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LA story: Garciaparra adapts

New base of operations seems to suit ex-shortstop

SAN FRANCISCO -- Grady Little marvels at what he's witnessing.

A Nomar Garciaparra renaissance.

''Right now," said the Dodgers manager as he sat in his office making out the lineup card before yesterday's game against the Giants, ''he's hitting a curveball about as well as you can hit it.

''From the day he showed up here, he's worked and worked on every phase of his game. We changed his position, and because he's such a good athlete, he's adapted to it so easily. He continues to get better."

Garciaparra, a career .320 hitter entering the season, said he's comfortable playing for Little again, this time on the Dodgers instead of the Red Sox, and comfortable to be home again in the Los Angeles area, where he grew up.

''That wasn't the only reason I came here," Garciaparra said as he meticulously shaved down a bat. ''Everything came together. There were a lot of teams interested, but I considered things like how close is a team to winning a championship, where would I fit in the best. And all the conclusions I drew were that to come here with all the tradition would be best for me."

One of Garciaparra's ex-teammates in Boston said the Dodgers and Yankees made the same offer, but Garciaparra chose LA because, ''He always considers himself a Red Sox. That's one thing people don't understand about Nomar. He would have never signed with the Yankees because he always thought of himself as a Red Sox player."

Garciaparra was dealt from the Red Sox to the Cubs at the trading deadline in '04 in a four-team deal.

He watched the Sox from afar the rest of the season, saw them gain momentum in the second half and into the playoffs. He always wanted to win a championship as Boston's shortstop, but Orlando Cabrera, not Garciaparra, drank the champagne when the Sox won the Series.

After the Cubs elected not to re-sign Garciaparra following an injury-plagued '05 season in which he was limited to 62 games, he hit the free agent market. The Yankees and Orioles went after him hard. The Dodgers also made their bid.

A positional change was in the offing, with most baseball people believing that because of all his injuries, it would be difficult to commit to Garciaparra as a starter at short. There was talk of moving him to third base or the outfield. The Dodgers' thought was first base.

''I knew I wasn't going to be someone's starting shortstop," Garciaparra said. ''If I was going to go somewhere, I had to accept something different. I made the decision that I'd be receptive to it."

''He spent a lot of time working with Eddie Murray in spring training," Little said. ''He learned the footwork and the nuances of the position and he's just taken off from there."

Garciaparra said he always respected the first basemen he played with.

''I always appreciated what they did in terms of scooping bad throws out of the dirt and just the different footwork you need to play there," he said. ''So now I have an even deeper appreciation for them.

''I'm by no means an expert on playing first base. I have a long way to go. I work on different things every day and I think the more you work on them, the better you're going to get."

Little has resisted the temptation to move Garciaparra to third now that Bill Mueller is on the disabled list and will have surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee today.

''He's finally comfortable, and there's no way I want to mess around with that," Little said. ''I'll tell you what, though -- if I asked him to, he'd jump at it, but right now I don't think it's the fair thing to do to him."

There is some thought in the organization that Garciaparra will become a corner outfielder, possibly as soon as next season. But Little wants Garciaparra to have an injury-free season (though he already missed the first 2 1/2 weeks with a rib cage pull) and to get back to being comfortable at the plate.

Batting mostly third in the order, Garciaparra is hitting .360 with five homers and 21 RBIs. He's gone 17 for 36 since May 5, and his hot hitting continued yesterday when he went 2 for 4 with a homer and bases-loaded walk. Friday night he went 3 for 5 with an RBI, and he hit a ninth-inning grand slam against Brad Lidge to beat the Astros April 24.

Garciaparra is indeed determined to prove that despite the injuries he's incurred the past few seasons, from the right Achilles' tendon ailment that began his downfall in Boston, to the torn groin that led to his leaving Chicago, he remains one of the game's best hitters.

''I don't even think about that," said Garciaparra when asked if he feels he's back to where he was in his heyday in Boston. ''Every day I play this game is a plus for me. I'm just trying to build on each day. Hopefully, that takes me to the point where I can help this team and where they can count on me."

Garciaparra, who appears to be in his usual tremendous shape, is still very quiet, which often is mistaken for indifference by teammates. But there isn't a player more respected in the Dodgers locker room.

Garciaparra said the Sox were not one of the teams that expressed interest in the offseason, but he doesn't give it a second thought anymore.

''I'm with a great organization and great guys in this locker room," he said.

''It's been fun to watch him," Mueller said. ''You feel so good for him because you know what a great player he's been, what a great player he can still be. I think we're witnessing quite a comeback."

A renaissance.

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