FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Six years after he was traded away for the final pieces of Boston’s World Series puzzle, Nomar Garciaparra finally got a friendly farewell from the Red Sox.
The rookie of the year, batting champion and All-Star whose trade began a bitter back-and-forth in Boston and, for Garciaparra, an inglorious slide into irrelevance, signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the Red Sox on Wednesday for the purpose of retiring in the uniform of his original team.
“From the first day I had the thrill of putting on a Red Sox uniform and playing in front of all the great fans at Fenway Park, I have felt at home in Boston,” Garciaparra said in a statement that belied the ugliness that accompanied his departure. “While I had the privilege of playing with other legendary teams, I always saw myself retiring in a Red Sox uniform.”
Garciaparra announced he’s leaving baseball at 36 to become an ESPN analyst, ending a 14-year career in which he was a six-time All-Star and two-time batting champion. But the career that started with the 1997 AL Rookie of the Year award began to crumble when the Red Sox tried to acquire Alex Rodriguez after the 2003 season — a deal that probably would have forced them to trade Garciaparra.
Although the Rodriguez deal fell through, the talks upset Garciaparra, and an Achilles’ tendon injury that kept him out until June the next season didn’t help his mood. It also didn’t help that the market for shortstops had plummeted since he rejected a four-year, $60 million offer from the Red Sox.
With the Red Sox struggling at midseason, general manager Theo Epstein traded Garciaparra for shortstop Orlando Cabrera and defensive first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Accusations of disloyalty flew, and Red Sox fans were stunned to lose their “No-mah.”
But they soon overcame their grief: The Red Sox went 42-18 for the best finish in baseball, capping the season with their first World Series crown since 1918.
Garciaparra watched from afar.
“I felt like I was there,” he said. “In Boston there’s something greater than an individual player winning a World Series. When I was there I realized there’s something bigger than us winning a World Series. It’s winning a World Series for these people.”
Epstein, who grew up in the Boston area, knew the risk he was taking by trading away the shortstop who had been the most popular player on the team.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years to maintain a relationship after the trade,” Epstein said. “I think both of us understood at the time that it wasn’t about Nomar and it wasn’t about me. It was just baseball trades that happen. They’re about what’s going on with the team at the time and certain things that had to happen. But, it didn’t change what Nomar meant to the Red Sox.”
Terry Francona, who led the team to a World Series title in his rookie season as Red Sox manager, saw just the last few months of Garciaparra’s time at Fenway Park.
“His last part in Boston was tough,” Francona said. “He was kind of Boston-ed out. It had kind of wore on him for whatever reasons. Sometimes it’s time to move on. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. I think the fact he’s come back kind of shows that.”
Garciaparra’s teammates — the beneficiaries of his acrobatic defense and clutch hitting — found it appropriate that he retired in a Boston uniform.
“He was a Red Sox for a long time and I think he’ll always be remembered as a Red Sox,” said pitcher Tim Wakefield, who was Garciaparra’s teammate for the shortstop’s entire stay in Boston. “For the organization to sign him to a one-day deal and have him retire as a Red Sox is pretty special. I’m really happy for him. I wish he was still playing but sometimes our careers take different paths.”
Garciaparra threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, with former Red Sox and Georgia Tech teammate Jason Varitek catching.
“Nomar will always hold a special place in Red Sox history and in the hearts of Red Sox Nation,” owner John Henry said. “His accomplishments on the field and in the community place him among the greatest players to wear a Red Sox uniform. We are very appreciative that Nomar is ending his career where it began.”
Garciaparra spent the past five seasons with the Cubs, Dodgers and A’s. He had a .313 career average with 229 home runs and 936 RBIs.
Garciaparra was in the thick of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry but always earned the respect of his opponents in New York.
“I always enjoyed playing against Boston because of Nomar,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “I used to enjoy being mentioned with him.”
Added Rodriguez: “I love Nomar. He’s a great player and a friend.”