And so, just as Nomar Garciaparra makes his return, Rasheed Wallace is preparing for his arrival. The story lines intersect. Boston’s past and present are traveling along their respective courses offering nothing more than a brief wave, like ships passing in the night.
Welcome back to Boston, Nomah. We hope you still recognize the place. The Red Sox are now two-time World Series champions and Logan Airport is a final destination more than an initial port of departure. Wallace is only the latest example. From Corey Dillon to Randy Moss to Kevin Garnett and John Smoltz, the greatest athletes in America now come here for redemption, for one final chance to win, for the right to climb aboard the duck boats and negotiate their way through the nooks and crannies of Sportstown, USA.
"Once [Wallace] had a chance to reflect on everything, and realizing what his objectives are, he just decided this was the best fit for him, all the way around," agent Bill Strickland, who represents Wallace, told reporters yesterday about his client’s decision to join the Celtics. "He has always wanted to be on a team that plays with a team effort, and Boston won the championship with a team like that. Boston has three potential Hall of Famers -- Rasheed has played with a lot of talent, but not with a concentration of talent like this."
And then there was this: "The group that came in -- Danny [Ainge] and everyone -- was quite thorough in bringing to his attention some things he already understood. He gained a greater appreciation for the fans in Boston and it will be an interesting change, to have them cheering for him instead of booing. …He was more concerned with the team, but the organization showed a lot of class. They came in and made him feel comfortable."
Of course, that is how it now works here, a place of which outsiders once steered clear while sensing the trepidation and uneasiness. You can’t win in Boston. It’s just too darned hard. Men like Joey Galloway and Sam Cassell and Mark Kotsay now serve as reminders of how enjoyable it can be to play here … just as Garciaparra was (is?) a reminder of Boston’s suffocating, frustrating past.
Really, is there a player in all of sports who more crisply illustrates the change in Red Sox culture than the man who was to be their next Ted Williams? Garciaparra played 7 1/2 seasons here, and he played the majority of them brilliantly. He won a Rookie of the Year Award and two batting titles. He finished second in the 1998 American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting. And yet Garciaparra’s career in Boston will be remembered as much for the failed contract negotiations and his apparent dissatisfaction with the organization and media, obstacles he was never quite able to overcome for whatever reasons.
The fans? Garciaparra generally embraced them, and they returned the favor. They are likely to embrace him tonight when he returns to Fenway for the first time as a member of the opposing team. But by coincidence or circumstance, the Red Sox changed forever the day they traded Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs, an event that that has proven even more cataclysmic over time.
"I wanted us to discuss the issue that we all seemed to be avoiding," Sox president Larry Lucchino said in Dan Shaughnessy’s "Reversing the Curse" of a meeting with Garciaparra and agent Arn Tellem that took place just days before the Sox elected to trade the face of their franchise.
"We needed to talk about how unhappy Nomar was. Why was he still so [ticked]? Was there anything that could be done to change his mental state of mind, his approach to the organization, the city, and the game? We were contemplating the possibility of trading him, and we wanted to see if there was any way to take steps within our organization to make life better. Try to bring him back into the fold. The meeting lasted just about 45 minutes, and at the end of it, we basically concluded there was no way we were going to have a happy Nomar Garciaparra for the last couple of months of the season. There was no way to improve the situation. It wasn’t a constructive session. What he told us was that the media was bothering him. He said we didn’t appreciate it how difficult it was to play here. He told us, 'I play three games every night. There’s the media before the game, then there’s the game, which is fun, then there’s the media after the game.’ He told us that the reason teams in Boston fade is because of the stress and strain brought on by the media. I tried to bring the conversation back to Nomar’s contract or trade rumors, but he was more focused on the symptomatic problems of playing in Boston. He didn’t want to talk about himself and his own situation."
Roughly a week later, the Red Sox traded Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in the four-team deal that brought Orlando Cabrera (from Montreal) and Doug Mientkiewicz (from Minnesota) to Boston. Three months later, the Sox were World Series champions for the first time in 86 years. Garciaparra ultimately re-signed with the Cubs on a one-year deal and earned roughly $35 million in salary from 2005-08. He could have had a four-year, $60 million contract had he chosen to remain with the Red Sox.
During that same period of time, Garciaparra had 16 postseason at-bats, all with the Dodgers. He has never played in the World Series. He has never really been the same player since he left Boston and the Red Sox have never really been the same organization, though the Boston baseball franchise clearly has changed for the better.
Amid all of this, the volatile Wallace has revealed his desire to come to Boston, an ironic development if ever there was one. Like Moss or Dillon, Wallace comes to Boston with certain questions about his emotional maturity. He also comes with positively no questions about his ability. On the floor, Wallace is the perfect fit for these Celtics, a talented big man who can take much of the burden off Garnett (don’t forget about those knees) and play at both ends of the floor. Roughly two years after Ainge convinced Garnett to come to Boston, Wallace now falls in line behind Cassell, P.J. Brown, and Stephon Marbury as de facto Garnett disciples. Not so long ago, the thought of any of those players coming to Boston would have been nothing more than a fantasy.
As for Garciaparra, he is now a part-time player for an A’s team going nowhere, and there is no way of knowing whether he will be in the starting lineup tonight. In a perfect world, he would bat in the top of the very first inning. Garciaparra would stride from the on-deck circle toward the plate as his name is announced to the Fenway Park crowd, and he would receive a thunderous, appreciative ovation from yet another sellout. And then, having briefly engaged his past, Garciaparra would step into the batter’s box to re-enter the present.
And then, fittingly, he would face John Smoltz.
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