"They love you at the beginning and they love you at the end. It’s the middle that’s tough."
-- Steve Grogan
* * *
For Anthony Nomar Garciaparra, the middle of the middle qualified as the spring of 2003 through mid-summer 2004, when it all fell apart. His relationship with the Red Sox. His place in the Holy Trinity of shortstops. His health and, eventually, his career.
And so today, on a day when Garciaparra got closure to it all by signing a ceremonial one-day contract with the Red Sox to announce his retirement, we are left to ponder who Garciaparra was here and what his legacy will be.
So Garciaparra held the media in disdain during his time in Boston. Big deal. So does Bill Belichick. Nobody ever said someone had to like the press, or vice-versa, to be a superstar presence in Boston, where we want the Hall of Fame talents to be perfect human beings, too. Garciaparra was difficult, uncooperative, and terribly insincere at times, but none of that makes him a bad guy. It may have made him a bad actor and a colossal pain in the pillows, but he was never a bad teammate. What he was, at the end of his time in Boston, was a terribly disgruntled employee who couldn’t get past his own issues, which is why the Red Sox cut the cord and moved on.
And so today, are we to believe that Garciaparra and Larry Lucchino will be vacationing together in Bali in the years to come? Of course not. Undoubtedly, Garciaparra forever will harbor some resentment toward the Red Sox just as they will toward him. That will never change. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and both the Sox and Garciaparra can now tie this one off in a pretty satin bow, whether or not anyone cares to ask if the package is empty.
As for Garciaparra himself, know this about him: he is not the same man now he was then. As a father and husband, he is more mature, more secure, more understanding. As a player who has worn four uniforms, he has come to understand the business of baseball as much he always understood the game. Anyone who ever watched Garciaparra play could see that he took an absurd amount of anxiety with him to work everyday, and anyone who bothered to ask him about it got the sense he lived in fear.
If you were among those who thought Garciaparra was paranoid or neurotic, you had your reasons.
"I definitely expect myself to be a certain way, but at the same time you’re in an environment where you walk on eggshells and can ruin you,’’ Garciaparra said during a private interview in February 2003. "Let’s face it, there are things that still get brought up about some guys from six, seven or eight years ago so you have to watch everything. You’re constantly stressed. And so if you’re not careful, everything gets destroyed that you’ve worked so hard for."
Now, ironically enough, we remember things about Garciaparra from six, seven, eight years ago. What he failed to understand then was that we were going to bring up those things no matter what. He certainly understands that now.
Most people who follow the Red Sox and the Boston media know much of the history that existed between Garciaparra and reporters, so let’s get this out there: I got along with him better than most, which is hardly to suggest that we’re best friends. We’re not. Garciaparra could be cold enough to walk right past you at a public appearance without acknowledging your existence, kind enough to walk across the room and shake your hand in the same setting. Most of the mistakes he made in Boston were because he did not know how to act, what to say, what to do. In many ways, he was a terrible fit for a place like Boston, where we ask a lot more questions than they do in Dodgertown, Wrigleyville or the Bay Area.
Why do you swing at the first pitch so much, Nomah? What happened on that throw, Nomah? Do you really like it here, Nomah?
Those of us who have always lived here and worked here accept that all as part of the deal. You take the bad with the good. For Garciaparra, it was all a needless reminder of everything that can go wrong, of the things Garciaparra spent far too much of his time thinking about.
As a result, most people saw him as a divisive force when he really wasn’t. Many remember the malcontent at the end of Garciaparra’s time in Boston more than the unbridled enthusiasm of his earlier years. Some see him as part of the problem more than part of the solution.
Remember: the Red Sox were a different team then and Fenway Park was a different place. Frustration had been building for more than 80 years. Lucchino and Co. were learning about Boston as much as we were learning about them, and, along with Pedro Martinez, Garciaparra was the biggest holdover and greatest symbol of a troubled, dysfunctional franchise that just couldn’t seem to get it completely right.
Maybe Nomar was just as frustrated with all of that as you were.
Presumably, Garciaparra knows now that there are certain things he will never escape: the rejection of a four-year, $60 million deal that ultimately cost him about $25 million; the injuries to his wrist, legs and Achilles; the disputes with team doctor Arthur Pappas and, later, Lucchino; the never-ending suspicion of steroid use regardless of whether he ever failed any tests; the perpetual feud with the media; the trade that led to a world title; the fact that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, once regarded as his peers, essentially went on to bigger things without him.
In the wake of all that, some of us choose to remember Garciaparra as a fascinatingly complex ballplayer who was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, as someone who had trouble coping with relatively ordinary distractions, as someone whose intentions were generally good. At his best, he was a great baseball player. At his worst, he came off as ungrateful and impossible.
In the middle, he really wasn’t much different from anyone else.
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