Saturday, October 16, 2004

Winning fine replacement for 'Nomah'

Former star fades into Boston history

By Karen Testa
The Associated Press

BOSTON - For years, he was the face of the Boston Red Sox, a star shortstop, a favorite of old ladies and children who barely had shoulders wide enough to fit the name "Garciaparra" on the back of their T-shirts.

Yet the Sox sent two-time batting champion Nomar Garciaparra packing to the Chicago Cubs on July 31 - and suddenly something clicked. The Nomar-less Red Sox earned the best record in baseball for the rest of the season. And the giant shoes he left to fill didn't feel so empty.

Now, as Boston battles New York for a spot in the World Series, "Nomah" seems a distant memory.

"I think it's more about the team doing well. We forgot about him," said Jeff Swartz, manager of The Souvenir Store outside Fenway Park, which still has a few No. 5 Garciaparra shirts on display in the children's section.

"It was a bad marriage toward the end," Swartz said. "He didn't seem like he wanted to be here."

Garciaparra's ultimate departure might have been abrupt, but the buildup had lasted for months. The Red Sox used him in the offseason as trade bait to try to land Alex Rodriguez, who wound up signing with the Yankees, and it was clear feelings were hurt.

Then Garciaparra injured his Achilles' tendon in spring training, sidelining him for 57 games. He returned in June, but as the July 31 trade deadline approached, it seemed almost inevitable that Garciaparra would be leaving Boston.

"He was still Nomar, but you could almost see the end coming," said Derek Lowe, who was also the subject of trade rumors.

In a four-team trade, the Sox strengthened their defense by acquiring Gold Glove winners Orlando Cabrera from Montreal and Doug Mientkiewicz from Minnesota and outfielder Dave Roberts from Los Angeles.

From the day after Garciaparra left until the end of the regular season, the Red Sox went 42-18 for the best finish in baseball.

"People say, 'Look, he must have been a negative influence,' which he wasn't," Lowe said. "I just think we didn't play well as a whole."

No matter what the reason, the strong finish appeared to be enough to heal the broken hearts of most Garciaparra fans. Even 6-year-old Noah Rochefort of Middletown, R.I., who still has a Garciaparra light switch in his room.

"He was upset at first," said Noah's father, Charlie, as he shopped for Red Sox souvenirs Thursday. "For about three weeks, the Cubs were his favorite team. Then they were about even. Now he's back to the Red Sox."

It probably didn't hurt that Noah got to stay up and saw, in person, Cabrera hit a game-ending home run in the bottom of the 12th inning to defeat Baltimore.

"Cabrera really stepped up and filled the spot and played the way Nomar used to play, if not better," Charlie Rochefort said.

Outfielder Gabe Kapler said Boston fans know when to move on, and embrace any player as long as he's wearing a Red Sox uniform, particularly those who are playing well.

"Who knows what they would feel like if Orlando had come in and hadn't done a bang-up job right away," Kapler said. "The great thing is he did, and everybody's happy."

Roberts said Red Sox fans are smart enough to know a good deal, even if that means losing a future Hall of Fame player.

"The thing is they got three guys in myself, Doug and Orlando who play hard every day. They see that," Roberts said. "As hard as it is for them to get over Nomar, I think they still embrace us."

Still, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said it takes some getting used to playing a Red Sox team without Garciaparra.

"It's kind of weird to look and see someone else playing short," Jeter said. "That's the first name that comes to mind whenever anyone says the Boston Red Sox. He was the face of the team, and now he's not there."

Rodriguez, who almost displaced Garciaparra at short in Boston, said it's better to face the Red Sox without his friend.

"I love Nomar a lot," he said. "I'm glad he's not over there. The guy's a dangerous guy."

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