The debate died 10 years ago this week on a Thursday night in the Bronx. July 1, 2004. The New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox, 5-4, in a 13-inning thriller, and Derek Jeter made a catch for the ages and Nomar Garciaparra never left the bench and that was that.
Derek or Nomar?
Nomar or Derek?
That was that.
"There was Jeter, when the Yankees needed him most, making a play few shortstops could make," Tyler Kepner reported on one side in The New York Times. "There was Jeter, with the game in the balance in the 12th inning against the Red Sox, sprinting and stretching and crashing into the stands, his face a wreck but Tort Nixon's fair ball nestled in his glove. Jeter could have been a mother bird, swooping for an egg falling from a nest. It was all instinct, the Yankees thought, something inside Jeter that few athletes possess."
"Everybody's favorite Red Sox appears to have become a wildly unhappy ballplayer, struggling to return from an injury, resentful of the front office, and determined to walk at the end of the season," Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote on the other side. "Time for everybody to move on. Time for the Red Sox to trade Nomar Garciaparra."
Derek or Nomar?
Nomar or Derek?
From the time they arrived in their respective cities the two men had been linked in a chase for excellence. Jeter was the Rookie of the Year in 1996. Garciaparra was the Rookie of the Year in 1997. Who was better? Explain. They were the modern version of Williams vs. DiMaggio, comparable stars doing comparable good things in the same two uniforms in the same two cities. Both were constant All-Stars. Both were more than solid at the most demanding defensive position on the field. Garciaparra had the slight hitting edge, led the league in batting average in 1999 and 2000, showed more power. Jeter was the leader in World Series rings with four against Garciaparra's zero. Williams vs. DiMaggio. All over again.
Oh, a case could have been made for Alex Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers as the best shortstop of the time, but Derek vs. Nomar was a more refined argument. They were close to each other in age (Nomar 11 months older) geography (217 miles between New York and Boston) and size (Jeter was three inches taller at 6-foot-3). Their futures seemed to be laid out on a map. They were both headed to the Hall of Fame. They would be Ali and Frazier, Affirmed and Alydar, Russell and Chamberlain, neck and neck for their entire careers.
And then they weren't.
On Sept. 25, 1999, Garciaparra was hit on the right wrist by a pitch from Al Reyes of the Baltimore Orioles. Although he came back for the 2000 season, was able to hit and throw well, the soreness in the wrist never left. In spring training in 2001, the pain increased and he had surgery, which caused him to miss most of the season. When he returned for 2002, he was not the same player. He was good, still was "No-mah" to the home folk at Fenway Park, but was not the same. To a new Red Sox management group, he was a dented can.
When he refused to sign a four-year, $60-million contract extension that would have kept him in Boston after his previous contract expired at the end of 2004, he became expendable. Negotiations began the day after the 2003 season ended for a trade that would bring Rodriguez from Texas to replace him. The trade never happened, but the fallout did. Garciaparra, already upset that the four-year offer for $60 million did not match the money that Rodriguez or Jeter was making, decided that he would play out his final year in Boston and become a free agent.
When tendinitis developed in an Achilles tendon in spring training and caused him to miss the first 58 games of the 2004 season, his misery increased. Questions were raised about whether or not he was really hurt. This increased his distress. The Achilles still hurt, even when he returned to the lineup. His pride was hurt even more.
When he sat for the final game of the Yankees series on July 1, 2004, all of this was involved. There was a swirl around Garciaparra as his slumping team tried to avoid falling 8 1/2 games behind the Yankees.
"Thursday was not the day to rest," Shaughnessy would write. "Not in the series finale against the Yankees. Not after what happened the first two nights. There was an urgency in New York for that final game. The SS Red Sox was taking on water and the Sox needed all hands on deck."
The game was a spellbinder. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would say that it was the best game he ever had seen in any sport. Managerial moves were made left and right. Bullpens were emptied. Every non-pitcher on the bench was used except back-up catcher Doug Mirabelli and Garciaparra.
The Red Sox could have won the game in the 11th when they had the bases loaded and no outs. They had another chance in the 12th with runners on first and third with two outs. That was when Jeter made his electric catch.
Nixon, the Red Sox rightfielder, lifted a pop fly down the left field line. It seemed to be be a sure hit. Jeter raced at full speed toward the ball. The geometry of the situation was obvious to anyone who watched. If Jeter made the catch he would crash into the box seats along the leftfield line. There was no doubt.
He made the catch. He crashed. Disappeared.
"Greatest catch I've ever seen," Rodriguez, Jeter's teammate at third base, declared. "It was unbelievable. He's just so unselfish. He put his body in a compromising spot. It was hard to watch."
"I've never see a guy of that caliber go all-out," Yankees rightfielder Gary Sheffield said. "It proved how important these games are. It took our captain to prove it to us again."
Jeter left the game, went to the hospital, received stitches in his chin, looked as if he'd lost a fight with Mike Tyson. The Yankees won the game in the 13th. The catch and the aftermath are part of any video highlight package that is shown as Jeter proceeds through his final season of tributes 10 years later. He is in a big parade.
Garciaparra was sent to the Chicago Cubs 30 days later at the trade deadline on July 31. The Red Sox eventually won their first world championship in 86 years at the end of that 2004 season. Garciaparra played five more seasons on three more teams. He retired at the end of 2009.
There was no parade.