Amid a picturesque sunset on the Manhattan Beach Pier, a few blocks from their new home and the bags that needed to be packed for the trip to Vero Beach, it was easy to accept their conviction, as Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm put it, that they have never been in a better place, metaphorically and otherwise.
He was a Boston icon, toppled by blows to body and mind, who now approaches a crossroads opportunity as a first baseman with his hometown Dodgers, convinced he is ready, physically and mentally, to regain his elite status and excited to pursue it in front of family and friends.
She was/is a global superstar, history’s best female soccer player, who now, in their third year of marriage and her first full year in retirement, is happy to have a home of their own for the first time. And she avidly anticipates channeling 15 years of competitive adrenaline in support of her husband, watching and celebrating his hard work and passion for the game.
“I was blessed to be able to help elevate women’s soccer, to remain relatively healthy for most of it and to help accomplish what we did,” she said, having been part of a U.S. national team core that won two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals.
“As you get older ... there is a sense of just being able to step outside yourself a little and realize how great it is I was able to do what I did every day and how great it is that he gets to do what he does every day. When you’re younger, the perspective is more minute to minute, so for us right now it’s really just enjoying this time.”
And that, she said, is what she will hope for him when she sits amid family and friends at Dodger Stadium “much more nervous than I ever was playing, because when you care about somebody so much you just want them to be happy out there.”
She is 33, he is 32, and it would be wrong, he said, to conclude that he has ever been unhappy.
Frustrated? Yes. Disbelieving? Yes.
Tempted, on occasion, to ask, “Why me?”
“That too,” Garciaparra said in reference to the string of injuries that interrupted his assault on Cooperstown, “but I have always moved on. I have always said, ‘OK, what do I have to do next to get healthy and back on the field?’ ”
A diligent worker dedicated to his fitness, Garciaparra was hit by the injuries at the height of his Red Sox prominence, and they continued after he had been traded to the Chicago Cubs amid a dissolving relationship in midsummer 2004.
There is no minimizing that Boston prominence. He was as big as Quincy Market, as popular as Yaz and a friend of an admirer named Ted Williams, who predicted that he could be the first player to hit .400 since Williams did it in 1941.
A first-round draft choice of the Red Sox from Georgia Tech in 1994, he quickly joined Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez as an elite new wave of big league shortstops and became the first right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio in 1939-40 to win consecutive American League batting titles, hitting .357 and .372 in 1999-2000.
Although a wrist injury and subsequent surgery wiped out all but 21 games in 2001, Garciaparra came back to play 156 games in each of the next two seasons, batting .310 and .301, only to have an Achilles’ tendon injury undercut 2004 and contribute to a string of damaging developments and mysteriously leaked stories that tainted the relationship between player and club.
It all began, to a large extent, with Boston’s pursuit of Rodriguez before the 2004 season (Garciaparra would have been traded to the Chicago White Sox) and culminated with a four-team July trade that sent him to the Cubs amid management and clubhouse insinuations that the Red Sox were much better off with Orlando Cabrera at shortstop.
“It was something new every time I turned around that season,” Garciaparra said. “Ultimately, you don’t have the energy to keep defending yourself, but at this point I don’t want to rehash it. I’ve moved on and they’ve moved on.”
For the record, however, Garciaparra said he never asked to be traded, never used or faked the Achilles’ injury in an attempt to force a trade, never expressed a desire to play on the West Coast, never would have bought a multimillion-dollar home in Boston in 2003 if it wasn’t his thought that he would play out his career with the Red Sox, never turned down a $60-million offer from the club in which all aspects had been fully negotiated or which did not include a significant portion of deferred dollars.
Was there any relief when finally traded?
“Not at all,” Garciaparra said. “I cried. I was crushed. The city and the fans meant that much to me, and they still do. I played for those fans, my teammates, the history of that franchise. It was hard to take the way it went down, but the thing I’m proudest of from my time in Boston is that we raised more than $1 million for charity and there is still a playground that has my name on it.”
At his side, Hamm said: “Not one thing I heard said about Nomar that season or read about him truly described him. I always felt it better described the person who was saying it or writing it. I mean, the furthest thing from the truth is to say he is selfish or greedy or inconsiderate or doesn’t care. We’ve talked about it and I’m sure there were times in Boston when he could have answered a question a little better or more fully or reacted in a better way. But at no time did any of that come from a bad place. He always had good intentions, and in the end that’s how you have to live your life.”
As he batted .297 for the Cubs in 43 games while still hampered by the Achilles’ injury over the last two months of 2004, the Red Sox would rally to win the pennant and end their World Series curse. Amid that process, Garciaparra said, he was heartened by calls from former teammates assuring him he hadn’t been forgotten and he was part of their triumph.
Last April, however, Garciaparra heard the Boston drumbeat in another way. He tore his right groin coming out of the batter’s box at Wrigley Field and did not play again until August. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, reacting to this latest injury, wondered in print if Garciaparra’s physical development and subsequent breakdowns represented a telltale sign of steroid use.
“Let’s see,” Garciaparra said with a hint of agitation. “I hurt my wrist when I was hit by a pitch, I was hit in batting practice and injured the Achilles’, and I had an abdominal condition I wasn’t even aware of that contributed to the groin injury.
“Steroids? That’s as absurd as saying I faked the Achilles’ injury.”
For several years, Garciaparra’s off-season training regimen has been conducted, for the most part, at the Athletes Performance Institute, first in Scottsdale, Ariz., and more recently at the API facility at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
Encouraged now by the way he feels physically and by his .318 average and .531 slugging percentage over the last two months of last season, Garciaparra said he continues to believe in himself and is confident he can perform at the level he always has when healthy. He doesn’t define the 2006 season as a crossroads, but some do.
“He’s a competitive, superstar athlete, and it’s only natural that he wants to prove to everyone that he’s capable of being the player he has been in the past,” his agent Arn Tellem said. “Obviously, he’s been through a lot, but I think he’s at peace with himself and in the best state of mind I can remember.”
When Ramon Garciaparra took his oldest son to his first major league game, making the drive from their Whittier home, it was to Dodger Stadium. Now the family will have season tickets, and if there’s an inherent pressure that comes with playing at home, what’s new? Wasn’t there pressure in Boston and Chicago? Isn’t it part of the game?
“I also think that when you’re later in your career and you’ve accomplished a lot and your friends and family have seen you play and know what you can do,” Garciaparra said, “coming home is easier than it would be for a guy just starting out and dealing with the pressure of playing at home as well as adjusting to the big leagues.
“I’m at a different stage in my career and time in my life. I had other options. I could have gone to another team and played shortstop again. I’m not ready to say shortstop is a thing of the past, and I don’t want to get in a situation where I’m consistently changing positions. I’m not a utility man.
“The Dodgers simply represented the best fit, the most sense for me and the two of us at this point. There’s still going to be challenges and pressures, learning a new position that I want to play to the best of my ability, adjusting to new teammates, dealing with the pressure I put on myself of wanting to win every day. But I’ve certainly handled challenges before, and I’m confident and excited preparing for these.”
Striving to regain his elite status and a multiyear contract that would go along with it, Garciaparra will make $6 million this year with a shot at $10 million depending on plate appearances. His official signing, expected next week, has been delayed as Tellem studies broader marketing language that many clubs are now including in the standard contract.
No matter how the season plays out, Garciaparra will have a supportive competitor at his side, a woman who says she is proud to be associated with her husband’s name or the global familiarity of Hamm. They met at a charity penalty-kick contest at Harvard in 1998 and dated privately until her divorce from a first marriage became final. Garciaparra proposed on Thanksgiving Day 2002, and they were married on a private farm in Carpinteria on Nov. 15, 2003. Her fairy-tale triumph with the U.S. team at the Athens Olympics in 2004 culminated a remarkable career, although it did not end her soccer association.
She still has sponsorship ties, will be appearing at clinics and other events, and will go to Germany this summer to support the U.S. men’s national team in the World Cup.
Yet, retired now, she will be home basically for the first time, in his hometown, in their first real home together, traveling with him to Vero Beach, watching at Dodger Stadium and hoping from that perspective and others that he will be healthy, happy and enjoying it.
“We’re at a great place,” she said, meaning it in so many ways.