One more in the Forecaster series, this time about the guy who was Big Papi before Big Papi… kind of.
He steps into the batter’s box, rearranging the dirt with his feet. He steps out of the box and tightens his batting gloves. Back in the box, he stares down Ramiro Mendoza on the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound, gesturing toward Mendoza with his bat in a circular motion six times, then checks his batting gloves again. The gloves are ready. The pitch is over the plate. Nomar Garciaparra turns on it, clearing the left field fence and setting off at a casual pace, following both runners around the bases as the Red Sox extend their lead over the Yankees to five runs. It’s Garciaparra’s second homer of the day and his 23rd of the 1999 season, and it raises his batting average to .352. The Red Sox are headed back to the playoffs and their 26-year-old shortstop is an MVP candidate. Life is good in Boston.
Fast-forward four and a half years and the Red Sox are fresh off another playoff run.
Still just 30, Garciaparra has put up numbers that compare with those of the game’s legends. How many other shortstops have had 173 home runs, a .323 batting average, and more than 40 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in their first seven full seasons? None, of course, but the closest was contemporary Alex Rodriguez, who, along with Garciaparra and Derek Jeter, formed a triumvirate of power-hitting shortstops who revolutionized the position in the late nineties and all seemed destined for Cooperstown.
On July 1, 2004, Garciaparra looks on dejectedly, nursing an Achilles tendon injury as the Red Sox lose a heartbreaker to the Yankees, falling eight and a half games behind in the division. To that point in the season, Nomar had appeared in just 17 games, batting .235 with just one home run and defense that may still have been suffering from the wrist injury that cost him most of the 2001 season. Weeks later, he would be shipped off to Chicago in the deal that brought Orlando Cabrera and a championship to Boston, and his career would never fully recover.
Nomar would go on to wear Cubs, Dodgers, and Athletics uniforms before signing a one-day contract to retire with the Red Sox in March, 2010. After leaving Boston, he hit .288 with 51 home runs in the final 1,771 plate appearances of his career, adding just 3.1 WAR to his career total. Still, Garciaparra’s .313 career batting average is better than every shortstop in history except Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan. His 370 doubles are more than Johnny Mize or Duke Snider hit, and his 229 home runs top Hall of Fame infielders Bobby Doerr and Barry Larkin.
When his name first graced the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014, he received 5.5 percent of the vote, just enough to linger on the ballot for one more year. Given all the more qualified players stuck in ballot purgatory, there is no chance that the Baseball Writers Association elects Garciaparra to the Hall. Is that fair, or is Nomar underappreciated because of his career arc and the length of time since he provided fans and writers with the most inspiring memories?
In terms of accumulated value, the Hall of Fame cutoff point tends to be between 50 and 55 WAR. Most eligible players with more than 55 WAR have busts in Cooperstown.
Most players with fewer than 50 WAR do not. Garciaparra’s 44.2 seem to put him firmly on the outside. There are, of course, many exceptions. Infielders like Travis Jackson, Red Schoendienst, and Phil Rizzuto are in the Hall with fewer WAR than Nomar. So are short-career sluggers like Chuck Klein, Hack Wilson, and Roy Campanella. A peak like Nomar’s has overwhelmed a lack of volume in the eyes of the voters many times before.
On the other side of that coin, infielders like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich are outside the Hall of Fame with far more WAR than Garciaparra earned (each has at least 70). So are superior sluggers like Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Piazza. The Hall of Fame has held the players of recent generations to a standard far higher than any other era, so if an exception is to be made for Nomar, one will need to be made for dozens of more qualified recent players as well.
In its totality, Nomar Garciaparra’s baseball resume is that of a star, if not necessarily a legend. For seven years in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, though, Nomar was among the game’s elite players, and the most popular player on a popular and successful Red Sox team. For some fans, the lasting image of Nomar in Boston has him sitting on the bench, nursing a wrist or ankle injury. Others remember Nomar slapping doubles off the Green Monster, lining homers over it, or chasing down a slow roller and throwing on the run for an out. These are memories of a Boston legend.