Jason Varitek's leadership, legacy will live on in Red Sox lore
On Thursday, Jason Varitek will announce his retirement from the only team he ever played for, the Boston Red Sox, following a 15-year career. Varitek served as the Red Sox' captain for the final seven seasons of his career, and had been invited to spring training by the team. However, with the presence of catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnway on Boston's roster -- and with no guarantee that he would make the team -- Varitek elected to walk away.
Varitek retires as one of the most beloved Red Sox in recent years. In an era of frequent player movement, he was one of just 14 players since the strike to play an entire career of at least 5,500 plate appearances with a single team. But Varitek wasn't a lifelong member of the Red Sox. He was selected in the first round of the 1993 draft by the Minnesota Twins, but was unable to reach a contract agreement and returned to Georgia Tech. In 1994, he was taken seven spots higher by Seattle, but once again dealt with negotiation difficulties -- and eventually spent time in the Northern League -- before agreeing to a deal with the Mariners. Three years later, Varitek was traded with Derek Lowe to the Red Sox for pitcher Heathcliff Slocumb in one of the great boondoggles in baseball history. Slocumb threw 96 innings of 4.97 ERA ball during his eight-month stint in Seattle, while Varitek and Lowe contributed to numerous winning teams -- including the 2004 World Series champions -- over the next 15 years in Boston.
Varitek was a good but not statistically great player. He finishes his career with a line of .256/.341/.435 -- basically a league-average hitter after accounting for his home ballpark and era. His career WAR, 23.1, won't launch him into Hall of Fame discussions. (For perspective, contemporary Jorge Posada, who also retired this offseason, had a 44.7 career WAR.) At his peak, Varitek was a good secondary player, logging impressive seasons in 2004 and 2005 as part of a six-year peak. He made three All-Star teams (one well after his peak, in 2008, a down year for catchers) and received scant MVP support -- votes in three years, but never finishing higher than 21st in any season. Not a great throwing catcher, Varitek allowed 77 percent of base stealers to succeed and never gunned down more than 30 percent of runners in a given season. He was also famously unable to handle the knuckleball, rarely catching longtime teammate Tim Wakefield, with one notable exception: He hung with Wakefield for three critical extra innings in Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS during the Red Sox' historic comeback against the Yankees.
Those three innings, however, exemplify Varitek's Boston legacy and why his retirement is so significant. He joined the team as it moved into an era of great success, and he played no small part in its triumphs. He was, to some extent, Boston's Thurman Munson -- a catcher who got credit for the intangible factors: preparing and handling pitchers, leading the team and displaying a certain amount of emotion on and off the field. In fact, Varitek may have cemented his place in Red Sox lore when he challenged Alex Rodriguez during a July game at Fenway Park in 2004. Varitek hit Rodriguez in the face with his glove after Rodriguez objected to being hit with a Bronson Arroyo pitch, and following the subsequent brawl (in which both Varitek and Rodriguez were ejected), the Red Sox rallied to a dramatic 11-10 victory.
Not every player has to inspire a Hall of Fame discussion garner career appreciation. Varitek spent 15 seasons with a single franchise and played a critical position on two world championship teams. He caught four no-hitters, was named team captain and played for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic. He had great moments, to be sure, but beyond that, connected with one of the most passionate fan bases in all of baseball. For that, he'll be remembered for a very long time.