In 2003, I was working at a job I hated. I had grown up a Red Sox fan, but left sports aside once I entered high school -- I was more interested in other things at the time. In 2003, newly out of college, alone and adrift in the "real world" for the first time, I found myself desperate for belonging, identity, to be part of something again. Everything once the milestones of college were past seemed so open-ended, directionless, for a time.
That's when I returned to the Red Sox -- the "Cowboy Up" spirit of that year changed that sense of emptiness, replaced it with intrigue and joy and heartbreak and that sense that I belonged somewhere -- Boston, Fenway, among fellow local natives, united for a collective cause.
And Nomar Garciaparra was at the heart of it.
At this job I hated, I kept a picture right within my sight line when I glanced up from the computer screen, of Manny sliding into home plate in that year's ALDS against Oakland, while Kevin Millar stepped in and behind him on deck, Nomar cheered, both fists in the air, completely given over to the moment. The background was filled with the raised fists and cheering faces of Red Sox fans, virtually identical to Nomar's.
He was the symbol of the team at a time when everything felt so much more urgent, so much more desperate, and those moments of joy were taken not with triumph but with hunger, yearning for the next step. He was the face of the Sox in Boston when there was so much more pressure riding on them, so many more Calvinistic clouds of self-doubt hanging over our shortstop as he adjusted his gloves and tapped his toes at the plate. The Sox uniform he wore was heavier than any that has come since.
When the bombshell trade happened in 2004 -- in retrospect the turning point of the season, but at the time, like losing a friend -- I wrote:
I got in the car, turned the key in the ignition, and the radio lit up. The AM 850 frequency came in over the speakers. And in that single instant, the world changed for good.
"They are reporting that it has happened, the trade has happened," John Wollack said in a grave tone. I immediately assumed that it was Randy Johnson to the Yankees, a momentary blow, and I was coming to acceptance when he clarified: "Nomar to the Chicago Cubs."[...] Nomar to the Chicago Cubs. Why not send Old Ironsides out there, too, to float in Lake Michigan? Why not uproot the Old North Church and re-plant it in the Windy City?
Nomar wasn't happy. We knew with almost 90% assurance that he was going to walk at the end of the season. We know that it's only smart management, and the earnest efforts of the organization to do what's best for our team, and our city, that have led them to make this decision. We know that, as an 'EEI caller put it, "We're going to root for the uniform, and not the player, no matter what."
But, still. Tonight, Nomar Garciaparra, one of the few human beings ever to become a Boston landmark, will put on another uniform. And we, the fans of Boston who have loved him so dearly, won't ever get the chance to say goodbye.
Well, today, it actually looks like we will.