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?

Gods in Red Stockings

Photograph by Chris Stanford/Corbis Outline

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.

It’s appropriate in a way. Here in this season of change, of new direction, we’re about to witness his last hurrah in Boston. He can’t hit anymore, and he can’t throw anyone out either. He’s going to ride the pine this year. And of course, Red Sox fans could not care less. Jason Varitek is, was, and always will be The Captain. Tek. The center of the team. But why?

 

Let’s be clear about this: Jason Varitek has been a very good player. He was named an All-Star three times, and in 2005 won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, indicating, in a rough sort of way, that he was both the league’s best offensive and defensive catcher that year. When I asked Eric Van, a former adviser to the Red Sox who frequently posts on the excellent Red Sox discussion website Sons of Sam Horn, to crunch a few numbers, he concluded that after Varitek entered his prime at the relatively late age of 31, “you can make a pretty good case that only Jorge Posada and Pudge Rodriguez were better among his peers at that age.”

But when we think of Varitek, what big plays come to mind? What moments befitting a star of his magnitude? We can identify examples of on-field heroics for most Red Sox stars. Josh Beckett, for instance, delivered a World Series seemingly by himself with a string of legendary starts in the ’07 playoffs. Manny Ramirez hit that shot in 2001 that probably traveled farther than Teddy Ballgame’s red-seater. Schilling had the bloody sock. Pedro the 17-strikeout, one-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Ortiz countless walk-off home runs. Varitek has certainly had his share of big hits. And he once broke his elbow diving for a foul ball, coming out of the game only when it was shown he couldn’t throw. He called a record four no-hitters. Significant accomplishments, but hardly the stuff of Cooperstown players. For the most part, Varitek has made his mark by doing things that are hard to quantify statistically, and doing them well. He is damn good, and we know this because he’s tough and intense and prepared and always there when we need him. He is Tedy Bruschi in a chest protector.

Still, it’s hard to ignore how far his performance has slipped these past two years – so far that the Sox were forced to make an in-season trade last year to replace him as the everyday catcher. But the loyalty he inspires among his teammates remains so strong, the embrace of him by fans so intense, that Sox management made it a point to announce months before spring training began that there would be no spirited competition in Fort Myers for the starting job, no controversies about who would be in the lineup come Opening Day: Victor Martinez will start at catcher in 2010, and Varitek will be the backup.

Somehow, we can’t stop loving the guy anyway. If rooting for Varitek this far into his decline is wrong, it seems Sox fans don’t want to be right. This even despite the horrendous past two years, despite the fact that he seemed willing to sign with another club following the 2008 season, and despite rumors of an extramarital dalliance with a sideline reporter. How is this possible?

 

Setting aside Varitek’s massively muscled legs – which several female fans assured me have at least something to do with his unique appeal – I’ve come to believe our enduring affection for this man is born of four elements. First, there’s the longevity. I’m not talking about the fact that Varitek is the antimercenary, even though he is, or getting hung up on his spontaneous acts of fan appreciation (like the Halloween night he conducted an impromptu autograph session outside his home in Newton). No, what I’m getting at here is that there’s something unique, something very special and tortured about the history of the Boston Red Sox. The fans here understand that Varitek doesn’t just know this, he’s lived it with us. When Manny signed here, he said it was because he wanted to beat the Yankees. Forget the enormous contract – Sox fans were skeptical because what the hell would a guy who’d spent seven-plus years in Cleveland know about needing to beat the Yankees? Varitek, on the other hand, a guy who’d spent his major league career here, knew all about it.

Next comes the general demeanor. Though the unquestioned team leader, Varitek is famously not the rah-rah sort. He is quiet and intense. He leads by no-excuse, no-nonsense example. “He’s kind of intimidating,” says former teammate Lou Merloni. Varitek has guarded his privacy, speaking only reluctantly to the press (he never responded, for example, to several requests – made through the team, his agent, and someone who knows him – to be interviewed for this article) and, when doing so, typically offering only the most mundane banalities. This has earned for him a less-than-stellar reputation with sportswriters, but may have added to his legend among fans. Though Bostonians have shown a willingness to embrace certain flashy figures, our preferences tend toward Varitek’s brand of dignified reserve, toward strong, silent types. We’ll take Russell and leave Wilt to L.A. Give us Menino and let New York have Giuliani. Does anyone think John Gotti could have managed to remain undetected for as long as Whitey has?

Then there’s the winning. We’ve all heard the sports cliché about how a particular athlete can “make the players around him better.” Varitek has the rare gift of not only getting the most out of his teammates, particularly his pitchers, but also doing it in a way that fans do not so much see as they sense. Some of that, no doubt, is that we’re always hearing about his preparedness, and how he is one of baseball’s best game-callers. We see him walk deliberately, again and again, to the mound to confer with his pitcher, just to make absolutely sure that everyone is on the same page. We read of him forever filling three-ring binders with data about the batting tendencies of opposing hitters. Again, it is difficult to quantify these attributes. But Sox fans seek divine meaning from what’s between the statistics. We understand that, collectively, Varitek’s preparation, leadership, baseball smarts, and toughness have played an outsize role in two world championships.

Merloni, who is now a Comcast SportsNet personality, pointed out that in the time the catcher has been with the Red Sox, the team has come from behind to win four different playoff series that required taking at least three straight games. We fans could not see for ourselves that, as Merloni described it, Varitek displayed no trace of panic through those battles. “If there’s an emotional moment, you look over and he’s calm,” Merloni said. “He’s our leader and he’s calm.” What we saw was quiet confidence, enough of it to inspire a whole team, enough even to inspire us as fans. And we loved him for it.

Finally, as we consider our affection for Varitek, there is A-Rod.

 

In answer to the question posed earlier, there actually is a signature Varitek moment. It just didn’t involve him making a play in the traditional sense. But an argument can be made that it changed the course of the franchise.

Red Sox fans entered the 2004 campaign a wounded tribe. The last season had ended with the team a mere five outs away from at last slaying the Yankees. But then Grady left Pedro in and we were forced to endure another excruciating off-season of absurd speculation about curses. The team’s new owners, resolving to end the ridiculousness once and for all, arranged a trade for the player acknowledged as the best in the game. When the Sox instead wound up losing Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees, it seemed like merely an extension of our pain and humiliation from the playoff failure of the previous fall.

Adding to the despair, the Red Sox played uninspired ball for the first two-thirds of the ’04 campaign. Somehow, this very talented team found itself nine and a half games behind the Yankees after an 8-7 loss to them at Fenway on July 23. We’d been expected to compete with them all season, but nearly 100 games in, it was the same old story: The Yankees were the hammer, and the Red Sox the nail. There may have been a third of a season left, but things were getting dark fast. We’d been so close to rewriting the script only one season earlier, but those of us who could bear to be honest with ourselves had to admit that the gap between the two teams felt wider than ever.

The next day, the Yankees were leading 3-0 in the third inning when A-Rod strode to the plate. After Bronson Arroyo plunked him, A-Rod started jawing at the pitcher. He then turned his attention to Varitek, launching a series of f-bombs at the catcher, who was attempting to stand up for Arroyo. Here, standing at home plate, in Fenway Park, was the latest example of the Yankees’ seemingly God-given right to take from the Red Sox whatever and whenever they wanted. And he was shouting, “Fuck you!” over and over again at the leader of our team. Varitek approached; it was infuriating to watch but fascinating to consider what his response would be. With the two players now just inches apart, A-Rod hollered, “Come on!” And that’s when Varitek, without any hesitation, shoved his mitt into A-Rod’s face.

The Boston Red Sox, Jason Varitek had just announced, were not going to be pushed around anymore. “That was his moment,” Merloni says.

Actually, that moment belonged to all of us, and it was for that act – for at last standing up to those bullies from New York – that he earned our eternal love and loyalty.

The Red Sox used to be the team that fell apart. Not anymore. It was Varitek as much as anyone who was behind that metamorphosis. He’s the backup now, and next year he’ll likely be gone. When he’s gone, though, we’ll expect the Red Sox to keep right on winning. Things around here have changed forever.

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