver. Once again, he had never faced Weaver, had never seen Weaver pitch and had no idea what kinds of pitches Weaver even threw. Didn't know. Didn't care.
"It didn't matter what he threw," Garciaparra said after the game. "I probably would have swung at anything. A pitch 10 feet over my head, or down in the dirt."
It ended up being a breaking ball in, hanging just right. Garciaparra turned on it, and the only question was whether it had quite enough carry to go over the Green Monster. It did. That was home run No. 3 -- and Garciaparra became just the 12th player in baseball history, and the first Red Sox player since Rudy York in 1946, to hit two grand slams in the same game (since then, Bill Mueller and Josh Willingham have done it).
Only two of those 14 players -- Tony Lazzeri and Frank Robinson -- are in the Hall of Fame.
Garciaparra seemed headed to Cooperstown. But he had one fatal flaw.
* * * *
There are some players who simply play the game too hard to last. Their names -- Grady Sizemore, for instance, or Pete Reiser -- are scattered throughout baseball's records books. Even when he was young, Garciaparra always had these nagging injuries, usually with his legs, that kept him out of 15-20 games a year.
"He plays with such explosiveness," Verstegen said before the 2001 season, "that he may always be on the borderline of injury."
And in 2001, it happened. That was the year that many people -- Edgar Martinez among them -- thought Garciaparra would make a real run at a .400 average. But during Spring Training, Garciaparra went to bed one night and woke up with his wrist so swollen he could not even swing a bat. The wrist had bothered him a bit the year before, but it couldn't have bothered him that much, because he hit .372.
"I was shocked when I woke up," Garciaparra told reporters. Still, nobody thought it was too big of a deal at the time. The Red Sox expected him to miss a couple of weeks. They thought rest would take care of things.
It did not. Garciaparra missed the first four months of the season. And after playing 21 games, the wrist hurt so much that he went back on the disabled list for the rest of the season.
Garciaparra was never quite the same after that. He was still a terrific player for several more years. In 2002, Garciaparra hit .310, led the AL with 56 doubles and drove in 120 runs. The next year, he hit .301, scored 120 runs and finished seventh in the AL MVP Award voting.
But it wasn't the same. The player who hit .357 and .372 in back-to-back seasons simply was gone. Garciaparra's contract was up in the air, and the Red Sox tried to bring in Alex Rodriguez to play short for the 2004 season. When that didn't work out, there was a lot of tension between Garciaparra and the team. He also had a heel injury that kept him off the field.
And that year, as every Red Sox fan knows, Boston traded Garciaparra. General manager Theo Epstein said the team had to improve its infield defense. The Red Sox dealt him to the Cubs at the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- cruelly, it was less than three months before Boston won its first World Series since 1918.
And with that, Garciaparra bounced around -- to the Cubs, the Dodgers, the A's -- and dealt with a wide assortment of injuries. When he was healthy, he still hit. In 2006, Garciaparra made the NL All-Star team, hitting .303 and slugging .505 for the Dodgers.
But his body had worn down. The hitting genius who might have batted .400 just never got the chance. Garciaparra was a fantastic player. He hit .313/.361/.521 for his all-too-short career.
Garciaparra played his last game just two months after his 36th birthday. He went 2-for-3.