By Art Martone
We rarely mention them in the same breath, and why would we? One was home-grown Massachusetts, the other a transplanted Californian. One was an outfielder in the 1960s and '70s, the other a shortstop in the 1990s and 2000s. One sprinted toward the bright lights, the other sprinted away. Most of us see almost no connection between Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Conigliaro, other than their shared Red Sox legacy and their lost opportunity at immortality.
We should look closer.
The careers of Garciaparra and Conigliaro run on almost parallel tracks with a similarity that's eerie. Ignore the differences in their hitting styles -- Nomar was a line-drive machine in his prime, Tony C. a launcher of fly balls. Ignore the raw statistics, most of which are contextual; put Garciaparra in the dead-ball '60s or Conigliaro in the hitter-happy '90s and their stats would even out.
Instead, follow the broad strokes. You're talking about two guys who almost seem separated at birth, albeit decades apart:
Both broke in with bad teams -- the '64 Sox went 72-90; the '97 crew was the last Red Sox team to finish under .500 -- and became matinee idols, taking the fans' attention away from the carnage on the field.
Both blazed through their first four seasons: Tony C. won the home-run crown at age 20 in 1965, the youngest player ever to lead a league in homers, and Nomar won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 and 2000 with averages of .357 and .372.
Both shared the stage -- and in Conigliaro's case, jostled for attention -- with future Hall of Famers: Carl Yastrzemski (who's already there) and Pedro Martinez (who will be).
Both suffered career-altering injuries when they were hit by pitches, injuries that would prove to be the death of their (up to that point, legitimate) Hall of Fame arguments.
Both were sidelined for all (Conigliaro, 1968) or most (Garciparra, 2001) of their fifth seasons.
Both returned for two more full years with the Red Sox, and while they enjoyed success -- Tony C. hit 36 homers, fourth-best in the A.L., in 1970; Nomar batted over .300 twice and drove in 100 or more runs both times -- their post-injury talents were pitched at a lower level.
Both were traded in their eighth seasons: Conigliaro before it began, Garciaparra in the middle. Both deals were prompted by Sox worries about the deterioration of their skills -- the club knew Tony C.'s eyesight had never fully recovered from the beaning, and Nomar's defensive abilities had shattered -- but both had off-the-field elements attached, too. In Conigliaro's case, the Sox were trying to break up a clubhouse that had, in the words of author David Caetano, "congealed into tribes." As for the tightly-wound Garciaparra, he had become the skunk at the Cowboy UpIdiots garden party.
While the analogy seems to break down here -- Tony C. retired midway through a miserable 1971 with the Angels, while Nomar became Nomad as he bounced around the bigs for his final five years -- both came back to Boston to finish things off: Conigliaro in a futile attempt to return as a player in 1975, Garciaparra to say he retired as a member of the Red Sox.
And, finally, both left baseball for careers in television.
Told you it was eerie. And there's more. Both dated actresses as young men. Both had brothers who played professional baseball. The list goes on. And on.
And what makes it even eerier is how different they were as people. (Or, to put it another way: Contrast and compare Nomar's eventual partner, America's sweetheart Mia Hamm, with the woman Tony C. is most remembered for, Hollywood sexpot Mamie Van Doren.) You'd never see Conigliaro pushing the Red Sox to lay red tape around the clubhouse as a buffer between the players and the media. Nor would you ever find Garciaparra on stage belting out "Little Red Scooter."
It was if the Gods created these baseball twins and then messed up by placing each of them in an era that was made for the other.
Tony C. reveled in the spotlight; he would have thrived in these athlete-as-celebrity times. The 247365 news cycle was made for a 247365 star. Nomar, on the other hand, ached for the sort of shadows that existed back when the focus was almost solely on what happened between the lines. When television was only around for 50 or 60 games a year. When sports-talk radio was a contradiction in terms. When Webs were just parts of fielding gloves and only birds tweeted. When reporters and athletes a) liked and b) protected each other.
It all came to mind on Wednesday when a smiling Garciaparra signed a one-day contract in order to retire as a member of the Red Sox.
It was unnecessary; he'll always be remembered as a Sock, same as Conigliaro. But his reconciliation with the organization closed the circle, just as Tony C's unsuccessful attempt to become the Sox' DH in 1975 -- unfortunately for him, the team had just promoted a future Hall of Famer, Jim Rice, who took that very role -- erased some bitter memories of his 1970-71 departure.
Yet another link between two men who, on the surface, weren't linked at all.