Red Sox captain and longstanding catcher Jason Varitek has announced that he’ll retire during a press conference scheduled for Thursday. He’ll turn down a largely-symbolic minor league contract and spring training invite, but he’ll likely stay with the franchise in some organizational capacity.
The news, while probably not a shock to most Red Sox fans, still has to hurt a little. Tek’s spent 15 years behind the plate at Fenway, and he’s been captain of the team for seven. According to the Boston Globe, he’s one of only four players in Red Sox history (joining Yastrzemski, Williams, and Rice) to have played so long for Boston without playing for another team. That’s some good company to keep, but Tek can also boast a unique accomplishment within that group: he’s won two world series championships.
Varitek, a three-time All Star, is a career .256 hitter with 193 home runs and 757 RBIs. He caught a major-league record four no-hitters, including 2008′s inspirational Jon Lester no-no. The Globe also notes that Varitek is the only player in baseball history to have played in the Little League World Series, the College World Series, the World Series, the Olympics, and the World Baseball Classic.
We all have our Jason Varitek memories. The picture of Tek mashing his mitt into Alex Rodriguez’s face during that heated at-bat in that July, 2004 game at Fenway has a prominent place in frat houses and bars all over New England. We all remember that game – the Red Sox were losing 3-0, frustrated, getting no-hit in the third inning. A-Rod got in the way of a Bronson Arroyo pitch, things were yelled, insults were thrown (legend has it that Tek told A-Rod to “settle down. We don’t throw at .260 hitters,” which, heh). A punch, a brawl, and maybe a spark? The Sox came back to win, 11-10 on the strength of a comeback ninth inning. Some people say that mitt to the face, that brawl, was the beginning of the Red Sox’ underdog run to the 2004 championship. Fans tell each other that Varitek inspired his team, made them believe, stood up to the Yankees, their dynasty, and their highest-paid marquee player.
My Jason Varitek memory is a little different. I was a softball catcher in college, and I used to work softball camps over the summer (you know the kind – they take place on college campuses, they run for about a week, the coaches are college coaches and their players). I worked with campers of all ages and with all levels of ability and experience – some of my girls were picking up a shin guard for the first time, and some of my girls were being recruited by colleges themselves. As a result, there was a lot of breadth in what I taught: some of my older campers needed to learn when to call for a drop curve as opposed to a changeup as opposed to a slider; some of my campers needed to practice blocking the plate a few feet up the third baseline, instead of right on the white; some of my younger campers needed to be shown how to cross the straps on their brand-new shin guards so that they fit better (tangent: dear shin guard manufacturers – women have skinnier calves then men).
I guess that, in the moment, during indvidual drills, I was trying to teach my campers how to Catch: how to frame a pitch, how to field a bunt, how to uncoil yourself from your crouch and throw that quick, compact, straight laser down to second base (hint: it’s all in the hips). Things that I learned from my own coaches, from books full of diagrams, and things I taught myself from innumerable hours of practice and repetition.
In a broader sense, though, I was also trying to teach my campers how to be Catchers: how to lead the eight teammates out there with you (only a catcher can see every part of the field at the same time); how to look at a hitter’s stance, read her hands, and wordlessly communicate your plan to your pitcher in the five seconds it takes a batter to step in; how to – and how not to – talk to the home plate umpire (jokes and patter, good; arguing balls and strikes, very very bad).
Teaching someone how to be a Catcher is a lot harder than teaching someone how to Catch. My campers would ask, though, how to lead a team, how to get a pitcher to trust you, how to keep control of a game that’s spinning out of hand. I’d tell them stories, give them tips, and go over pitch charts with them. But in the end, when I had no more answers, I’d always say the same thing:
“Do you watch baseball on TV? Yeah? You know the Red Sox catcher, Jason Varitek? Do what he would do. Watch his games, listen to his interviews, read about him in the paper. If it’s blocking the plate or getting your team through a tough doubleheader, do what he would do, say what he would say, and you’ll be great.”
Thanks for everything, Tek. I came to Massachusetts close to the same time you did (P.S. – who misses Heathcliff Slocumb?). I’m from New York and I grew up watching Girardi and Posada call games for the Yankees: but, I like to think we got to know New England, and the Red Sox, together. That means something to me, and Fenway will feel different now that I know you won’t be hopping down behind the plate. Enjoy your retirement, and make sure you ice your knees.