This is an era of great slugging in baseball, one in which players have found aid in iron, pills and powders. It is an era in which a 5'8" backup infielder like Merloni weighs as much (214 pounds) as NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham did early in his career. Garciaparra may be the most highly evolved of these highly trained modern players, having devoted himself so completely to training that he regularly rips off such tech-speak as "cleansing the lymphatic system" and "firing my glutes."
"If I hadn't done the training, today I'd be just a good fielding shortstop hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup. Maybe leadoff," he says. In other words, he would be Cristian Guzman, the Minnesota Twins' light-hitting shortstop. Instead, he has a better career slugging percentage (.573) than 6'3", 210-pound Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez (.561). Scott Boras, Rodriguez's agent, ran a statistical study that predicts Garciaparra at age 40 will have 513 home runs, 3,581 hits and a .336 career batting average.
If he makes it to 40. Despite his fanatical training, Garciaparra has not been an especially durable player. He has missed 77 games over the past four years, mostly because of leg injuries. Verstegen, aware that Garciaparra patrols shortstop with abandon, says, "He plays with such explosiveness that he may always be on the borderline of injury. It's my job to reduce those chances, and I think about it all the time."
So intense is Garciaparra that he once earned the nickname No Nonsense Nomar. That was in T-ball in Whittier, Calif. His father, Ramon, a high school baseball coach, always preached to his son, "Don't strike out," and to reinforce the message paid him 25 cents for each hit but fined him 50 cents for each whiff. (Last year Garciaparra, with 50 strikeouts in 599 plate appearances, was the eighth toughest batter in baseball to fan.)
When Nomar was 13, Ramon put him in a batting cage to hit against a college pitcher who threw 90 mph. Nomar whiffed badly on the first pitch. "Come on, let's go!" Ramon said. His son whacked the next two pitches right back at the college guy.
"My father was always pushing me and telling me, 'I know you can do it,' " Garciaparra says. "Well, I didn't know. But I'd try, and then I could do it. After he was right so many times, if he told me to jump off a bridge and I would be perfectly fine, I'd do it."
Garciaparra made the big leagues in late August 1996. Williams, the Red Sox icon, was watching Boston play on television one day when he saw this kid with the wiry build, the quick, slashing stroke, one of those old-time, crooked-nose faces that belong atop a flannel uniform—Garciaparra has broken his nose four times and has slight difficulty breathing through it—and an inferno for a pilot light. Williams grabbed a phone and called Boston general manager Dan Duquette.
"Dan, that shortstop you brought up reminds me of a player, but I can't quite figure out who," Williams said.
Two weeks later Duquette's phone rang. Williams didn't even bother saying hello. " DiMaggio!" he shouted into the phone. "That's who he reminds me of. DiMaggio! The build, the face, the foot speed, the way he swings and the ease with which he plays the game. It's uncanny."
"Now," Duquette says, "Nomar is such a testament to what a ballplayer can be with training that he will go beyond DiMaggio, in terms of power."