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INSIDE BASEBALL

Nomar Nonpareil

Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is the American League MVP

by Tim Crothers

Posted: Wed August 19, 1998

 
Sports Illustrated Red Sox manager Jimy Williams seemed to invoke the idea of reincarnation last Friday night in an effort to account for the precocious instincts of his second-year shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra. "He plays like he's been here before," Williams said, as if Garciaparra were a second coming of Honus Wagner. This sounded way too X-Files to a group of sportswriters who merely wished to learn whether Williams thought Garciaparra deserves the American League's Most Valuable Player award. Williams diplomatically declined to answer that one, but we'll say it: Garciaparra should be named MVP.

Shortstop Nomar
Garciaparra
Super Sox Garciaparra is cleaning up in the field as well as at the plate.    (Damian Strohmeyer)

Look back to July 23 when the Boston offense was sputtering badly. First baseman Mo Vaughn had already said he didn't like hitting fourth, so Williams simply shifted Garciaparra from third in the order to cleanup. The only shortstop to hit fourth in more than 10 starts in the majors this season, Garciaparra through Sunday had responded with a .352 average, eight homers and 27 RBIs in the 22 games since Williams made the move. During a recent 12-game road swing against the American League West that might have jeopardized Boston's lead in the wild-card race, Garciaparra carried the Sox by hitting three homers and knocking in 13 runs through the first eight games. Boston finished the trip with an 8-4 record and its wild-card lead intact.

Through last weekend Garciaparra was among the league's Top 10 in nearly every key offensive category, with a .324 average, 96 RBIs, 82 runs and 259 total bases. Garciaparra, who also has been solid in the field, could join Cal Ripken as the only players ever to follow a Rookie of the Year season with an MVP one. (The Red Sox' Fred Lynn won both those awards in his remarkable 1975 debut season.)

Garciaparra certainly isn't campaigning for the award. "How do you even pick an MVP in a team sport?" he asks. "If I'm playing golf or tennis and I'm beating everybody, then maybe I can say I'm the best. In baseball you need your teammates to succeed. Nobody ever had 100 RBIs on 100 solo home runs."

MVP voters can make an argument for other candidates. Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez may become only the third player in major league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season, and his teammate Ken Griffey Jr. could still break Roger Maris's homer record, but both play for a team that was a disappointing 11 games below .500. Earlier in the season the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez was chasing Hack Wilson's record of 190 RBIs, but he has struggled lately and was only 23 RBIs ahead of Garciaparra at week's end. Gonzalez doesn't contribute nearly as much on defense, either; he had been the Texas designated hitter in 24 games. The Indians' Jim Thome, with 29 homers and 82 RBIs, might have made a case for himself, but he broke his right hand on Aug. 7 and could miss the rest of the regular season.

Just how valuable is Garciaparra to the Red Sox? Boston had a 7-9 record while he was on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder in May. Through Sunday the Sox were 63-41 when he was in the lineup, and many of the victories were a direct result of his clutch hitting. "Nomar has the ability to perform when it really counts," says Boston general manager Dan Duquette. "Lots of players can hit homers when you're up 10-2 or down 13-1, but Nomar gets hits in ninth innings of tie games."

Six times this season Garciaparra has had a game-winning hit in the seventh inning or later. "I've learned to succeed in the clutch by remembering all the times I screwed up in big moments," he says. "It's fun to come through with the game on the line. You want to have that chance every night."

After one of his game-winning hits, an RBI double in the seventh inning of an 8-7 victory over Minnesota last Thursday night, Garciaparra, who is nothing if not a perfectionist, left the clubhouse in a bad mood because he had committed what turned out to be a meaningless eighth- inning error. Moments later Red Sox reliever Jim Corsi was asked if he thought Garciaparra was having any trouble adjusting to batting cleanup. Said Corsi, "I don't think Nomar has much of a problem with this thing called baseball."

Issue date: August 24, 1998

 
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