Editor’s note: This week, I’m running a week-long tribute to some of my favorite players, stretching from my earliest days to the present.
When Pedro Martinez left the Red Sox following the 2004 season for Flushing Meadows and the New York Mets, I followed him to a degree, paying close attention to his exploits for my favorite disaster franchise in baseball. But the need to shift to a new player to follow day-in and day-out was a necessary decision.
It was also an easy one. Since his breakout season in 1999, where he wrestled the starting catcher’s job away from Scott Hatteberg, Jason Varitek had been a stalwart of the Red Sox. He served as Martinez’s battery mate for most of the pitcher’s starts, was lauded for his ability in handling the pitching staff and appeared to be a rock-steady presence behind the plate.
In 2003, Varitek made the jump from solid catcher to Major League elite, hitting 25 home runs and helping Boston form one of the most terrifying lineups in baseball history, one through nine.
He had many more moments from there, most notably his standing up to Alex Rodriguez in July of 2004, inadvertently becoming the symbol for every tightly coiled Red Sox fan in the face of their oppressors to the immediate south. That year, he seemed to be at the center of every major moment, right up to the one where Keith Foulke lept into his arms in Busch Stadium, the curse finally broken.
The following winter, Martinez left, but Varitek stayed, instructing agent Scott Boras to negotiate with the Red Sox exclusively. A four-year contract was signed, and at his press conference, general manager Theo Epstein presented Jason Varitek with a new jersey, one with a captain’s “C” stitched to the left chest. Long touted as the “heart and soul” of the Red Sox, he had team leadership making such a distinction official.
There was a time when he was underrated, if that could even seem possible now. Stitching that “C” to the front of his jersey was a rare victory for the non-star, an understanding that there’s more to the game than the 3-4 hitters and the World Series MVP. Getting behind Varitek, then, was a no-brainer. Staying with him the past few years became more of a challenge.
Varitek played well again in 2007, helping the Red Sox to a second World Series trophy in four seasons, and that carried into the first half of 2008, when he was voted into the All-Star game by his colleagues. But his personal life became more complicated that summer, and whether or not it was related, his performance suffered. The Red Sox lost in seven games to Tampa Bay in the 2008 ALCS, and Varitek was a free agent.
Fans seemed to be spilt on the issue of whether re-sign him that offseason. One camp saw his summer and fall of 2008 as the bottom, that he couldn’t possibly hit that poorly again, and that he was still a vital member of the team, especially the pitching staff. The other camp, who were violently expressive in story comments and message boards, questioned whether he had ever been that important and mocked anyone who wanted him back. It was a fun time.
If anything else, the turn on Varitek by some of the fans — a very common “passionate New England sports fan” trait, unfortunately — doubled my resolve in supporting the Red Sox’ captain. I believe in cheering players when they perform well and bring glory to the home team, but I also believe in sticking with them through hard times, assuming that they haven’t done anything abhorrent to warrant such treatment.
Varitek was a player in the twilight of his career, someone whose defensive prowess and occasional pop with the bat was still needed with the team. With the arrival of Victor Martinez in 2009 and, later, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Varitek carved out a niche in the backup catcher’s role, still able to offer all he could without serving as a liability in the lineup. And he still offered a thrill now and then, whether he was blocking the plate or hitting a home run.
And with his ability to survive in his old age, he became one of the more rewarding baseball players I’ve ever watched. And it may now be a comfort in the past. In picking a favorite player, however formal that process really is, there’s something to be said for sticking with that guy through good times and bad. To just dump them at the first sign of adversity is to be little more than a front runner. There’s little joy in that.
In his own way, Jason Varitek brought joy to the game. Stoic, crew-cut joy, perhaps, but joy all the same.
This is the fifth in a series chronicling my timeline of favorite players.
Monday: Dwight Evans
Tuesday: Mike Greenwell
Wednesday: Tim Naehring
Thursday: Pedro Martinez