- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the Florida Marlins on an unseasonably cold spring night at Holman Stadium, and life around the bag is uneventful for new first baseman Nomar Garciaparra.
For four innings, anyway.
In the fifth, Florida's Jeremy Hermida hits a chopper to no-man's land. Garciaparra ranges right to snare the ball, but not quickly enough to prevent a hit. Miguel Cabrera follows with a double past a diving Nomar. Two batters later, Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent throws wide on a routine grounder, and Garciaparra adjusts his glove and shows some nimble footwork to record the out.
This is the type of sequence Garciaparra refers to when he calls his transition a "work in progress.'' Most people figure it's a snap for an accomplished former shortstop to move across the diamond. But most people don't have a clue.
As a young baseball rat in California, Garciaparra played every position on the field, so he gained a healthy respect for all nine. The difference is, he's no longer 12 years old, and the Dodgers don't pile into a van and head to McDonald's after the game.
"People don't realize when you're playing at the highest level, no position is easy,'' Garciaparra said. "Just to say, 'You're an athlete and you can play this position or that position,' maybe that held true when you were in high school or Little League. But it doesn't hold true here.''
It's an intriguing spring all around in Vero Beach, as the Dodgers adapt to a new general manager, Ned Colletti, and a new manager, Grady Little. They're hoping for better seasons from Derek Lowe and J.D. Drew, and they've signed several veterans, from Bill Mueller to Kenny Lofton to Rafael Furcal, to buy time for a bountiful farm system.
Then there's Nomar, always a magnet for attention. When you're a former Red Sox mainstay and perceived Hall of Fame lock -- and your wife, soccer star Mia Hamm, attracts stares as she watches you from behind the screen -- it's tough to hone your craft in anonymity.
The perception of Garciaparra has changed, of course, in conjunction with his disabled list visits and diminished production. Last year, Garciaparra signed with the Cubs on a prove-it mission and missed 100 games because of a groin problem. It was his second straight injury-riddled season, unofficially qualifying him as damaged goods.
Still, Garciaparra attracted a crowd as a free agent this offseason. Houston, Cleveland, Toronto, Atlanta, San Diego and the Yankees all expressed some interest, at a variety of positions.
By signing a one-year, $6 million deal to play first for the Dodgers, Garciaparra followed the career path of the great Cub Ernie Banks. Consider:
Garciaparra played 1,024 games at shortstop before making his first base debut at age 32. Banks played 1,125 games at short before shifting to first at 31.
Garciaparra is moving because of injuries. Banks shifted to prolong his career after a series of leg problems.
Banks hit 214 homers at first base, played until age 40 and solidified his Hall of Fame credentials. As for Garciaparra, who knows?
Colletti has lots of perspective on the transition. He grew up in Chicago following Banks' career and previously worked in the front offices of the Cubs and Giants, where he spent ample time watching Mark Grace and J.T. Snow play some of the best first base in memory.
With a thin free-agent market this offseason and prospect James Loney on the horizon, the Dodgers regarded Garciaparra as a nice, reasonably priced solution at first in 2006. Colletti knew that Garciaparra would incur less wear and tear at first base than in the outfield, and believed the transition could come quickly because Garciaparra already was accustomed to the "speed" of the game in the infield.
The bonus is Garciaparra's enthusiasm; he's attacked his new position with a fervor typically reserved for 2-0 fastballs. He worked out at Dodger Stadium in early February to get a head start, then arrived early at Vero Beach for some tutoring from new Dodgers coach Eddie Murray.
"I can't remember a player of Nomar's stature, at this point in his career, working as hard as he has over there,'' Colletti said. "He's a proud man, and he wants this thing to be successful.''
Nevertheless, there are so many details to address. After experimenting with several gloves early in camp, Garciaparra found a black and tan Mizuno model to his liking. But the bigger mitt still feels a bit cumbersome and foreign on his left hand.
Recent history shows that the move to first can humble anyone. Mike Piazza and Javy Lopez are among the All-Star catchers who have struggled with it. Garciaparra, in contrast, is earning rave reviews. He has quick hands to scoop up errant throws in the dirt, and the reflexes and agility to smother balls that would otherwise wind up rattling around the right field corner.
"He's such a great athlete that he makes it look easy,'' said Mueller, Garciaparra's former Boston teammate. "I haven't seen any issues whatsoever.''
That doesn't mean there aren't challenges in a strange new world. Garciaparra knew precisely where to be at shortstop, under every possible scenario. Now his life is a never-ending blur of cutoffs and relays, rundowns and wheel plays, low throws and high throws and pickoffs. He's like a premed student in his first semester of organic chemistry.
"Early on, you're thinking about a million different things,'' Garciaparra said. "Where do I have to be? What do I have to do? How am I positioned? As the days progress, you want to do things more instinctively. But that doesn't come overnight, or even in a month. It takes time.''
Even a task as mundane as catching the ball can be a challenge. Lowe recently told The New York Times that Garciaparra's throws from shortstop took such a circuitous route to first base that the Red Sox jokingly referred to them as "banana throws.'' These days, Garciaparra is experiencing the same phenomenon from the receiving end, as he adjusts to his teammates' different arm angles and individual quirks.
There's simply no way to plan for the tough plays. One day Garciaparra will turn his first 3-6-3 double play, or charge a bunt aggressively, spin and throw to second to nab the lead runner. One of the most challenging plays for a right-handed first baseman, Little said, comes when the base stealer is picked off and a quick throw must be made to second with the runner in the way.
Can Garciaparra handle it? Little has no doubt. Ask the Dodgers manager if his new first baseman can win a Gold Glove one day, and he doesn't even crack a smile.
"Hopefully,'' Little said. "Hopefully this year.''
The irony, as Garciaparra adapts to first base, is that defense might be the least of his problems. He's batting .250 in the Grapefruit League and hitting too many weak fly balls in the process. While spring training numbers can be deceptive, Garciaparra has only one RBI and two extra-base hits -- both doubles -- in 52 at-bats. So skepticism abounds.
"He should be fine at first base because his work habits are so good,'' said a scout. "My concern is more the bat speed. I don't see the ball jumping off his bat. He's not turning on fastballs or driving balls into the gap.''
How's this for a plot twist? Garciaparra is great defensively while putting up Lyle Overbay- or Nick Johnson-like power numbers from the right side. If he hits .280 with, say, 15-18 homers from the fifth spot in the batting order, will his season be considered a success?
That's a question for October. In spring training, it's all about optimism and feel-good vibes. Garciaparra saw his first major league game at Dodger Stadium, and the lure of coming home to California outweighed any reservations about playing first base.
"To put on that uniform was kind of special,'' he said.
Now that it's on, Garciaparra has no qualms about getting it dirty. His boyhood dream will unfold this summer in Los Angeles. He'll just watch it from a different vantage point than he envisioned.
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