Wednesday, November 6, 2013

August 6- Boston Red Sox

To get a full understanding of how important this cap and its marking are, I have to flashback 18 years to when I was a sixth grader in Mrs. Costello’s class at Discovery Elementary School in Bakersfield, California. Prior to my 12th birthday in February of 1995 my collection of sports memorabilia was actually pretty pathetic. Outside of collecting baseball cards since 1987, I really didn’t have anything as far as professional team hats or shirts to gallivant around town in. I kept things pretty simple, sporting brands like Stussy and a lot of graphic t-shirts with likes of Bart Simpson or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles affixed to the front. Back then my interest were starting to evolve as well due to the fact that the Major League Baseball season was a bit of a question mark as the labor negotiations were still taking place. Since it was winter, I did what any other kid my age would have done; watch more basketball.

Around the time I started getting into baseball (October 1986) I had begun to develop a bit of a kinship for basketball. Who could blame me? The baseball season had just ended with the New York Mets defeating the Boston Red Sox in the World Series and my tiny little brain was starting to become interested in things other than Sesame Street and Marvel super heroes. But unlike most fans whose love for the game starts at the professional level, mine began in college. More specifically, it started with Reggie Miller and the UCLA Bruins. 

Reggie hadn’t become the trash-talking, heart-breaking, three-point assassin we all know him as today. Back then he was just a scoring machine with the most dominant college basketball program in the history of the NCAA. When it came time for him to move to the next level and enter the NBA Draft in 1987, my allegiance to Reggie continued as the Indiana Pacers drafted him with the 11th overall pick. From then on my time was perfectly divided baseball and basketball started and ended at the opposite ends of one another, thus creating a perfect balance in my sports-loving life. Baseball was still #1 in my eyes, but like I mentioned above, it took a back seat for a bit after the players strike of 1994. With the rest of the season cancelled, including the postseason, my interest went back to the hardwood, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Reggie and the Pacers were having a great year, UCLA was having a great year and on March 18th a press release was sent out by Michael Jordan with only two words attached to it, “I’m back.” Not only was Jordan back, but the competitive fire throughout the National Basketball Association was back, and it just so happened that his first game donning the 345 would take place against my Pacers at Market Square Arena. Jordan scored 19, Reggie scored 28. A little over two weeks later the UCLA Bruins captured their 11th NCAA title, the first without John Wooden at the helm. Even though the MLB season was just about to get underway after a new collective bargaining agreement had been put in place, my mind was too far gone. Basketball had me right where they wanted me. It even teased me in May when Reggie went off for 8 points in 8.9 seconds during a playoff game against the New York Knicks. 

But alas, the Pacers were eventually knocked out of the playoffs and I sought comfort again in the national game. But before I did, I picked up the first of many relics in my sports memorabilia collection, a Grant Hill rookie jersey.

Now, I realize that last sentence makes absolutely no sense to the rest of the story, but I assure you it will. See, one day I was out shopping with my parents at Valley Plaza Mall in Bakersfield and I decided to go browsing on my own, starting with my favorite store in the mall called Jerry’s Dugout. I had about $50 on me at the time and I was definitely in the market for a jersey. Unfortunately for me, they didn’t have any Reggie jerseys so I went with the next best thing, the co-Rookie of the Year from that season. Due to the fact that Champion NBA jerseys back then cost $40 apiece, it took me another three months to finally get the money together to finally add Reggie to my collection… after I picked up Anfernee Hardaway and Jason Kidd first. Oops! But in all fairness to Hill, I had idolized him and Christian Laettner during their days at Duke, so I was more than happy to make him my “first round draft pick of sorts” when it came to my inevitable jersey-buying habit, but what I wasn’t expecting is how that jersey putting me on the right path for the rest of my life.

Three years would pass and my baseball love had been fully restored thanks to some kid from Whittier, California, but I’ll get to that in a moment. My jersey collection had gotten pretty respectable when I entered my sophomore year of high school, the same year in which I had started to realize that my love of writing about sports was overtaking my love of playing them. The varsity basketball coach at my high school wasn’t my biggest supporter despite thee fact that I was clearly one of the better players in the school, but my personal struggles at home between my father and me had spilled over onto the court. As much as I take responsibility for not seeking help to handle my grief, the coach was also responsible for never giving me a chance by labeling me a hot head, rather than actually figure out what the problem was. Without the school team to play on during the winter, I spent a lot of time just watching games, analyzing them and bettering my writing talent as I write for the school newspaper. Mr. Anderson, the teacher in charge on the production of the paper, had begun letting me write my own sports opinion columns which ended up being the first real incarnation of what I’m doing today. I was never hateful in my rants, but I definitely gave perspectives on athletes and their on-court/off-court habits that most 15-year-olds weren’t really expected to touch in a high school newspaper. One article in particular centered around fighting on the playing field/court and the influences the athletes in question have on the kids who watch and idolize them. For a 15-year-old to take on this subject it’s kind of humorous because “what does a kid really know about psychology, let alone what a professional athlete’s opinion on the matter would be?” Rather than staring at a wall to solve this question, I hit the road with my father to Indianapolis as he had gotten tickets for two Pacers games on back-to-back nights against the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets for my upcoming 16th birthday. While most kids waltzed down to court level to try and get autographs from the players, I asked questions. Based on the time of the pre-game shoot around the Pistons took the court first and very few people were around to get autographs. As Hill wrapped up his session I asked if he would mind giving me three minutes to answer a few questions for thee article I was writing for my school paper. As I write this it all sounds so dumb, but in reality I admire the balls the younger version of me had. Not only did he give my five minutes to talk, he got Laettner to sit down as well and Hill ended up signing that first jersey I ever purchased as it I happened to have it in my backpack. My only regret from that moment was that I didn’t have my Laettner jersey on me, a thought that didn’t click in until my dad and I got back to Bakersfield. After my sit down with those two I headed over to the Pacers’ side and was given the same courtesy my point guard and former-Georgia Tech star Travis Best. I didn’t have any credentials, but that really didn’t seem to matter. All three of them get hounded by the press before and after every game and I highly doubt that very many kids had ever bothered to take on such an adult task. It may not seem like much, but that was the moment when I knew I had a gift. I’m still not sure if it is necessarily a gift for writing, but I most certainly have a talent for getting the interview, no matter how big or how small the story is. This takes me to the summer of 2000…

I was 17-years-old, working two jobs in between my junior and senior year of high school. My main job was that I was in my send year as the bat boy for the advanced-A Bakersfield Blaze, but my other job was as an umpire and scorekeeper for the youth baseball league run by the North of the River Recreation Department. This was the third year in which I held these positions, and they were definitely some of the most fun/rewarding jobs I’ve ever held. Three days a week I worked anywhere between two and three games, alternating my duties with whomever my partner was. On an especially hot day in June I had brought along a new all-baseball shopping magazine that my father had come across. Most of jersey ordering had come via catalog shopping, and since I had moved into collecting New Era caps two years prior, my dad thought I would enjoy it. He was right. In between games and whenever I had free time I coveted that magazine like as if I had boosted my mom’s Victoria’s Secret catalog. I wanted everything, but I was also a realist about what I would continue to wear as I got older. Of all the wares available with a phone call and a credit card the first, and only thing I bought was a home Red Sox jersey. The one thing I should point out with this purchase is that it was the first MLB-related jersey and/or shirt I ever purchased. This is an important detail because I was born and raised an Oakland Athletics fan. To be honest, I did have every Athletics jersey circled, but this jersey popped out. In fact, I still own it and wear it today.

I really don’t have much of a reason as to why I didn’t buy anything else from that magazine. I had the money to do it. I guess I just forgot. The one item I did have queued up and ready to go was the Red Sox cap that’s sitting on top of my head above. It would be 13 more years before I finally found and added this cap to my collection. I guess now is the time to explain why I took you on this journey.

The NBA, more specifically, Reggie Miller had taken the front seat in my love affair with sports, but baseball was certain on the wane. The Athletics were at a low point as then-manager Tony LaRussa had jumped ship along with pitching coach Dave Duncan to the St. Louis Cardinals, my most-hated team. I needed something good to help get me back into the game. That something came in the form of an up-and-coming rookie shortstop in 1996 by the name of Nomar Garciaparra. 

 Glamour shots!!!

Nomar grew up, as I mentioned above, in Whittier, California roughly 130 miles south of Bakersfield. His name first came to my attention in the early 1990s when he was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the fifth round of the 1991 amateur draft, but he elected to go to college at Georgia Tech, the same place as future Red Sox teammate Jason Varitek and Travis Best, despite the fact that he had been offered a full-ride scholarship to UCLA as well. Nomar’s star took off immediately. In 1992 he was a member of the USA Olympic Baseball Team in Barcelona, Spain.

He even walked on as a kicker for the football team for a brief period of time in 1993, but 1994 proved to be the biggest year for the Yellow Jackets as they reached the College World Series title game, losing to the University of Oklahoma 13-5. Nomar and Varitek had done almost everything together; they played on the Olympic team together, in the Cape Cod League during the 1993 offseason together and they were both drafted in the first round one pick apart from one another (Nomar at 12th and Varitek at 14th). The only difference was that Varitek had graduated while Nomar left at the end of his junior year as the $895,000 signing bonus offered to him by the Red Sox was too hard to turn down. 

I did what I could to follow Nomar through the ranks of the minor league system, but it was next to impossible without the aid of the internet; funny how times have changed. Nomar took to the professional game like a duck to water, lighting it up on both sides of the ball in two-and-a-half seasons. With September call-ups just around the corner and Nomar hitting .343 with the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, he was brought up a few days early and made his debut on August 31st as the Red Sox were in the midst of a battle for the American league Wild Card spot. As fate would have it Nomar’s first game came against my Athletics in which he went 0-1 as a pinch hitter for then-second baseman Jeff Frye. But the next day Nomar was penciled in as the starting shortstop which turned out to be a controversial move for then-manager Kevin Kennedy as John Valentin had been serving as the team’s full-time shortstop since 1992 and especially after his top-10 finish in the AL MVP vote the previous season. Nonetheless, Kennedy gave Nomar the field and made Valentin the designated hitter. Valentin went 1-5 with a RBI triple in the three spot while Nomar went 3-5 with a solo home run, two runs and scored and two RBI. It wasn’t long before the Fenway Faithful took a shine to the kid with the funny name.

Due to the fact that my mother has been a life-long Red Sox fan I found my affinity for Nomar to be an easy transition. Everything about the way he moved on the field, adjusted his batting gloves in between pitches and the way he conducted himself in public and with the media personified everything that was good and just about the game. Anytime the Red Sox games were broadcasted, I watched. Anytime they played the Athletics I did my best to make it up north for a game or two in the series. Every so often a special player comes into the league who makes it next to impossible to not root for, even New York Yankees fans have to admit this. He is the sole reason why I made that Red Sox jersey my first purchase. He is the reason why I searched so hard for this cap.

Unless you were a fan of the Red Sox in 1999 or an avid cap collector like myself, you probably don’t remember seeing these on the field. This was one of two alternate caps worn that season, the other having all-white panels, a navy blue bill and a red “B” logo. 

Not only is it incredibly hard to find one for sale, it’s twice as hard to find any history about it. Based on what I’ve been able to uncover the few Web sites and dealers who are selling this cap have it labeled as either the “1999 alternate” or the “1999-2000 alt” as shown by the sticker still affixed to the cap.

What I’ve been able to find is that the Red Sox only used it for a handful of games, but not in 1999. This bit I found courtesy of Uni-Watch; however, according to the write-up by Paul Lukas in 2007, the Red Sox never wore it again after 1997. So why does everyone believe it was used in 1999 and 2000? Well, back in 1999 New Era introduced the mesh batting practice caps. The first edition was used in 1999 and 2000 and featured the same color combination as the 1997 alternate cap.

What I find truly astonishing and coincidental is that Nomar’s three best years came in 1997, 1999 and 2000.

In 1997, Nomar’s first full season, he played in 153 games and took the Rookie of the Year honors, made his first All-Star Game appearance, won his first Silver Slugger Award and finished eighth for the AL MVP by hitting .306 with league-highs in hits (209) and triples (11) as well as 30 home runs, 98 RBI and 22 stolen bases. In 1999 and 2000 he made the All-Star team, but more importantly he won back-to-back batting titles, going .357 and .372 respectively. He also finished in the top-10 for the AL MVP in those seasons as well. Nomar played nine amazing seasons in Boston. He hit .323 with 178 home runs and 690 RBI, but sadly never won a Gold Glove thanks to Omar Vizquel (1993-2001), Alex Rodriguez (2002-2003) and some clown named Derek Jeter (2004-2006). On July 31, 2004 Nomar was traded to the Chicago Cubs as part of a four-team deal which brought Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz to Boston. When the deal was made every joyous feeling I ever had for the Red Sox was turned to anger. Nomar was the face of the franchise, the guy whose name was shouted by Jimmy Fallon every weekend on Saturday Night Live (NO-MAH!!!). Even though he had taken the field for the Sox that season, Nomar was not on the field when it counted, hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the World Series. I was happy that Nomar got a ring the following season, but everything about the rest of his career felt out of place.

From 2005-2009 Nomar battled with injuries, but made his sixth, and final All-Star Game appearance in 2006 as well as a 13th place finished for the National League MVP in his first of three years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2009 he signed a contract for one season with my Athletics and I was fortunate enough to catch him in two games at the Coliseum, both of which happened to come in early April against the Red Sox. Nomar was granted free agency at the end of the season He signed a one-day contract in 2010 with the Red Sox, only to be able to officially retire as a member of the Red Sox.

While I identify completely with all the players who have ever donned the green and gold for the Athletics, I have, and will always have a spot in my heart for Nomar. Even though I played second base for all of my life, I played it with the same intensity and guile as the man who wore #5 for the Sox. I certainly wasn’t as fidgety at the plate, but I still swung the bat as if I was catching a glimpse of the Green Monster out of the corner of my left eye. Despite the fact that I never played ball beyond high school, one of my dreams was to one day shake hands and meet the man who restored my love in baseball. On May 8, 2012, my dream came true.

I was a little over a month into my time at the MLB Fan Cave when we got the word that a few of the members of the Baseball Tonight crew were going to be stopping by. It was already a jam packed day as David Price, Sean Rodriguez and James Shields from the Tampa Bay Rays were slated to stop by in the morning, but I’ll get to that story in another post. What I wasn’t expecting in between meeting both crews was that I was going to be taken down to the basement to be interrogated for an incident that had broken out between Cardinals’ representative Kyle Thompson and me from a few days before. It was by far one of the most humiliating experiences of my life as I was put into a corner by the executives despite the fact that our issue had already been resolved internally. For some reason “someone” had decided to rat me out for that and a bevy of other things that weren’t true. Nonetheless, when I went back upstairs to meet our guests I wasn’t exactly in the right state of mind. All I could think about was that I was going to be asked to pack up my things and go home. That moment wouldn’t come for a few more weeks. I did what I could to prepare myself. I had packed my Nomar player-T that I’ve had since I was 18-years-old and my home Athletics cap as Pedro Gomez, Mark Mulder and Nomar were the three that were stopping by. As they walked up to the front door I froze. My stomach started churning and I did whatever I could to keep from breaking down. This moment was way too important for me to let my emotions get the better of me.

The other eight Cave Dwellers and a few of the executives were the first to greet them. I hung back for a little bit, waiting to find the perfect time to step in and transition my emotion into something more positive. It took  a little bit, but Mulder and Nomar spotted me in front of the Cave Monster (the 15 TV display) and struck up a conversation based on the shirt and hat combination I was wearing. Nomar was pretty stoked that I was rocking his shirt, but Mulder was a little confused about why I was wearing an Athletics cap with it. I explained to him that I was first, and foremost an Athletics fan and that I wore because of the years that he spent with the team. I also made sure to mention that Nomar spent 2009 with the club without trying to sound like a jerk. He chuckled and then the two asked me about what it’s like being a Cave Dweller. I don’t remember the exact wording my Mulder, but somehow the topic of tattoos was brought up. It was intended to be a joke, like in the sense that he said, “Well at least you don’t have any tattoos” for my team. I turned my head to Nomar and then back and said, “I actually do have an A’s tattoo.” He responded, “Really?” I then looked back at Nomar and said, “I actually have a Red Sox tattoo as well.” “Yeah right,” joked Nomar. I then came back with, “No seriously, I honestly have every MLB team tattooed on my body.” Mulder and Nomar looked at one another, both with “yeah right” expressions on their face before Mulder said, “You have to prove this.” As I was propping my shirt up to show off the AL side one of the public relations executives, Jeff Heckelman, grabbed Gomez and said, “Pedro, you have to see this.” And then this happened…

There’s a reason why the expression ‘”a picture says a thousand words” exists, and this is one of those photos that brings me the most joy from my time in New York. All the troubles from before their arrival vanished, and I was finally myself again. One thing I did take away from this photo is that I had let myself go health-wise and cut out a lot of the junk food I had been chowing down on during my days of sitting around and watching baseball for 12-14 hours a day. I was stoked that all three were cool about the ink work, as that is something that also makes me a little bit nervous before I show it off to anyone who actually has a job in baseball.

The rest of the time they were there they spent answering a few questions for the Facebook page, shooting a few segments for that night’s show and Nomar even gave Yankees fan Eddie Mata a few pointers on how to accurately capture his approach to the plate. It was during this time that one of the members of the Fan Cave production crew, a Red Sox fan named Brad, came up to me and asked me how I was handling all of this. By “all of this” he meant the visit by Nomar. At the time I didn’t realize how loud I was talking, but one of the producers from Baseball Tonight overheard what I said, “This is unreal. Nomar is one of the top-three guys within baseball I have ever wanted to meet. It’s a crazy dream that has come true.” Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the producer from Baseball Tonight, but he pulled me aside and asked if he could interview me for the show. Naturally, I was all about it. Here’s the interview.

Not too long after we wrapped up it was time for them to go. I made sure to stop and thank each person for their time, not really expecting to run into any of them ever again, unless I somehow got a job with ESPN. As it turned out, I ran into Gomez two more times before the end of the season during my cross-country baseball road trip. As for Mulder and Nomar, I wished them both best, but for Nomar I put a little bit more emphasis on how much of an honor it was to meet him. Like my moment in the seats of Market Square Arena with Hill and Laettner, the few moments I was able to spend talking baseball with Nomar was a crowning achievement in my journey to break in as a professional sports writer. No matter what meets me on my path of success, I can always check that one off of my list.

.357/.372- When it came to marking this cap up I couldn’t think anything more fitting than the two averages that Nomar posted in 1999 and 2000 when he won his batting crowns. Had I not spent so much time on the build up to the conclusion I probably would have given love to Pedro Martinez for his back-to-back AL Cy Young Award wins in the same years, but those are the breaks. Perhaps if I’m able to track down the actual mesh batting practice cap I’ll be able to out it together. Until then, it’s on to the next post.

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