"He does everything at game speed," new Red Sox hitting coach Rick Down says. "Some guys will take 100 grounders, but it's just eyewash. They're doing it half speed. It's always game speed with Nomar, even batting practice. He doesn't waste any time. I think the only thing that's surprised me about him is that he uses a 33 [inch], 31 [ounce] bat. That's Tony Gwynn-small. But he has tremendous hand-eye coordination and hits everything hard."
Training camp is a church picnic for Garciaparra after another training immersion with Verstegen, who now directs the Athletes' Performance Instititute in Tempe, Ariz. Garciaparra pays $1,500 per week for what is a six-week muscular retreat in which the typical day begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. He has worked with Verstegen every winter since that 1995 epiphany, always beginning in the first week of January. Garciaparra's regimen actually begins with his annual call to Verstegen on the day after Thanksgiving to tell him he is starting to train to prepare himself for Verstegen's training.
"I saw him at Georgia Tech," says Seattle Mariners righthander Aaron Sele, Garciaparra's former teammate with the Red Sox. "He was a rail, just a skinny old shortstop. As I watched him develop, I knew why it happened. He's got an incredible desire. I don't know anybody who's more driven."
"Nomar masters whatever I throw at him," Verstegen says. "He is the Utopian athlete with the Utopian attitude. I wake up in the middle of the night trying to find ways to challenge him."
On Feb. 13, a training day that Verstegen says is "light" in deference to Boston's first full-squad workout eight days later, Garciaparra, Red Sox in-fielder Lou Merloni and St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect Troy McNaughton worked for 2� hours in the morning on outdoor "multidirectional drills" designed to improve fielding range, quickness and agility. The maneuvers included hopping eight consecutive times over a bungee cord held about three feet off the ground; running and jumping over a series of low and high hurdles; playing a game of one-on-one tag inside a small rectangular area; and, with thick bungee cords hooked to the waist at each side and in back, fielding tennis balls. (On other mornings you could find Garciaparra kicking 52-yard field goals or running sprints while pulling, plow-horse style, a metal sled weighted with a 25-pound plate.) Garciaparra and Merloni then snuck in their only actual baseball work: They played catch for about five minutes and flipped balls to each other to hit for another 15.
After a break for lunch, the baseball players joined about a dozen NFL players and prospects for 2� hours of indoor strength training. They heaved medicine balls against a wall; jumped as high as they could while restrained by cords fastened to a platform; jumped from a standing position onto a 36-inch-high platform in between sets of squats; did abdominal crunches atop a large stability ball, with a piece of foam wedged between their legs; repeatedly yanked a rope attached to a variable resistance machine in a motion that loosely mimics trying to start a very stubborn lawn mower; and tackled various other exercises before they ended their day being stretched by a trainer.
Beginning on Jan. 2, Garciaparra pulled similar double sessions every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. There were only morning sessions on Wednesdays, a "recovery day" devoted to exercises in an outdoor pool, and Saturdays, which involved various drills. Sundays were off days.
Much of Garciaparra's training is designed to enhance the rotational strength of his midsection. "He has exceptional strength around the trunk area," Verstegen says. That is evident in his hitting style. Garciaparra bats from a slightly open stance with his hands and hips cocked back, toward the catcher. As the pitcher delivers the ball Garciaparra takes almost no stride with his front foot. Instead, he derives his power from a ferociously fast uncoiling of his hips and hands into the pitch.
"What's amazing about Nomar is that no matter what type of pitch you throw, where you throw it or when you throw it, he can hit it and hit it hard," Sele says. "He reminds me of Kirby Puckett."
Like a roofer pounding in nails, he hits the center of the ball on the center of his bat barrel with such astonishing frequency that the barrels of his bats—which he "breaks in" with repeated batting practice, a custom other hitters wouldn't dare employ for risk of breaking game bats—become harder than those of his teammates. Says Merloni, "I cannot tell you how many times we've sat there in the dugout and gone, 'How the hell did he do that?' He never gets fooled, almost never breaks a bat. He couldn't care less about what a pitcher throws. He figures if it's a strike or anything close to it, he'll hit it."