A couple of weeks ago, ESPN was broadcasting a game between the Texas Rangers and the Geographically Ambiguous Angels. The discussion in the booth, as it pretty much always did when the Angels were involved, turned to their terrifyingly talented rookie Mike Trout. They talked about his stellar defense, his impressive baserunning, and his freakishly mature approach at the plate.They also, of course, discussed his MVP chances, which have been gone over ad nauseam in the various corners of the internet. In chatting about Trout, they brought up the notable point that Trout would be the second rookie to hit 30 HR out of the leadoff spot. By strange chance, the last guy to do it was sitting in the booth: Nomar Garciaparra.
Nomar's rookie season was 15 years ago, which makes me feel surprisingly old all of a sudden. The Red Sox had gone along through most of the 90's with John Valentin holding down shortstop, and he'd done pretty well with it. Actually, let's pause here to appreciate Valentin's 1995 season: .298/.399/.533 with 27 HR and 20 SB, good for 8.1 rWAR. John Valentin was a hell of a player. So when he was bumped aside for a rookie in 1997, that rookie was going to have to be pretty damn good to justify it.
Well, it turned out Nomar was pretty damn good. As a 23-year-old rookie shortstop, he put up a .306/.342/.534 line, hitting 30 HR and somehow driving in 98 while batting leadoff. He collected 209 hits, 85(!) of them for extra bases. And he did all of this while flashing incredible range at the hardest defensive position in the game. Garciaparra won Rookie of the Year by a unanimous vote, which was partly due to his dominance and partly due to a weak crop. (Although Mike Cameron did come in fifth.) He finished eighth in MVP voting, in a year when Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 56 home runs to run away with the award. Strangely, a closer wound up fourth, and well ahead of Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. MVP voting is very weird.
Speaking of which, a brief digression as regards the Trout/Cabrera slugfest, not that it matters to the voting anymore (nor would have, had I written this before the voting took place): Trout's been the best player in the league by a wide margin, and that should warrant the MVP. And if the writers give it to Cabrera, then so it goes. It's just an award, it doesn't change what we all saw. In some perverse way, it might actually be good for baseball writing and knowledge generally if Cabrera wins. I was going to write "I had a professor once who said..." but no, upon thinking a little harder it was a West Wing episode... Anyway, there was a digression about the importance of strong dissents on the Supreme Court, as a reference point for future students of the law. If some kid five years from now is flipping through B-Ref and sees Trout's ridiculous 10.7 WAR, but knows that Cabrera won the MVP, she's going to get curious as to why, and start looking up what people said at the time. And she'll be a better, smarter baseball fan for that.
Nomar's career, of course, only got better after his remarkable rookie campaign. His average constantly flirted with .400, he regularly hit 70+ extra base hits a year, he was truly a remarkable talent. Of course, it didn't last, thanks to the famed wrist injury following an Al Reyes fastball. There were a few productive seasons after the injury, but with his wrists sapped of their original power and quickness, Nomar couldn't get away with the free-swinging approach that had made him a terror to opposing pitchers anymore. The original Laser Show gave way to more grounders and pop-ups, and eventually the big trade in 2004 ended his Sox career. While it lasted, it was amazing to see, Nomar was one of the rare players you'd pay specifically to watch.
More than their superior record, more than the fact that they were in contention till the end, that's what I envied the Angels this year. Boston doesn't have a player like that right now. Sure, I love watching Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz is still a sight to see when he's locked in and smashing balls over the RF bullpen. But neither of them is the sort of player that makes me drop everything and run into the next room to watch their at-bats. For a while in the late 90's and early 00's, Boston had two of those players (Pedro being the other). And it was an absolute joy, even if the team wasn't as successful as its more recent incarnations.
It's possible that one of the kids currently on the Sox farm will develop into that sort of must-watch talent. Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts both look to be excellent big-leaguers in the not-too-distant future. But the Angels and their fans have a truly rare thing: a compellingly watchable superstar. Enjoy the hell out of him, folks. Because whether he plays two decades and romps into the Hall of Fame, or plays five transcendent years before injuries or bad luck rear their head, it'll still feel too short once it's over.