As a perennial all-star shortstop with the Boston Red Sox in the late 1990s and early 2000s, all the way through his final years split between the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics, Nomar Garciaparra was famous not only for making huge plays on the field, but also for repeating, without fail, the same painstakingly meticulous habits between them.
Every baseball fan knew all about how Garciaparra, before taking the field, would step out of the dugout the exact same way (left foot, then right foot, one step at a time) and how he, not just before every at bat but before every pitch, would readjust both batting gloves and then alternate between tapping his left and right feet in the batter’s box (always five times with his left, four times with his right, in case you were keeping score).
But while fans couldn’t help but notice Garciaparra — now a member of the Dodgers’ TV broadcast team — repeating his superstitions to a religious level, perhaps they didn’t see that an integral part of Garciaparra’s ritual stemmed from his actual religion: his Catholic faith. Indeed, Garciaparra, who grew up in Whittier and attended St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, wore a crucifix around his neck under his uniform (a necklace he continues to wear today) and would pray before every game while stretching on the field.
As he prepares to throw out the first pitch before Dodgers’ game April 29 against the San Diego Padres, which will be the annual Catholic Schools Night at Dodgers Stadium, Garciaparra — who was a major role model of mine when I was a kid growing up in the Boston area — was kind enough to chat with me over the phone about his Catholic school education, his Catholic faith and why his legendary, elaborate glove fixing and toe tapping was always preceded by making the sign of the cross.
On his Catholic background:
“I went to Catholic school from first grade all the way through high school. I went to St. Mary’s in Whittier from first to eighth grade. My mom would take me to church, and my parents liked the fact that the school had a religious class in which I could learn about the faith … and the different stages you go through as a Catholic as you’re taking the classes. That’s how it was instilled in me. And then, when it came to high school, my parents gave me options, and I looked at many different private ones. I ended up falling in love with St. John Bosco. [Attending school there] was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
On St. John Bosco High School and the impact it had on his career and life:
“[As] with anybody’s religion … I think it definitely has an influence on how you live your life and how you go about things. Going to a Catholic school and having that surrounding from first grade all the way through my senior year in high school definitely impacted my life and influenced the things that I do, and I think all in a positive way. The most important thing to me [about my time at St. John Bosco] was the lifelong friendships I created there. In that environment, there was a mentality amongst the people I met there.
“Even to this day, I’m friends with teachers I had that are still there. I still go back to the school and visit when I can. So there’s definitely this bond that I feel with the school still. To this day, my best friends that I keep in touch with are the ones I met in high school. I think the best thing [St. John Bosco] gave me was that support system. Even in my professional career, my teachers were coming to my games. The support I got from that school and from the friends I made there is incredible.”
On the connection between his faith and his superstitions:
“For me, before I stepped into the batter’s box for every at bat, I’d make the sign of the cross. And before every game, as I was stretching down the line, I knelt down and prayed before the game. That was all part of my routine as well. It wasn’t something I’d be thinking about when I’m facing [legendary New York Yankees closer] Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth (laughs). For me, when it comes to my faith and religion, it wasn’t like I was saying, ‘Hey God, let me do well in this at-bat’ or anything like that. But prayer was important to me from a protective standpoint. I’d pray, ‘Look over me, protect me and help me be the best I can be.’
“There were moments for me [in high school], for sure, that I felt were important. Everyone on the team would get to school early on game days and attend a chapel service before school started, which I thought was neat, that we would do that together as a team. My faith has continued to be a big part of my life. I still continue to wear a cross around my neck, and I think it has had a big influence on my routines in life.”
On how his faith aided him during his playing career:
“When I went to college [at Georgia Tech], [I was] young, almost all the way across the country away from home and on [my] own for the first time in a whole new environment and culture. There were some trying times there for sure that I remember spending time and getting to know the Catholic priest on campus. I would always go to the chapel there on campus, and that was a special place for me.”
On whether he and his wife (soccer legend Mia Hamm, whom he married in 2003) will send their children (9 year-old twin daughters and a 4-year-old son) to Catholic school:
“We’ve talked about it. Right now, they go to a public school. There’s an amazing public school system where we live. For us and the way we see things, we don’t push any religion on our kids. We want them to be good people and understand right from wrong. And when the time comes that they really start asking about religion, when they ask about the cross I wear around my neck, we’ll tell them, ‘This is what I believe in. This is how I practice my faith.’
“We don’t put any pressure on them in regards to it. We want them to find the way they feel, find their way in answering the question of how they want to worship and what they choose to believe. They know I go to church and sometimes they come to church with me if they would like to. That’s how we do it with our faith and with our kids. We know we have to guide them and so we want them to understand right from wrong first, and then understand religion.”
“For me, when it comes to my Catholic faith, I believe in God and that’s who I worship. I don’t think that that’s the only way to worship God. I can’t say whether or not that’s true. I don’t know. Some of my brothers and sisters say, ‘Nomar, I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.’ It doesn’t change who you are. It just changes who you worship. But we’re still worshipping to be good. I’m open to other religions and what their beliefs are. I’ve always been that way. Even as a Catholic, I have my way I worship my God, but I’ve always been open to other religions and understanding their faith.”
On his advice to young athletes considering a Catholic school education:
“It has to be the right fit for you. For me, it’s really understanding whether or not the school is the right fit. For me, I went to a Catholic school, but I had friends at the school that weren’t Catholic. You didn’t have to be Catholic to go there. But it was just a great school and a great fit. You’re going to [be exposed to] a good message coming from a Catholic school about being a good person and treating others the way you want to be treated.”
On whether his first pitch April 29 will be overhand or his signature sidearm:
“That’s a good question! It depends on how my arm is feeling! If I can actually get it up, it’ll probably be overhand. Nothing hard or too strong. Just try to get it over there. It definitely can be nerve wracking. The first time I did it, I remember thinking, ‘Ah, now I know how people feel’ (laughs).”