Willie Davis, Dodger, and Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox

I woke up this morning to two surprising pieces of baseball news.  First, Nomar Garciaparra signed a one day contract with the Red Sox so he could retire from baseball as a member of the team.  Then, news that Willie Davis, Dodger centerfielder had died.  Both were great ballplayers who were also complex personalities.

The Boston Globe story describes what happened.

Nomar Garciaparra, who for the better part of seven years was the face of the franchise before his shocking trade in 2004, has come home to the Red Sox.

At his request, the Red Sox today signed the 36-year-old to a minor-league contract at which point he announced his retirement from baseball during a press conference held at City of Palms Park. He was accompanied by his wife, Mia Hamm, and their twin daughters along with his father, Ramon.

“I was getting choked up then, I’m choked up now, and I’ve got the chills,” Garciaparra said.

“But to be able to have that dream come true, I just can’t put it into words what this organization has always meant to me,” an emotional Garciaparra said. “It’s my family, the fans — I always tell people Red Sox Nation is bigger than any nation out there. I came back home, and to be part of Red Sox Nation is truly a thrill.”

During his prime, all the young women I worked with wanted to meet him.  He was “Nomah”.  I don’t know which was more devastating:  His trade or his marriage to Mia Hamm.

Garciaparra walks off the field to a standing ovation during the 1999 MLB All-Star Game played at Fenway Park.

Tony Massarotti has a great piece on Garciaparra.

Most people who follow the Red Sox and the Boston media know much of the history that existed between Garciaparra and reporters, so let’s get this out there: I got along with him better than most, which is hardly to suggest that we’re best friends. We’re not. Garciaparra could be cold enough to walk right past you at a public appearance without acknowledging your existence, kind enough to walk across the room and shake your hand in the same setting. Most of the mistakes he made in Boston were because he did not know how to act, what to say, what to do. In many ways, he was a terrible fit for a place like Boston, where we ask a lot more questions than they do in Dodgertown, Wrigleyville or the Bay Area.

Why do you swing at the first pitch so much, Nomah? What happened on that throw, Nomah? Do you really like it here, Nomah?

Those of us who have always lived here and worked here accept that all as part of the deal. You take the bad with the good. For Garciaparra, it was all a needless reminder of everything that can go wrong, of the things Garciaparra spent far too much of his time thinking about.

As a result, most people saw him as a divisive force when he really wasn’t. Many remember the malcontent at the end of Garciaparra’s time in Boston more than the unbridled enthusiasm of his earlier years. Some see him as part of the problem more than part of the solution.

Remember: the Red Sox were a different team then and Fenway Park was a different place. Frustration had been building for more than 80 years. Lucchino and Co. were learning about Boston as much as we were learning about them, and, along with Pedro Martinez, Garciaparra was the biggest holdover and greatest symbol of a troubled, dysfunctional franchise that just couldn’t seem to get it completely right.

Ever.

Maybe Nomar was just as frustrated with all of that as you were.

Presumably, Garciaparra knows now that there are certain things he will never escape: the rejection of a four-year, $60 million deal that ultimately cost him about $25 million; the injuries to his wrist, legs and Achilles; the disputes with team doctor Arthur Pappas and, later, Lucchino; the never-ending suspicion of steroid use regardless of whether he ever failed any tests; the perpetual feud with the media; the trade that led to a world title; the fact that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, once regarded as his peers, essentially went on to bigger things without him.

In the wake of all that, some of us choose to remember Garciaparra as a fascinatingly complex ballplayer who was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time, as someone who had trouble coping with relatively ordinary distractions, as someone whose intentions were generally good. At his best, he was a great baseball player. At his worst, he came off as ungrateful and impossible.

In the middle, he really wasn’t much different from anyone else.

And then there was Willie Davis who died at 69.  To be honest, I didn’t know he was that close to my age when I was such a fan.  That Dodger team:  Koufax, Drysdale, Podres, Gilliam, Wills and Davis.  I loved that team.  That was back when I was a loyal Dodger fam – even after they left Brooklyn.  That team won with pitching and speed.

The New York Times has his obituary today.

Frank McCourt, the owner of the Dodgers, said in a statement that Davis was “one of the most talented players ever to wear a Dodgers uniform.” Davis played 14 seasons for the Dodgers, on teams that were almost immediately the stuff of legend. Among his teammates were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills. His 31-game hitting streak in 1969 is still a team record. It was the longest streak in the majors since Dom DiMaggio’s 34 games in 1949 for the Boston Red Sox.

Davis holds six other Los Angeles Dodgers records, including hits (2,091), extra-base hits (585), at-bats (7,495), runs (1,004), triples (110) and total bases (3,094).

Davis lifetime batting average was .279, and he had a total of 398 stolen bases. He made it to the major leagues in 1960 and retired after the 1979 season.

Over his career, he played more than 2,200 games in center field, was a two-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove winner for his defense. He won World Series rings in 1963 and 1965, stealing three bases in Game 5 of the 1965 Series. On one steal, he had to crawl into second base after stumbling and falling.

William Henry Davis was born on April 15, 1940, in Mineral Springs, Ark. His family moved to Los Angeles, where he became a world-class track star at Roosevelt High School. He once ran a 9.5-second 100-yard dash and set a city record in the long jump.

The Dodgers signed him after he graduated in 1958. Playing the next year for the Reno Silver Sox, a Class C minor league team, he scored from first base on a single nine times in one season.

He made his debut with the Dodgers in 1960, and combined with Wills to dazzle the National League with speed. Some called Davis the second coming of Willie Mays. He had a career-high 42 stolen bases in 1964. Dodgers fans loved how his hat flew off when he ran.

He was, in many ways, like Nomar.  Not a media favorite.

But he was a loner who sometimes chanted Buddhist mantras before and after games.

For all his speed and obvious ability, sportswriters sometimes questioned why Davis was not even better. Jim Murray, the syndicated sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, suggested that Davis had tinkered with his batting stance too much.

“Willie, you see, did imitations,” Murray wrote. “The only way you could tell it wasn’t Stan Musial was when he popped up.”

I will remember Willie in centerfield and Nomar at short.  Different teams and different eras, but two ballplayers who played hard, played well, and in the end just wanted to be known for their game.  And it doesn’t really matter what other teams they played for because Willie is always a Dodger and Nomar is now always a Red Sox.