I remember the first time I ever saw Nomar Garciaparra more distinctly than the first time I ever saw any baseball player. It was while he was getting his first taste of the majors in a late season call-up, and his long and unusual name probably helped call my attention to him, as did the buzz that had preceded his arrival. But I had seen a lot of heralded rookies come and go, some of them staying for years and years and becoming as familiar to me as the bowl I use to eat my oatmeal every morning, and I can’t remember the first time I saw any of them. Nomar was different. With his angular, alert frame and prominent beak and dark, glaring, heavy-browed eyes, he looked like an eagle who hadn’t eaten for days, his hunger focused to a fierce intensity. This guy, I thought, is not going to stop until he wins.
That was late 1996, and the resurgence of the Yankees, who would go on that year to win their first World Series since the 1978 team cast a gloom over my childhood, contributed to a persisting feeling in my mind that the doomed face of Calvin Schiraldi, who ten years earlier had transformed instantaneously from a figure of hulking youth and promise to a haunted sad-eyed beast of burden as he failed to close out a World Series victory over the Mets, would persist forever as the face of the team. There was a feeling that the hill would always be too high to climb. But when I got my first look at Nomar, it gave me hope.
As everyone knows, the face of Calvin Schiraldi can no longer be used as a thumbnail sketch of the entire history of the franchise. And as everyone knows, by the time the Red Sox finally climbed that high hill, Nomar had been traded away. He did get a ring for the 2004 championship season, however, as he should have, not only for contributing to the team for half of a season but for helping as much as anyone with the possible exception of Pedro Martinez to change the nature of the team from resignation to a kind of combative, hungering hope. But there’s no way around it: he hadn’t been one of the players leaping onto the long-awaited victory pile in St. Louis in October.
And so there was an undertone of sadness to his return to Fenway last night, his first time back since he’d been traded away. Before the game he almost cried as he spoke about how much he had loved wearing the Red Sox uniform, and how he had always hoped to play for the team his whole career. When he came to bat, the Red Sox fans stood and started cheering. It wasn’t the wild roar that accompanies victory, but something more closely tuned to life’s tangle of disappointment and love. He looked strange in the Oakland colors, and his sparse number of at-bats this season and history of ever-mounting injuries communicated that this strange coloration was something like a smog-glutted sunset. The ovation went on and on. It was a greeting, but also a farewell, and no one really wanted it to end.