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DIANE PUCIN

There's No More Hope for Nomar to Hit .400

August 25, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

BOSTON — There has been no pressure, Nomar Garciaparra insists. He never thinks about hitting .400.

Yes, Nomar says, he talks to Ted Williams. They are phone friends now. Williams met Garciaparra at spring training a few years ago.

"Ted told me he liked the way I played the game," Garciaparra says, "and ever since we talk all the time. We talk about hitting and about baseball. We don't talk about .400."

A friend wouldn't do that to Garciaparra, not even a friend who was the last man to hit .400. If you're a friend of Nomar's you don't talk .400.

A month ago, Garciaparra, 27, was right there with Todd Helton, tickling that magic number of batting .400. Now it is only Helton, out in Colorado.

Here in Boston, where streets and tunnels are named after Williams, a daily reminder to Garciaparra about that number he doesn't want to talk about, he has hit a slump, the biggest of his career.

On July 20, he was hitting .403. By Wednesday night, when he sat out game the against the Angels with a sore hamstring, he was hitting. .369. On the home stand that ended Wednesday, he was four for 26, which is .154. Heck, even the American League batting title isn't the sure thing it seemed a month ago. His lead over Toronto's Carlos Delgado is down to six points.

"There is no pressure," Garciaparra says. "Absolutely not. I'm just in a slump. It happens. It's not because I was looking at .400."

Brave words and maybe true, but Garciaparra has been grumpy. He knocked Red Sox fans because, he said, they booed players not for performance but because of what was written in the newspaper. He blasted local television announcer Sean McDonough because McDonough had commented negatively on Boston's run production.

Other than that tirade a week ago, Garciaparra has avoided talking as much as possible. He does not want to talk about his hitting or his slump.

He brightens when asked about his brother, Michael, of La Habra Heights, who is a soccer, football, track and baseball star at Don Bosco Tech in Rosemead. Michael, a senior, is being recruited by UCLA for soccer and Michigan to be a kicker on the football team.

"But I can outkick Michael," Garciaparra says.

And Garciaparra is happy to exchange compliments with Darin Erstad, the Angels' star.

Erstad says of Garciaparra: "He plays hard, he plays the game the right way, but he's a different breed. I asked him at the all-star game if he watched video and Nomar said never. He said the only way he knows if it's a lefty or a righty pitching is by who's throwing batting practice. I don't think he cares. He just reacts."

Exactly, Garciaparra says.

"I trust my instincts and my reactions. I admire a guy like Darin who does study film all the time. But we all have our own way of doing things. The thing about Darin and I, we just love to play the game.

"It's not about numbers, average, how many hits you have. It's about being a player. Period. I don't like to hear all the talk about this record or that record. For me, it's always been just about the game. I have always loved the nuances, how different things happen every day."

Even a slump?

"Of course," he says. "It's all part of the game and part of learning."

Erstad says he found out from Garciaparra that, "Nomar likes to keep things simple. He doesn't want to think about too many things. That's evident in the way he plays. He's a free swinger and he's got a short and powerful stroke. He just reacts. Of all the guys in the big leagues, he's the one guy I would pay to watch. He takes failure really well. I wish I was like that more."

Teammates say Garciaparra is not being rude or feeling pressured when he refuses to talk about that .400 thing.

"He just really doesn't think the game should be about getting certain records," relief pitcher Derek Lowe says. "I think he's being honest when he says the number .400 doesn't matter."

Skeptics say that Garciaparra will have a hard time hitting .400 because he doesn't walk much, because he's a righty (no right-hander has batted higher than .381 since Joe DiMaggio in 1939) and because he plays the physically demanding shortstop position.

Mo Vaughn, the ex-Red Sox, begs to differ.

"He can hit .400 because he can hit every pitch everywhere," Vaughn says. "You can't defense him and he can run. He runs to first on routine ground balls and makes plays close where most guys are out by eight feet."

Thanks for the compliment, Garciaparra says, but hitting .400 is not a goal and never will be. He won't talk about it, he says, "because if I talk about it, it becomes a bigger deal."

At that, Garciaparra politely excuses himself. It's time for some batting practice. In the game Tuesday, the last he played before hurting his hamstring, he walked once. But he didn't get a hit. He had walked three times Monday night. But he didn't get a hit. So .400 won't happen. Not this year.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com

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