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?

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?