At Ted Williams’ Memorial Service, Peter Gammons said:

The last time I saw Ted, he looked at me and said, “When you go back to New England I want you to tell those Red Sox fans that I’m not the greatest player to wear a Red Sox uniform. Nomar Garciaparra is.”

High praise indeed from the greatest hitter who ever lived. (And a man not remembered for his humility.)

Williams was before my time, but as a life long Red Sox fan – with the deep emotional scars to prove it – I’ve learned that you never contradict The Kid. Then again, I had no intention of disagreeing with the late-great because I agree with him; Nomar Garciaparra is the greatest player to ever wear the colors.

In the pantheon of Red Sox greats – the players whose names are emblematic of the team – I’d list Williams, Yaz, and Garciaparra. Each of them is/was so completely identified with the ball club that it would be impossible to hear their names without thinking of the Red Sox.

If you want proof that Nomar belongs on that list, go to a Little League game anywhere in New England and watch the kids when they come up to bat. They adjust their hats, tighten their gloves, tap their toes and twirl their bats. Sound familiar? The kids idolize him and even his most sanctimonious Boston Herald critics would have to admit that if their sons grew up to be half the man that Nomar is, they would be very pleased indeed.

To understand why Red Sox fans love Nomar Garciaparra (Or just plain “Nom-ah” if you live in New England) you have to understand the psychology of Red Sox fans in general. (There’s a doctoral thesis waiting to happen.) In many ways we’re like the Mormons of baseball. We’re a peculiar lot and we definitely have that “look” about us. We’re passionate, even evangelical, about the game and our team. We’re loyal to a fault and hope is never entirely vanquished. There’s a sense among us that if we persevere in the face of all too frequent disaster, we’ll eventually reap a great reward. No matter the hardship or the heartbreak we, in Mormon-speak, “endure to the end.”

The analogy does have its limits, of course. Unlike the Saints of the Lake, Red Sox fans drink heavily, bitch incessantly, and are never entirely satisfied with anything. And, to our great shame, we (especially if you make your living covering the Sox for the Boston Herald) make a sport of ruthlessly eating our young.

In New York they want larger than life celebrities. Real honest-to-god, superstars whose names are household words across America. They want flashy players who revel in their fame. In New England we want players whose talents and athletic abilities are second only to an incarnate god’s – but they’d better keep their mouths shut and never (EVER) get too full of themselves. Because if they do, we’ll destroy them.

Enter Nomar Garciaparra… Let’s praise him with words that would make him wince. I’ll avoid the numbers game for the time being and focus on character.

There are, to be sure, those breathtaking moments when he goes deep into the hole, backhands a hard ground ball, spins around in mid air and fires a dead accurate shot to First Base that will truly make your heart stop. But what makes Nomar unique – what sets him apart – is what he learned long before he ever played the game.

There’s something about the way Nomar carries himself that makes him immune to the usual occupational hazards of a Boston athlete. (Unless a fifth rate Boston Herald columnist with an incomplete grasp of the English language sets his sights on you.) The words have become trite but the language is limited: grace, dignity, humility, class. He has all of those things in abundance.

Nomar doesn’t argue balls and strikes. (Awww, the umpire may get an incredulous look but you’ll never see Nomar throwing his helmet down or getting in an umpire’s face.) He doesn’t charge the mound. He plays a good game; he doesn’t just talk one. He shrugs off the bad calls and keeps his focus. Nomar’s a gamer and a man who, as the French say, is comfortable in his skin.

In Boston, you could be batting .380 but have one bad game and the fans will let you know it. Nomar could go 0 for 4 and we won’t say a word. Such is our respect for the man. (Ultimately, we know that he’s his own worst critic.)

Nomar does something for fans that is rarely mentioned. He inspires confidence. Maybe you’d have to be a Red Sox fan to fully appreciate this but we tend, by nature and experience, towards pessimism. We’ve been in the situation a million times. Important game, down by a run, a couple of outs on the board and one man on. If Christ himself came to bat in that situation you could bet your last dollar that fans all across New England would be saying, “Damn, he’s gonna blow it!” We just instinctively believe that things will never go our way. (Ironically, when we’re playing the Yankees we have every confidence in them to pull it out in a similar situation.)

But that’s not the case when Nomar is on deck. It’s unspoken but it’s there. We have faith in him. A confidence that we place in no other player regardless of his numbers. For reasons that defy explanation Nomar Garciaparra is the one player who even the most jaded of Sox fans will never give up on. He transcends traditional Red Sox pessimism and defeatism.

That alone should make Messrs. Henry and Epstein think twice about trading him. Actually, gentlemen, think more than twice. Think a thousand times. Because if you trade an icon; a player who inspires confidence in his team mates and among the fans you’ll be assuring yourselves a place next to Harry Frazee and Walter O’Malley in the basement of baseball hell.

One day number 5 will hang on the outfield wall and Nomar will be in Cooperstown. Just like our fathers begin conversations with, “I remember the day Ted Williams…”, we’ll be telling our kids, “I was there when Nomar broke .400..”

Happy Birthday, Nomar.

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