The Washington Times - July 21, 2008, 12:01AM

By JAY LeBLANC
July 21, 2008

Most people have forgotten all about it at this point, but Nomar Garciaparra used to be one of the very best players in baseball. In the late 1990s, it was all about the “Big Three” American League shortstops, as in Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and the Boston Red Sox‘ Garciaparra, and there was legitimate debate as to which one was the best. Nomar topped the 30-home run mark in his rookie year, 1997, and again the following season. He then decided power hitting was for mere mortals and hit .357 in 1999 and .372 in 2000. He was beloved in Beantown, respected throughout the league and talked about as a future Hall of Famer.

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Then Nomar’s star fell to earth. He missed most of the 2001 season due to injury and though he was solid in each of the next two seasons, he wasn’t quite the same as before the injury. Halfway through another injury-plagued season in 2004, Garciaparra was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs in a then-controversial three-way swap that brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to the Red Sox. And of course, that was the season Boston ended its 86-year drought and took the World Series title. Needless to say, any chance that Garciaparra would be missed evaporated, and you definitely don’t hear “Nomah!” cheers at Fenway anymore.

There are plenty of theories as to why Garciaparra ended up as Penny Hardaway instead of Shaquille O’Neal. Obviously the injuries contributed to his decline. Some say the success went to his head; just before he was traded, Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley slammed Garciaparra for his attitude and sense of entitlement in a notorious piece that was the talk of the town for weeks. Steroid use - and a subsequent lack thereof - can’t be ruled out either; who can forget the Sports Illustrated cover that featured a shirtless, jacked Nomar? Maybe he just went soft after he married soccer star Mia Hamm. Who knows?

Let’s forget all of that for a moment, and go back to the summer of 1996. Two years after the Red Sox made him the 12th overall pick in the 1994 MLB draft, Garciaparra was coming into his own as a member of the triple-A Pawtucket (R.I.) Red Sox. In his first two pro seasons, Nomar played the outstanding defense the Red Sox expected when they drafted him and hit for very little power, which was also expected. That summer, Garciaparra went from a good young player to an elite prospect in just 43 games with the PawSox as he hit .343 with 16 home runs and 46 RBI while fanning just 21 times in 172 at bats.

As someone who grew up just a couple miles from Pawtucket, I headed down to McCoy Stadium every time I could to catch a glimpse of this phenom … and teammate Jeff Suppan. I swear Suppan was an exciting prospect at that time; you’re just going to have to try and believe me. Anyway, Garciaparra made a habit of going deep every time I made it to one of his games, and came across as a pretty nice guy, too. He’d always make sure to sign autographs for every person that asked, though he sometimes put the autograph hounds - who wanted multiple signatures while other fans waited for just one - in their place, and came across as cool in how he handled it.

I got a couple cards signed, of course, but it was July 9, 1996, that Garciaparra unexpectedly gave me what still ranks as one of my favorite possessions. I was just 16 that summer and spent my time playing ball and going to games - not working - so I didn’t have all that much money. I headed to McCoy that day to get some autographs before the game and then head in to watch it, but a little while before the game was to start, I got hungry. I looked in my pocket and realized I had only a few dollars. There was no way I was going to be able to make it through the game without eating, so I wasn’t going to be able to buy a ticket.

I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to watch the first few innings, but after a certain point - usually the mid- to late-innings - the PawSox stadium staff would let people just walk in to catch the end of the game anyway. Besides, I knew the perfect place to fill my belly for cheap: The Right Spot. The Right Spot was - still is, actually - a little place located about 50 or so yards beyond McCoy Stadium’s left field wall on South Bend Street. It serves delicious chili dogs; so good, in fact, that I made a habit of going there just about every time I went to a game that summer. I ordered a couple and sat outside at one of the restaurant’s picnic tables to eat them.

In addition to great food, The Right Spot was, as you might imagine, in the perfect location. You couldn’t see the game, but you could hear the batters’ names announced over the loudspeaker and - from the right angle - see the scoreboard, and the reaction of the crowd gave you a pretty good idea of what was going on. As I polished off my first chili dog, the loudspeaker drew my attention: “Now batting for the PawSox, Nomar Garciaparra!” Already feeling better about not being inside the stadium because of the chili dogs, I suddenly felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Seconds later I heard the crack of the bat off in the distance. The crowd got louder, then louder, and then I caught sight of the ball as it flew over the left field wall and right toward me. It came to rest on some grass about 20 yards or so from me, and even though there was nobody around, I excitedly sprinted over to grab it. As soon as the slightly dirty official International League ball was in my possession, I heard the announcer say, “That’s home run number nine for No-marrrrr Garciaparrrrrra!” Needless to say, I was psyched.

I got into the stadium for the last few innings, and showed off my new trophy to anyone that appeared even mildly interested and plenty of random people that weren’t. After the game, I waited for Garciaparra in the parking lot. He emerged from the clubhouse and signed autographs for all the fans. When he finished, I sauntered up to him to show him my ball. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hey Nomar, this is your home run ball from earlier.”

Nomar: “No kidding. How’d you get that?”

Me: “I was grabbing a bite to eat at The Right Spot. It came right to me.”

Nomar: “Cool.”

Garciaparra then took the ball from me, found the sweet spot and signed his name. Underneath it he wrote “HR #9, 7-29-96.” Getting the home run ball was awesome. Getting it signed was even better. But the inscription? That was something else altogether. That made it one-of-a-kind.

When Nomar achieved superstardom a few years later, that ball became my prized possession. I got a specialized baseball holder for it and put it on display in my room. One time I took it to the local baseball card and memorabilia store, just to show it off, and got offered $200 for it. I laughed, disgusted at the lowball offer. How much would a minor league Nomar home run ball be worth when he hit .400 in a season or was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I asked rhetorically. No thanks!

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be getting anywhere near $200 for that ball now. Nomar has settled in to the major league version of mediocrity, and will be hard-pressed to so much as play in another All-Star Game, much less make the Hall of Fame. Once a hero in Boston, he now plays his games for the Los Angeles Dodgers after all but the drunks and night-shift workers in Boston are in bed, and is only mentioned around Fenway Park when someone wears an outdated Sox jersey with his name on the back. But you know what? I’m glad I still have that ball. It might not be worth all that much nowadays, but - and this might sound cheesy - the memories are priceless. For a time, Garciaparra was, in my mind anyway, the greatest player ever, and that ball gave me a connection to him. At this point it looks a little out of place in my TV room, next to an autographed photo of Ferguson Jenkins and not far from a Hank Aaron signed bat and signed photos of Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Mays, but whenever someone asks about it, it makes for a heck of a feel-good story.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at [email protected]

Photo by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous Signature Stories column, Manny being Manny.