Nomar, Beantown, and the Legacy Obligation

Organizations have histories, and that means they have debts to pay. Time moves on, and personnel changes, but the organization that neglects the human beings who played major roles in defining their image, goals, achievements and success has breached its integrity, and violated its Legacy Obligation.

For nearly eight seasons, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was the face, heart, and soul of the Boston Red Sox. A spidery gymnast in the field who completed the Holy Trinity of Hall of Fame-bound shortstops—Jeter, A-Rod and “Nomah” —who lit up the American League in the mid-Nineties, Garciaparra was a home-grown fan idol. He did everything wonderfully and with panache; Ted Williams, the city’s reigning baseball god, pronounced him his official successor.

Then, suddenly, it all unraveled. A wrist injury robbed Nomar of his consistency and power; leg woes took away his range at shortstop. He wanted a superstar’s salary while a bottom-line oriented ownership was wary of his durability, and in 2004, Nomar was angry, frustrated, seldom able to play and suspected of malingering. In a bold move that shocked the city, the Red Sox traded Garciaparra mid-season, and even more shocking, his removal sparked the team to the long-delayed World Series victory that Boston once believed Nomar was destined to deliver.

Garciaparra’s injuries continued to hamper him, and by last season, he was only a seldom-used reserve on an Oakland A’s team going nowhere. When the A’s came to Fenway Park late in the year, however, Nomar was in the in the first game’s line-up. As he stepped to the Fenway Park plate for the first time since that nasty 2004 divorce, the sell-out Boston crowd showered him with the kind of long, loud, loving, seemingly endless ovation that only a few chosen favorites have received there: Williams, Yaz, Tony C. He was crying. Everybody was choked up. The fans got it, as they always do. Nomar was still special, and they owed him.

When it was announced last week that the Boston Red Sox had signed Garciaparra to a one day contract so he could retire with the team he once meant everything to, several Boston sportswriters sneered. “I hate to be the fly in the punch bowl here,” wrote the Globe’s chief cynic, Dan Shaughnessy, “but yesterday’s love fest involving Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox was truly nauseating. If Nomar had been hooked up to a polygraph, the machine would have exploded…This was like watching Paul McCartney holding hands with Yoko Ono.”

All of which misses the point. When an organization has parted ways with any individual who has been unusually important in its development, it has an ethical obligation to make certain there is genuine closure and reconciliation some day, some way. Unless the individual actually harmed the organization or institution so grievously that it erases any benefit he and she conferred, not to acknowledge a debt of gratitude and recognition estranges the organization from its past, and whiffs on the important values of respect, fairness, gratitude, and kindness. And rare is the former organization super-star who is so bitter about his exit that he won’t accept this important gesture.

You can identify dysfunctional organizations by their refusal to do this. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America had a bitter quarrel with one of the giants of their profession who not only had developed the association but also had advanced the profession, Melvin Belli. In his later years he had embarrassed trial lawyers by international ambulance-chasing, and it broke all ties with him. As he entered his eighties, Belli desperately sought to have his impressive legacy recognized by his peers and colleagues. They refused, even passing a rule to ensure that Belli would never be honored by enshrinement in the group’s “Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame,” even though he was undeniably one of the three or four most important trial lawyers of all time.

Belli is long dead now, and has never received his due from the association and profession he did so much to build. Meanwhile, the association itself now tries to hide its pedigree in other ways, notably by changing its name to “The Association for Justice,” a deceptive label that could stand for a group of social reformers, a vigilante gang, or The Fantastic Four. Betray your past, ignore your founders and heroes, and pretty soon you don’t know who you are, and nobody else is quite sure either.

The movie business, a famously vicious and spiteful culture, understands this principle if nothing else, demonstrated by the Oscar it awarded to  industry pariah Elia Kazan.  The Red Sox get it too, as indeed most sports franchises do. They did the right thing, saying to Nomar, “Whatever happened or happens, you are an important part of our history and our story, and we are grateful for it.”

In the end, it’s right for everybody.

5 thoughts on “Nomar, Beantown, and the Legacy Obligation

  1. Jack,
    Minor side note:
    Is it just me, or does it seem like “Yoko Ono” is quickly becoming a synonymous cliche applied to anyone seen as a “spoiler” in almost any context. This isn’t to suggest that I have any great love for Yoko, only that I dislike such easy (and often incorrect) comparisons. It’s similar to the public obsession with comparing any “bad” person to Hitler, Mao, or Pol Pot.

    Maybe there’s an “ethics of unfair comparisons” point to be made there somewhere, though I’m far too much like Stalin to write it.


    • I agree that Yoko has become, somewhat unfairly, the poster girl for this, although Shaunessey’s piece really used the Paul-Yoko relationship as typifying one that we would never believe was suddenly papered over in mutual admiration. What would be a better one? Stacey Koons and Rodney King? Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly? Barack Obama and Joe Wilson? Karl Rove and the OTHER Joe Wilson?

  2. Pingback: No-mah : The Public Philosopher

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