Saturday, October 23, 2004

While his Boston Red Sox teammates celebrated their Game7 win over the New York Yankees at Fenway Park, shortstop Orlando Cabrera knelt in the outfield and prayed.

He could have been thanking the Lord for answering his prayers two months ago, when he was likely reciting on a daily basis the wayward prayer of a Montreal Expo — the one in which the player prays to join a team with an actual owner and an actual home field before a crowd bigger than a junior hockey gathering in Canada.

Or he could have offered prayers of thanks for not letting him fall on his face when he was brought to Boston to replace one of the team’s most popular players, All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.

Cabrera, 29, a former Expos MVP, had a lot to be thankful for. No one in baseball has experienced a greater change in fortune this year, going from the beleaguered Expos to a storied franchise trying to get to the postseason while playing in front of passionate sellout crowds.

“It’s exciting for me,” said Cabrera, who will be at shortstop for Boston tonight at Fenway Park in Game1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. “It’s a good feeling.”

The good feelings began for Cabrera on July31, when he was sent from Montreal to Boston in a four-team deal. It was culture shock for Cabrera, who came from a team for which a winning record was seen as a nice little-engine-that-could story to a place where winning was the fuel driving the big locomotive known as Red Sox Nation.

“I saw a team that wanted to win and would do anything to win,” Cabrera said. “We didn’t have that in Montreal. We didn’t have a lot of the stuff you see here. They do everything they can just to win the World Series.”

It could have been a disaster, though. If Cabrera had not delivered both the good defense everyone expected and enough hitting to hold his own offensively, he might have been longing for the days back in Montreal, where no one saw him or cared. He had replaced the legendary “Nomah,” who seemed to be on his way to taking his place with Teddy Ballgame, Yaz and Fisk among the pantheon of franchise legends.

But relations between Garciaparra and team owners had been deteriorating for several years, especially after the Red Sox tried to acquire Alex Rodriguez before this season. This was the last year of Garciaparra’s contract, and there seemed little hope of re-signing him — or much desire among club officials to bring him back.

So the Red Sox, floundering despite a 56-45 record, made a bold move by trading Garciaparra. The trade, which also netted first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz from the Twins, shored up Boston’s infield defense and energized the team, which went 42-19 after the deal to win the American League’s wild card.

Cabrera made Boston fans forget their anger over the Garciaparra deal, batting .294 with six home runs and 31 RBI in 58 games. He also brought stability to the shortstop position, which delighted the Boston pitchers.

“He is a game-changer in the field for me,” Curt Schilling said.

Teammate Kevin Millar noted the pressures facing Cabrera beyond the field.

“The job that he has done is so underrated because he replaced a guy who was considered the next Ted Williams, an icon in Boston,” Millar said. “He has been an amazing fit for us and has been able to handle everything.”

Cabrera, who will be a free agent when the season ends (which meant he was unlikely to be playing for the transplanted Expos at RFK Stadium next season anyway), said he felt the pressure but not necessarily because of replacing Garciaparra.

“I was playing for a new team, and I am going to be a free agent after the season, so I wanted to make a good first impression,” he said. “I was trying to do too much in every game. It took a little time, but people began to see the way I play and the way I helped the team.”

People saw him play, period, which was a change compared to his existence in Montreal. Now he is on the biggest stage in baseball, performing in the World Series. That’s a prayer answered — and then some.

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