Nomar memories flood past teammates
Varitek, Wakefield, Ortiz recall playing with Garciaparra
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The retirement of Nomar Garciaparra brought a flood of memories not just for No. 5 himself, but for those who were around him during his time in Boston.
Jason Varitek, the captain of the Red Sox, has a longer history with Garciaparra than anyone else connected to the team. They were teammates at Georgia Tech and Varitek -- who met Garciaparra in the fall of 1991 -- knew right away he was watching something special in motion.
"Sitting behind him, all the way back in college and playing intrasquad games, he was really a pain in the rear," Varitek said. "He accelerated that from college into putting together some of the best offensive years people have seen in a while in that uniform. He was a pretty, pretty, pretty special player. Catching him and trying to get him out in an intrasquad game wasn't fun."
When Garciaparra was at his height of dominance -- his peak was 1997-2000 --- opposing pitchers didn't have a lot of fun either.
"The best," Red Sox right-hander Tim Wakefield said of Garciaparra. "He was a great teammate, and to have him behind you defensively and in the box hitting for you was truly amazing."
By getting to Boston in 2003, David Ortiz got to witness Garciaparra's last All-Star season with the Sox.
What does Big Papi remember about Nomar from 2003?
"Rake," Ortiz said. "Straight rake. That's all I remember about Nomie. Rake. Nothing else but rake. He was good, man."
By the time Red Sox manager Terry Francona got to Boston in 2004, Garciaparra was in his final few months with the team and an Achilles injury nagged at the shortstop. But Francona considers himself fortunate to have managed Garciaparra in the Arizona Fall League in 1994.
"One of the highlights of my career," Francona said.
What sticks out about the youthful Garciaparra?
"The biggest thing that caught my eye? Any time a 20-year-old kid personally hands out Christmas cards [to the team] three weeks early, he's got his head screwed on right," Francona said. "He was smart, he asked good questions. He wasn't pulling the ball yet. Everything was to right-center. But you could see it. It was like you could see it coming."
Francona, who was a manager in the Chicago White Sox's farm system at that time, got a visit from then-Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy and coach Tim Johnson to discuss Garciaparra.
"For about three hours, we sat and talked, and the conversation got to, 'Hey, can this kid play second base?' I remember telling Kevin, 'I don't remember who you have at shortstop, but I think you might want to move him to second base.' This kid could play," Francona said.
Indeed, a couple of springs later, it was Jimy Williams -- Kennedy's successor -- who moved John Valentin to second base, paving the way for Garciaparra.
The decision was instantly proved correct, as Garciaparra won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1997, finished second in the Most Valuable Player Award race in '98 and then won back-to-back batting titles in 1999-2000.
Garciaparra's former teammates -- Varitek, Wakefield, Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis are the four who remain -- were pleased to see him sign a one-day Minor League contract with Boston on Wednesday so he could retire in his Red Sox uniform.
"I think it's how it's supposed to happen," said Wakefield. "He was a Red Sox for a long time and I think he'll always be remembered as a Red Sox. For the organization to sign him to a one-day deal and have him retire as Red Sox, that's pretty special. I'm really happy for him. I wish he was still playing. Sometimes our careers take different paths."
"I mean, selfishly I'd have liked to have gotten to see him play some games in this uniform again," Varitek said. "But you know, it's nice to see in his case, the right things being done."
"It's a good thing," said Ortiz. "I'm not happy to see him retire, but to see him around, it's great. He deserves it, no question. I think it's great for him to see it that way and it's great for the Red Sox to see it that way. It was great for everybody."
With Garciaparra moving on to ESPN as an analyst, the time could come soon that he will land an interview with one of his former teammates.
"I guarantee some intelligent questions would come your way," Varitek said. "He's a very bright man."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.