Even back in the days at Sorensen Park in Whittier, Calif., when the coaches gave goofy nicknames to all the other kids on the team—like Batman Freddy, who always lugged his bat with him when running out a hit—he was so serious about playing the game the right way that they called him No Nonsense Nomar. He was six years old and playing T-ball at the time. Eighteen years later the nickname still rings as true as a church bell on Sunday morning. Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox catches grounders with two hands, is as comfortable hitting balls behind runners as he is hitting them out of the park, refuses to talk about his gaudy statistics, curls the brim of his cap like a Little Leaguer and, in the rare instances when he thinks his ego might be sprouting like a weed from a sidewalk crack, calls his mother, Sylvia, and humbly groans, "Mom, I need to come home and take out the trash."
Oh, and there is this, too: He is having what may be the best season ever by a rookie shortstop.
All of that would make Garciaparra unique except that the National League also has a talented rookie with a refreshingly retro respect for the game. Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen not only gets to more balls than anyone else at his position in the National League, runs the bases as smartly as any veteran and already is his team's best hitter, but he also is a marketing department's dream. The well-mannered son of small-town schoolteachers from the Midwest, Rolen reads Dostoyevsky on the team charter, visits national parks and museums on road trips, and thinks the hot corner is Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, where he actually said, "I just like to watch the different genre of people go by." If Rolen, 22, is a five-tool player, a thesaurus must be one of the tools.
In a sport in which an amateur draft pick is insulted by a $2 million offer and players under investigation for spousal battery, child abuse and crack cocaine possession are in major league lineups, Garciaparra and Rolen are two antacid tablets for what ails the game. They are Generation Xers who defy the bleatings about multisport athletes' shunning baseball—both of them spurned scholarships in other sports—and young players' preferring to chase dollars rather than fungoes. Presenting your runaway leaders for the American and National League Rookie of the Year awards—two for The Show.
"The way they play the game, other people, including veterans, should take notice," says Boston manager Jimy Williams, who as third base coach for the Atlanta Braves saw Rolen play a few games for the Phillies last year. "They don't play like rookies. It's almost as if they're playing like there's another league they're trying to get to."
Says Terry Francona, Rolen's skipper, who also managed Garciaparra in the Arizona Fall League in 1994, "These two guys are cut from the same mold. They have different games, but they have great instincts for baseball, and they have a lot of respect for the game. They're throwbacks. And they're a pleasure to be around."
While Garciaparra and Rolen are the valedictorians, the rookie class of '97 includes a lengthy honor roll (box, page 33). It is the deepest crop of first-year men since 1986, a year that produced four future MVPs (Jose Canseco, Kevin Mitchell, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin) as well as Will Clark, Wally Joyner, John Kruk, Ruben Sierra, Danny Tartabull and Todd Worrell.
There are two other rookies from this season who are likely to rise to an elite level, outfielders Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos (.313, eight HRs in 268 at bats at week's end) and Andruw Jones of the Braves (.248, 14 HRs and 53 RBIs). Guerrero, 21, is such a dangerous hitter that he could win a batting title in the big leagues just as easily as he could hit 40 home runs. He also has an outstanding arm, although his defense has been erratic. Guerrero has what scouts call a higher ceiling than Rolen, but for now he has much less polish. His development has been slowed by three trips to the disabled list that cost him 52 games this season and, according to Montreal manager Felipe Alou, the Rookie of the Year award. "I don't have any doubts about that," Alou says. "He's got the whole package, but we're going to have to complete his development next year."
The 20-year-old Jones, who made a name for himself by hitting two home runs in Game 1 of last year's World Series, has the power, speed and defensive skills to be a franchise player. "Most years," says Philadelphia scouting director Mike Arbuckle, "you'll get one, maybe two guys who are real impact players. This year you have four or five guys who are going to be All-Stars on a regular basis."
None of them, by name or deed, is as rare as Anthony Nomar Garciaparra. Though Sylvia calls him Anthony when she's angry and Mijo (shorthand for "my son" in Spanish) when she's endearing, he otherwise prefers the uniqueness of Nomar—his father's name spelled backward. "He's going to make the name famous," Ramon said after the boy's birth.