FORT MYERS, Fla. – The end is now all but official for Jason Varitek, the only remaining act of his illustrious Red Sox career being the formality of the announcement of his retirement on Thursday. With the conclusion now imminent, the beginning merits reconsideration.
A compelling case can be made that the groundbreaking for the Red Sox’ 2004 championship took place on July 31, 1997, the day of a landmark trade in franchise history. It was on that date that the Red Sox turned unwanted reliever Heathcliff Slocumb into future franchise cornerstones Varitek and Derek Lowe. Yet as momentous as the trade turned out to be, its true impact was initially unclear.
Yes, the Red Sox were pleased to move Slocumb, a pitcher whose every sighting in Fenway Park in a turbulent 1997 season inspired boos. But to say that they knew they had landed a pair of All-Stars -- one of whom (Lowe) would be a key member of the pitching staff for eight years, the other of whom (Varitek) would become arguably the most important leader in team history over 15 seasons -- would be an act of revisionist history.
“I laugh about it now,” Lowe said in Fort Myers earlier this month. “When [former Sox GM Dan Duquette] got us, he thought I was left-handed and he saw Varitek and said, ‘Wow, you’re a lot skinnier than I thought.’ The moral of the story is that those trades happen all the time. You never know how they’ll work out.”
That’s not quite right, nor is Lowe’s claim that he was a mere throw-in to Varitek’s centerpiece, but it is fair to say that both players exceeded what either the Mariners or Red Sox thought they would be, with the outcome changing Red Sox history.
The Mariners were desperate for relief help in the summer of 1997, a fact that was well known in the industry. The team kicked the tires on White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez, Toronto reliever Mike Timlin, Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico and Slocumb, the Red Sox fireman.
In virtually every one of those deals, Varitek was a rumored piece, a development that wasn’t terribly surprising given that the Mariners had Dan Wilson -- a favorite of Lou Piniella -- entrenched behind the plate. Duquette was intrigued by Varitek, whom he had seen several times while scouting college teammate Nomar Garciaparra at Georgia Tech -- but aimed higher.
Even Varitek, after all, viewed himself as something of a question mark at that time. While he eventually developed a reputation as one of the most commanding leaders of a pitching staff in the game, the perception about him was different at that stage of his minor league career.
“He wasn’t a good catcher at all when he first started,” noted Lowe, who played with Varitek in each of his three minor league seasons in the Mariners system, spending both 1995 and 1996 with him in Double-A Port City and then playing with him in Triple-A Tacoma in 1997. “He’ll be one of the first ones to tell you.”
Indeed, Varitek suggested on multiple occasions that he was initially overmatched by the challenge of handling stuff at the pro level unlike anything he’d ever seen in college. In his early career, he noted, he would “swing and miss with the glove” on “Derek Lowe sinker thingies” that moved in ways he’d never seen.
Still, by 1997, he’d made enough strides to the point where he was in Triple-A and just starting to hold his own. That ensured that he would become a central character in the drama that played out as the trade deadline neared in 1997.
The Sox had gotten off to a horrible start that year in a pitiless American League East. By early June, they were 24-37 and a staggering 19 games behind the first-place Orioles, and more than 10 games behind a Yankees team that had won the World Series the previous year. Contention was hopeless, and remained so into July.
Slocumb represented a movable part for the Sox. Though he’d had a solid 1996 season, forging a 3.02 ERA and 31 saves (in 39 chances), the 31-year-old, like his team, had gotten off to a dreadful start in 1997. By mid-June, he was 0-3 with an 8.04 ERA and three blown saves with more walks (24) than strikeouts (19).
But while Slocumb was a constant subject of contempt for Sox fans by that point, he found his form and went on a run that turned out to be pivotal for the Sox. From June 14-July 24 that year, the closer appeared in 18 games, recording 11 saves in 12 opportunities and forging a 1.56 ERA.
As a closer who had enjoyed considerable success over the previous two years, his dismal performance early in 1997 could be dismissed as an aberration by a team with needs in its bullpen. Suddenly, a player with no real value to the Sox for a 1997 season in which saves were meaningless had substantial value to the franchise as a potential trade chip.
Meanwhile, the Mariners were trying to win with a team that featured the best position player (Ken Griffey Jr.) and one of the two best pitchers (Randy Johnson) in the American League, but that had a late-innings recipe for disaster. By late-July, the team had blown 14 saves, and in the process, turned what could have been an easy march through the AL West into a scenario in which they were holding on for dear life in the division.
And so, when Sox GM Duquette held a conference call with scouts in July to discuss the farm systems to scout as a possible match in a trade, the Mariners were high on the list. Duquette assigned the investigation of the Seattle farm system to Gary Rajsich and Eddie Haas.
In early conversations between the two organizations, Duquette targeted 22-year-old Ken Cloude, a Double-A power pitcher. Seattle was more interested in shopping Lowe.
Lowe, then 24, had pitched well for in Triple-A (3-4, 3.45 ERA) but got hammered (2-4, 6.96) during a brief call-up to the Mariners. Despite his big-league struggles, Lowe’s stuff played up significantly that year, with the aforementioned “sinker thingie” performing as never before.
“I saw Derek’s start right before the trade deadline, actually,” Rajsich once recalled. “It was amazing. He gave up four hits to the first four hitters, allowed a run without recording an out. But he broke all four of those hitter’s bats. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This was something special.’
“My evaluation at that time was, ‘This guy is going to be a good, above-average setup man, an eighth inning guy.’ he had one pitch that no one could hit and he could get through an order one time with it. In order for him to get better, to be more than that, he was going to have to develop his secondary pitches.”
Duquette also identified Varitek as a prospect worth scouting given that he was blocked by Wilson. In the 25-year-old, Rajsich saw a player who was coming into his own.
“People in our industry questioned his desire to play because he’d been drafted in the first round by Minnesota and didn’t sign, and then he was a holdout with the Mariners when he was drafted the next year,” said Rajsich, alluding to the fact that Varitek didn’t sign with the Twins after being taken with the No. 21 overall pick of the 1993 draft, returned to Georgia Tech for his senior year, and then waited nearly a year to sign after Seattle took him with the No. 14 pick. “So there was an overall perception I think among scouts and other people who kind of questioned his desire to play – unrightly so, but you could see where they would come about that conclusion.
“And then there was another perception that he couldn’t throw out good runners. Well, I did see him throw out a good runner, and I saw him hit a home run from both sides of the plate. The strength and durability were there. After doing a little digging with friends of mine in the Seattle organization, I found out what a leader he was. And I just took it from there.”
Varitek posted solid but not spectacular numbers that year with Tacoma. In 87 games, he hit .254 with a .329 OBP, .443 slugging mark and .772 OPS, along with 15 homers. Still, Rajsich saw multiple above-average tools that suggested the potential for a future big league starting catcher.
“You could watch, by the way he caught and how he controlled the pace of games, how intelligent he was back there. He was something special,” said Rajsich. “I thought he could be a frontline starter, that he probably wouldn’t hit for average but that he’d have power, and that he could lead a pitching staff.”
On July 30, 1997, a perfect storm set the deal in motion. The Mariners, facing the Sox in Fenway, steered a 7-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Seattle’s bullpen, which entered the night with a league-worst 6.14 ERA and 14 blown saves, then commenced an epic collapse.
The Sox rallied for a pair of eighth-inning runs, and Slocumb entered the 7-4 contest in the ninth. On that pivotal night, the right-hander was filthy.
“He threw 95 to 97 miles per hour and he got his breaking ball over,” Duquette once recalled. “He overpowered Seattle. (Mariners manager) Lou Piniella saw that.”
Piniella also saw that his bullpen lacked such an arm. In the bottom of the ninth, Mariners closer Charlton wilted. A trio of hits and an RBI groundout made the score 7-6, bringing Nomar Garciaparra to the plate with two outs and a runner on third.
The eventual Rookie of the Year bounced a grounder, fielded cleanly by Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez. But Rodriguez—who would, almost exactly seven years later, engage in a memorable dust-up with Varitek at the same ballpark—threw the ball into the Sox dugout, allowing the tying run to score. One inning later, Garciaparra lined a walkoff single to left.
“I take full responsibility," A-Rod told reporters. “I don't blame anybody but me.”
The Mariners didn’t see it that way. The brutal loss forced Seattle, which had declared its top prospects untouchable, to change course and make available players who they never wanted to market.
“We were desperate at the time,” remembered former Mariners head of scouting and player development Roger Jongewaard a few years ago. “I didn’t think we were that desperate, personally, but that’s the way it goes.”
On July 31, the Mariners bit hard and traded top prospect Jose Cruz Jr. to Toronto for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Upon learning of the deal, Duquette dialed Mariners G.M. Woody Woodward.
“I was just praying,” remembered Duquette, “that they’d still have some interest in Slocumb.”
Woodward reassured Duquette that his team wanted another reliever. He stayed in contact with the Sox through the day.
That night, Slocumb was asked to close out a 2-1 lead. Instead, he produced calamity: hit batter, groundout, single, walk, run-scoring wild pitch, intentional walk, game-winning single. Woodward took note of Boston’s 3-2 defeat.
“I called Woody back at 10:30 and he said, ‘Don’t tell me Slocumb blew the lead,’” Duquette said. “I said, ‘Okay, I won’t tell you that.’”
Seattle still wanted Slocumb, but was initially unwilling to trade two prospects for a reliever. Duquette made a one-for-one offer of Slocumb for Cloude, but the Mariners wouldn’t move the young pitcher, who went 11-7 with a 3.87 ERA and nearly a strikeout an inning in Double-A that year. Seattle countered by offering Lowe for Slocumb. With the trade deadline nearing and Seattle unable to make a deal on its terms, a compromise was struck 30 minutes before midnight.
“I said, ‘Woody, we’ll take Varitek and Lowe for Slocumb if you want to do the deal,’” said Duquette. “He felt that he was in a position to trade two young kids for a closer. That’s how we got ‘em.”
Slocumb did little to stabilize the Seattle bullpen, going 0-4 with a 4.13 ERA. The Mariners did manage to pull away in the AL West, but were kicked out of the playoffs in the Division Series by the Orioles. The win-now move proved unsatisfactory on their end.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, had a bounty that exceeded anything for which they could have hoped. Lowe became an All-Star as a closer in 2000, then as a starter in 2002. He is still pitching in the big leagues 15 years later.
Varitek, meanwhile, became a force on the field where and the backbone of the Red Sox clubhouse off of it. Members of the organization swore for years that he had as great an impact on the club as any single player, a notion underscored by his presence in so many iconic moments in team history.
The mitt in A-Rod’s face. The leap into the arms of Alan Embree when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, a prelude to springing atop Keith Foulke shortly thereafter when the Sox won the World Series against the Cardinals shortly thereafter. Three years later, the jump upon Jonathan Papelbon when the Sox won another World Series against the Rockies. Four no-hitters (Hideo Nomo, Lowe, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz) and five one-hitters, including the unforgettable 17-strikeout performance by Pedro Martinez in Yankee Stadium in 1999.
Many of the most significant moments in franchise history, in other words, serve as a flipbook of Varitek’s indelible place in Red Sox lore. His career is over, but just as his significance to the organization outlasted his days as an everyday player, his legacy will persist well beyond his retirement.
For that, the Red Sox have one franchise-changing trade to thank, a moment when a faltering reliever yielded a staggering bounty.
“We’re always going to be tied together even though we split after ’04, just the magnitude of us both coming here at the same time, playing here and winning a World Series, and Heathcliff not helping out Seattle so much,” said Lowe. “It’s a good guy to be connected to. Jason and I have a unique, close relationship because I saw the first game he ever played all the way up to the World Series.
“I think it was definitely one-sided. It worked out great,” said Lowe. “To see how he became one of the best catchers in the game and just how hard he worked at it, his will to get better, it was fun to see that.”