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Sea Change

Garciaparra was shadowed by controversy in Boston and injury in Chicago; now, with Hamm in his corner, he relishes a fresh start with Dodgers, his `home' team

February 17, 2006|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

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."

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She is 33, he is 32, and it would be wrong, he said, to conclude that he has ever been \o7un\f7happy.

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."

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