Our Guy: Jason Varitek

He keeps to himself. He intimidates his teammates. And yet, he’s the most adored guy in town. As the last of the original Dirt Dogs stares down the twilight of his career, we ask: Why are we still so obsessed with Jason Varitek?

THROUGHOUT THE REMARKABLE, upside-down baseball season of 2004, this city – the staid, sober Hub of the Universe – was represented on the baseball diamond by a traveling freak show.

It was a team fond of slamming shots of Jack Daniel’s before crucial playoff games; a team that featured Jim Morrison in center field and Bob Marley in left. At the front of the rotation were the dueling aces: Curt Schilling, the big-mouthed, big-bellied, big-game assassin, and Pedro Martinez, the most dominant pitcher in baseball history, who, perhaps in recognition of his creeping decline, had taken to keeping a personal good-luck charm: a 28-inch dwarf named Nelson. There was Big Papi, who wouldn’t declare until the next championship run that to wear a Red Sox jersey made you a "bad motherfucker," but who, with his never-ending supply of game-winning bombs, had set about demonstrating it.

The 2004 Boston Red Sox, in other words, were about the most fun most of us have ever had. So it’s still odd to consider, five and a half years later, that standing at the center of that roaring pack was a disciplined, soft-spoken, no-nonsense, buzz-cutted catcher who seemed to have been yanked off a recruitment poster for the U.S. Marines.

Whether or not he looked the part, Jason Varitek was the heart of that team. The Sox wouldn’t bestow the "C" until that off-season, but by then it was mere formality. After the World Series sweep, it was Varitek upon whom Schilling placed his hands and declared, "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the leader of the 2004 Boston Red Sox."

Schilling’s statement could have been made in just about any year Varitek has been with the Sox. They’ve pretty much all been his teams. And that leadership, so commingled with the team’s recent run of amazing success, has earned for him a degree of love and loyalty among Red Sox fans that has rarely been equaled. For 12 years now, Jason Varitek has been the rock, the leader, the line in the dirt that doesn’t get crossed. It’s difficult to communicate how much that toughness has meant to a fan base so traumatized that for nearly nine decades, it mistook its own pathetic neuroses for a kind of poetry.

All of which lends a special kind of irony to this new season. The roster this year overflows with "character" guys – quiet professionals who are always calm, always centered and stable. This team is built around pitching, defense, and a balanced offense. This team is built in the image of Jason Varitek. Yet, as the catcher enters his 13th season, there has never been a time when he’s been less vital to the club’s fortunes.