Nomar Garciaparra fell off of the Hall of Fame ballot in his second year. He received 30 votes in his first shot at things, just enough to stay alive for another chance with 5.5 percent of the total, but year two saw him receive just just eight of the 440 votes cast. Nomar Garciaparra never should have even been on this ballot.
When Nomar showed up for his rookie season in 1997, he was almost instantly a star in Boston and then beyond. He won the Rookie of the Year award after batting .306/.342/.534 with 30 homers and a league-leading 11 triples. He was basically sports royalty, and in a hurry, between becoming the homegrown focus of the lineup trying to break The Curse and his marriage to soccer superstar Mia Hamm. Yes, there was a time when other baseball fans felt bad for the Red Sox and cared about their success and failures, hard as that might be to believe.
It's easy to forget now, but he was also a tremendous defensive shortstop in his early days -- between his bat and his glove, Nomar averaged seven wins above replacement per year for his first four years. He was only 27 years old when it all began to fall apart.
Garciaparra had just produced consecutive seasons with an OPS over 1000 after putting up batting averages of .357 and .372 in 1999 and 2000. They weren't empty batting averages, either, as Nomar hit a combined .365/.426/.601 with 48 homers in that stretch -- yes, offense was way up in the late-90s and early in the aughts, but this was still good for a 155 OPS+. For some modern-day context, that's the same OPS+ that Jose Bautista and Andrew McCutchen have managed over the past two years, and it ranks fifth-best in the majors in that stretch.
Then, in 2001, it all just disappeared. Garciaparra's wrist was acting up during spring training, and the belief was that the cause came from a hit by pitch back in 1999. Al Reyes had pegged Nomar in late-September, and while he played with what was described as "mild discomfort" in 2000, by 2001 it was swollen and left him incapable of swinging a bat or throwing a baseball. In early April of that season, Garciaparra would undergo wrist surgery to repair tendon damage. The belief was he'd be back at some point in June, but instead, he appeared in just 21 games, the first of them on July 29.
If 21 games doesn't sound like very many over the last two-plus months, it's because he was back on the disabled list for inflammation in his wrist less than a month later, ending his season.
Garciaparra played well after his return, especially given the tricky nature of wrists, but he wasn't playing like the Nomar we knew. He hit .289/.352/.470, and while you'd kill to get that out of a shortstop nowadays, in 2001 it was good for "just" a 114 OPS+. In 2002 and 2003, Garciaparra was healthy, but he just wasn't the same as he was at his best: Nomar batted a combined .305/.349/.523 in those seasons, for an OPS+ of 124.
He was still great -- with his defense he was still nearly a seven-win player in both '02 and '03 -- but he was also just 28 and 29 during those seasons. They should have been peak years at the plate, too, even if they weren't ones where he hit over .370.
It was all because of that wrist. Garciaparra was not a patient hitter -- he wasn't impatient, either, but he didn't sit around waiting for the perfect pitch. That's because, thanks to his bat speed and his eye, almost everything was the perfect pitch -- Nomar could put his bat, with authority, on almost anything thrown his way. When he came back, he was just the teeniest bit slower at the plate, and it showed. Now he was more of a mortal when he came to bat, more able to be exploited, less likely to always have the ball hit the exact right spot on the bat at the exact right moment.
With that being said, we're still talking about a player who amassed 41 wins above replacement from ages 23 through 29, and that's with his shortened 2001 in the mix -- that total, by the way, still ranks 43rd all-time, right in between Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Robin Yount. Nomar wasn't looking like Boston's answer to Alex Rodriguez anymore, but he was still more than capable of keeping pace with Derek Jeter and staying ahead of Miguel Tejada.
That is, until the lower body injuries began. Garciaparra's defense, which had been such a huge part of his game, took a hit when he began to suffer from ankle trouble. His Achilles tendon would put him out of action for 76 days in 2004, and he missed most of spring training because of it as well. While he still performed at the plate, batting .321/.367/.500, he only appeared in 38 games and was a drag defensively.
Then came the trade that sent Garciaparra to the Cubs and Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox in order to shore up Boston's defense, and shortly after, the groin tear that would follow Nomar out of 2004 and into 2005, where he underwent surgery to repair it and missed 93 games. Garciaparra managed to appear in just 105 games over two years with the Cubs, and at that point, he was just a league-average bat splitting time between shortstop and third base.
Then came the Dodgers' years, by which point Garciaparra's lower body injuries and aging had pushed him to even appear at first base. The bat was still there sometimes -- in 2006 he hit .303/.367/.505 in 122 games, and he managed a 107 OPS+ in an injury-shortened 2008 -- but Nomar as Nomar was simply a Boston memory at this point.
Garciaparra would retire in 2010, at the age of 35. He would return to the team who drafted and developed him on a one-day contract so he could retire where it all began. This allowed him to be inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, and that's now the only one he's going to be placed in.
He retired young. He only played in 506 games from his age-30 season onward, and he produced very little in that time: where once Garciaparra could produce seven wins in a single season, from 2004 through his final year in 2009, he managed just three wins total. The wrist was the start of things, but he had showed he could deal with that and still be a legitimate star and future Hall of Fame talent. Once his lower body gave out on him, though, it was all over. The defense was no longer there, the offensive expectations for his new positions down the defensive spectrum were at a level he could no longer match, and he just could not stay on the field.
Nomar has fallen off of the Hall of Fame ballot and will never be inducted into Cooperstown, but he also never should have been on this ballot to begin with. Garciaparra is just 42 years old, and elite players that he debuted alongside, that he used to be like, are either just getting out of the league recently or are on their way shortly. There shouldn't already be six or even five years between his retirement and today, but thanks to injuries, that's the reality.
We can still dream of what could have been, had Nomar's body not betrayed him after turning 30, but as it's been since he first was dealt from the Red Sox back in 2004, dreams are all we have left with Garciaparra. Well, that's not entirely true: we still have the many moments he did provide before things fell apart, and while it's not enough to earn him immortality, it's certainly enough for us to keep him in our own minds for as long as we can.