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BASEBALL'S STRETCH RUN

Garciaparra Is Just Grand

His slam in the ninth inning lifts the Dodgers over Arizona, 5-1, and keeps L.A. from losing more ground to the West-leading Padres.

September 25, 2006|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Two sweet swings separated by five days of anguish and anxiety provided a salve for a reeling team and, perhaps, the finishing touch on a homecoming that left a stadium of Dodgers fans delirious and two in particular in tears.

Nomar Garciaparra topped his unforgettable 10th-inning walkoff home run against the San Diego Padres by belting a grand slam with two out in the ninth Sunday to give the Dodgers a 5-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Fan Appreciation Day and keep them from losing ground in the National League West and wild-card races.

It might have been Garciaparra's last at-bat at Dodger Stadium. He knew it and so did his parents, Ramon and Sylvia, who have attended every home game this season, their son's first wearing the uniform of the team the Whittier family followed for decades.

"I get calls from friends and relatives asking if they should buy tickets for next year," Ramon said. "I have to tell them, 'I don't know.' "

If the Dodgers make the playoffs, Garciaparra would get an encore. But his status for next season is uncertain. He signed a one-year contract before the season, grateful that his hometown team had a place for him after two injury-filled seasons with the Chicago Cubs.

He learned to play a new position, first base, and has excelled at it. He was the hottest hitter in the National League for months, cooled and now is grinding his way through a pennant race with an injured left quadriceps muscle, creating majestic moments between grimaces and groans.

The Dodgers batted in the ninth locked in a 1-1 tie. Rookie Hong-Chih Kuo was masterful for seven innings -- giving up one unearned run -- and also doubled for his first major league hit and scored in the fifth inning. Relievers Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito set down the Diamondbacks in the eighth and ninth.

Marlon Anderson, the Dodgers' latecomer who lately has led the way, singled to begin the ninth against reliever Luis Vizcaino and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and a groundout to second. Rafael Furcal and Kenny Lofton walked, and up came Garciaparra.

"When I see everybody else going out there and doing their best, I feel like I have to, too," Garciaparra said. "I have such awesome teammates."

That attitude was drilled into him by his father. Garciaparra was always the best player on his youth teams but didn't like being selected as an all-star.

"He'd ask me why other kids from our team weren't all-stars too," Ramon said. "He understood he wouldn't be getting the honor if it wasn't for their contributions."

The bond between Garciaparra and his parents was strengthened when he became a Dodger.

After years of mostly watching him on television, they haven't taken the proximity for granted. They gained permission to arrive early to watch batting practice, and Ramon doesn't miss a pitch, chomping on a toothpick and picking apart his son's hitting mechanics.

"My dad was my coach through my whole life," Garciaparra said. "He knows my swing better than anybody, and I still listen to his advice."

Garciaparra never fails to walk to the stands and give his parents, siblings and assorted relatives hugs before games. And when the 49,822 cheered long and loud after his home run, he stepped out of the dugout for a curtain call, found his family and gave them a wave.

Then he held his hands above his head, clapping a blue streak along with the masses.

"Playing here has been beyond what I thought it could be, I've enjoyed it more than I could have imagined," he said. "The support has been unbelievable from all the fans, not just my family and friends.

"There is a connection because I was one of them. I'm one of the very lucky few who watched from the stands at Dodger Stadium as a kid, then got to wear the uniform. I relate to the fans and appreciate them because I sat up there."

He wants to return, but after 11 seasons, including eight years with the Boston Red Sox both tumultuous and grand, he knows baseball is a business. General Manager Ned Colletti has been noncommittal while acknowledging Garciaparra's sizable contributions.

Sentimental parents and home cooking, though, might not enter into the negotiations.

"I don't know what to expect," Garciaparra said. "I can't assume anything. Would I love to put this uniform on again next season? Sure."

His parents also must wait and wonder. For the next week at least, they'll cheer.

"He wants to do good things in the community, but it's hard for him until he has some answers and knows if he's going to be here," Ramon said. "But we're Dodgers fans either way. That's how it's always been for us."

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steve.henson@latimes.com

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