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?
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.