MINNEAPOLIS - He was the face of the Red Sox, a superstar in the mold of the legendary Ted Williams whose indelible achievements will endure in the memories of generations of New Englanders. And now he is gone.
In one of the most momentous transactions in the modern annals of the 103-yearold franchise, the Sox yesterday ended their decade-long relationship with Nomar Garciaparra, dispatching the two-time American League batting champion to the Chicago Cubs in a four-team deal aimed at shoring up Boston's flawed defense.
Under the multipronged deal, the Sox sent the shortstop to the Cubs with Single A outfield prospect Matt Murton and received two former Gold Glovers, shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz from the Twins. Mientkiewicz immediately switched uniforms and started at first base last night for the Sox against his former team.
''It was with mixed emotions that we let Nomar go,'' general manager Theo Epstein said after hours of highly complex maneuvering culminated with Garciaparra's sudden departure. ''He's been one of the greatest Red Sox of all time.''
A five-time All-Star who was widely revered for his feats on the field and his charitable contributions to communities throughout the region, Garciaparra ended his remarkable run with the Sox in the cramped visitors' clubhouse of the Metrodome. He received the news in manager Terry Francona's office just after 4:45 p.m. Eastern time by telephone from Epstein in Boston. The deal was completed just before the 4 p.m. trading deadline.
Garciaparra, 31, who already had dressed for last night's game against the Minnesota Twins, quickly changed into street clothes, packed his belongings, and bid his teammates farewell. He hugged most of them, quietly recalling fond moments with some and sharing hopes for a better tomorrow with others. The last items he grabbed were his bats, which he used to make some of the most splendid memories in recent years for Sox fans. "If it was in my control, I'd still be wearing a Red Sox uniform," Garciaparra said. "That's the place I know, I love, all those fans, I'll always remember. But I'm also going to another great place, a phenomenal city with great tradition as well."
The blockbuster trade was driven by a number of factors, most notably the great likelihood the Sox would lose Garciaparra to free agency after the season (he harbored deep resentment over the way the Sox tried to replace him last winter with Alex Rodriguez) and Epstein's belief that the Sox defense potentially harbored a "fatal flaw." The Sox entered the night leading the majors in unearned runs allowed (74).
The Sox also decided to move Garciaparra after he informed the medical staff within the last three days that he would need considerable time (more than just random days off but not a trip to the disabled list) the remainder of the season to rest his injured right Achilles' tendon. The Sox disclosed the information to the Cubs before they completed the deal. Garciaparra missed the first 57 games of the season with Achilles' tendinitis.
"We lost a great player in Nomar Garciaparra, but we've made our club more functional," Epstein said. "We weren't going to win a World Series with our defense."
Garciaparra's departure sent ripples through the Sox clubhouse. Though he was one of the least outgoing players on the team, he was highly respected for his work ethic and his skills at the plate and in the field. He ranked among the most productive hitters in franchise history and was renowned for some of his spectacular defensive plays.
"We just traded away Mr. Boston, a guy that meant so much to the city, and just like that, he's gone," Johnny Damon said.
Manny Ramirez said when he arrived in Boston, Garciaparra was the best hitter he had ever seen. And he reiterated that yesterday.
"You've got to keep it going, man," Ramirez said in hugging Garciaparra in their final goodbye.
"The good thing," Garciaparra replied, "is if we play each other in the World Series, at least one of us will get a ring."
Garciaparra, who was the 1997 American League Rookie of the Year, never made it to the World Series with the Sox. But no one suggested it was for a lack of effort. If anything, Garciaparra was criticized for trying so hard that his habits seemed to border on compulsive, from his quirky batting routine to his highly regimented pregame routines and a wide array of superstitions. Yet he insisted to the end that he relished his relationship with the Sox, which began when they selected him in the first round of the 1994 draft out of Georgia Tech.
"They can take the shirt off my back, but they can't take away the memories I got," he said. "They can't take away the standing ovation that I got when I came back this season when I walked up to the plate. Or the standing ovation I got when I hit the grand slam this year. Or when I hit three home runs on my birthday [in 2002]. Every time I stepped up to the plate, the fans cheered for me. When I went deep in the hole to make a play, they'll never be able to take away that. What it's meant to me, they all know that every single day I went out there and I was proud to put that uniform on and what it represented."
The end came eerily for Garciaparra. His name appeared on the original lineup card posted on the clubhouse wall. He was to bat fifth, and checked the card shortly after 4 p.m. to see what time he was scheduled to take batting practice. But all around him there were indications that a trade of some sort could be imminent. The Sox had not failed to make a move on the day of the trading deadline each of the previous three seasons and eight of the last nine.
"Fifteen minutes to go, and we're all still here," catcher Doug Mirabelli said as he entered the room, with Garciaparra seated quietly before his locker with his cellphone.
"Ten minutes to go, and I'm still here," Ramirez said as he arrived. "I guess I'm not going anywhere."
Derek Lowe was nowhere to be seen, leading to speculation the Sox had finalized a deal to trade him and acquire another starting pitcher, Matt Clement, from the Cubs. But that deal fell through about an hour before the deadline.
Reporters were scheduled to meet with Francona at 4, but he asked to postpone the session "a few minutes to make sure there's nothing [going on]." But there was, of course, as the Sox tied up the final details of the deal. Meanwhile, Garciaparra continued dressing for the game, periodically interrupting the process to take phone calls. Then a call came at about 4:40, and just as Garciaparra answered it, a Sox public relations official asked reporters to leave the clubhouse so the team could conduct private business. That's when Garciaparra entered Francona's office and spoke to Epstein.
"I didn't think it would happen," Pedro Martinez said. "But if he's going to be happy, I'm happy for him. If it's going to work out OK for the team, it's going to be OK. It's always sad to see a guy, a superstar, a gentleman, leave like that, especially knowing that me and him and [Tim Wakefield] were probably the last old goats to survive.
"For some reason, I just feel like Nomar's part of the tradition in Boston," Martinez said. "I'm so used to seeing `Nomah!' and hearing the people go, `Nomah!' and No. 5 all over everybody's back. For some reason, I just framed him as a Bostonian, as part of the team. I think a lot of people are going to be sad in Boston."
Garciaparra's message to his teammates: "Goodbye, I love them, I miss them, good luck, and hopefully we see them in the World Series."
Then, after shaking hands with every reporter before him, he headed for Chicago. No. 5 was gone.