Jason Varitek will officially retire on Thursday, ending a terrific career by almost any standard.
Three All-Star games, two World Series, 15 years and over 1,500 games despite playing most of those at a position where tomorrow is promised to absolutely no one. A three-year stretch (2003-05) where he had an OPS over .850 in each season and received MVP votes every year. And, yes, the "intangibles" stuff. Captain, tireless worker, superb teammate, all that stuff that is impossible to define but must mean something, right?
So sure, I get the verbal and written tongue baths that Varitek has received the last couple of days. This was -- deservedly so -- an immensely popular player around here. Sometimes I thought there was an image of Varitek that didn't quite match the reality, but I understand his significance in Red Sox history.
But (you knew there'd be one) there is a burgeoning sentiment in some circles to retire Varitek's No. 33. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.
We can bicker about a million things when it comes to this organization historically, but on this we can all agree: They do it right when it comes to retiring numbers. Only Hall of Famers need apply, and even that doesn't guarantee you a spot.
Let's take a quick look at the fellas who have had their numbers retired and tell me if Varitek deserves a seat at the table:
Bobby Doerr: Hall of Famer, nine-time All-Star, seven top 20 MVP finishes.
Joe Cronin: Hall of Famer, had a .300/.394/.484 line with the Red Sox over 11 years, five All-Star Games with the Sox, four top 15 MVP finishes, managed the Sox to 1946 AL pennant.
Johnny Pesky: The one non-Hall of Famer, but what a player he was. I know the Pink Hats look at Pesky as a mascot, or the lovable grandfather of Wally the Green Monster, but let’s just for a second look at Johnny Pesky, hitter. Led the league in hits three times with the Sox and I think very possibly a Hall of Famer if not for the years missed during WWII. In his seven years as a regular he was a near lock for a .300 average, 100 runs (six straight years) and at least 180 hits. Plus he walked all the time and never struck out (his career BB/K numbers are 662-218, staggering stuff, about as good as anyone in history). His first two seasons he was third and fourth in MVP voting. He had seven seasons with at least 50 walks and zero with 50 strikeouts. And yes, he should be the exception to the Hall of Fame rule for all the reasons we know. Pesky was signed by the Red Sox in 1940 and had his number retired in 2008. If Varitek sticks in the Red Sox organization until 2065 we can start the debate.
Carl Yastrzemski: A truly dominant player from 1963-70, a pretty useful player for a decade or so after. But in those eight seasons, he did much more than most Hall of Famers accomplish in a career. Take a look at how many categories he led the league in during that span:
Batting titles (1963, 1967, 1968)
Hits (1963, 1967)
Doubles (1963, 1965, 1966)
Runs (1967, 1970)
Home Runs (1967)
Walks (1963, 1968)
OBP (1963, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970)
Slugging (1965, 1967, 1970)
Total Bases (1967, 1970)
How impressive is leading the league in 24 major categories over an eight-year span? Well, Paul Molitor (one of the most underrated hitters of the last 30 years) in his entire career led the league in seven hitting categories. Al Kaline has over 3,000 hits, played in 18 All-Star Games. Anyone question his greatness? Six categories led for Kaline. Dave Winfield was a very, very good player for a long time. Two categories led. Those are three first-ballot Hall of Famers that are nine categories short of what Yaz accomplished in eight years (they played a combined 65 years).
Ted Williams: We all think Albert Pujols is going to end up somewhere in the top 15-20 hitters in baseball history if he isn't already there, don't we? In his very great career Pujols has never had a season with an OPS as high as Williams' career mark (Pujols' career high was 1.114 in his MVP 2008 season, Williams retired with a 1.116 mark). That's how great Williams was -- his average season was better than the best an all-timer could produce.
Jim Rice: Hey, I think Dwight Evans was a better player and should be in Cooperstown first, but Rice was an MVP (and had five other top-five finishes) and is on the short list of best hitters in baseball from 1977-79.
Carlton Fisk: The greatest catcher in Red Sox history, period. I've heard that title handed to Varitek since the retirement story broke -- and Varitek is leading Fisk in that fraudulent, Pink Hat catnip All-Fenway Team voting on redsox.com -- but let's look at the numbers.
Varitek (15 years): .256/.341/.435, 98 OPS+
Fisk (11 years w/Sox: .284/.356/.481, 126 OPS+
There better be some sweet intangibles to make up for that difference in production.
Greatness, or at least near-greatness, required. The Red Sox have set a standard when it comes to retiring numbers, and Varitek falls well short. That's not a knock on Varitek -- again, a superb career -- but this is a player who never led the league in a single category, never had a season with a batting average of .300 or an OBP of .400, never scored or knocked in 100 runs, never finished in the top 20 of MVP voting, made just three All-Star teams in 15 years and was a career .237 postseason hitter (with a playoff OBP of just .292). He'll last a year on the Hall of Fame ballot, maybe two, and that's about right.
There's a temptation to make everything (or everyone or moment) better now, isn't there? Or maybe it's the way it's always been. It just seems more forced now -- Paul Pierce passes Larry Bird in career points, so it's time to make a case for Pierce being in Bird's class as a player. If the Patriots beat the Giants, Bill Belichick has to be ranked above Vince Lombardi and Tom Brady is ahead of Joe Montana. Maybe it's the endless debates about nothing vs. nothing on ESPN that gives this need to always rank things, but isn't it OK to just accept Varitek for what he was, a very good catcher and integral part of two world championships? Nothing more and nothing less.
If he's your all-time favorite player, swell. If you believe that stuffing a mitt in A-Rod's face was the reason the Red Sox turned it around in 2004 (it's a symbol, not a reality -- they went 5-5 in the following 10 games and were down 3-0 in the ALCS; I doubt everyone in the locker room before Game 4 suddenly remembered a non-fight in July), that works for me. And I'm sure he was a mostly positive influence on pitching staffs over the years -- listen to guys like Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz on the subject, they sound almost brain-washed -- but when you think about the no-hitters and give Varitek credit for all the guys who pitched well and developed under his watch and ignore the Matt Clements and John Lackeys and B.K. Kims and all the busts, that's part of being a fan, I suppose.
I think there were people Out There that thought he has some miraculous powers that existed because he had an extra letter on the front of his shirt, but a lot of that went away last September. Being a captain is overrated. That really wasn't what made Varitek so valuable to the Red Sox.
Jason Varitek was a durable and productive player for a decade and half at a position where most teams could easily go through a dozen regulars over the same span. He could hit with power (even at the end -- 18 HRs in 336 at-bats over the last two seasons), get on base and probably would have won four or five Gold Gloves if he hadn't had the misfortunate of playing in the same era as Ivan Rodriguez (Varitek won his only Gold Glove in 2005, Rodriguez won from 1997-2001, 2004, 2006-07). The four no-hitters. Zero controversy, zero headaches. Wouldn't surprise me in the least if he's the best Red Sox catcher many fans (think the 35 and under crowd with no memory of Fisk) see in their lifetime.
So celebrate that stuff on Thursday. Enjoy the equally inevitable and appropriate Opening Day first pitch from Tim Wakefield to Varitek, which will in many ways close out an era. And when Varitek is elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame, understand players like Varitek -- the very good but not great -- are exactly why individual teams should have Hall of Fames.
But let's embrace exclusivity. Here's hoping Johnny Pesky is an outlier (though a deserving one) and the Red Sox stick to the Hall of Fame policy when it comes to retiring numbers. It's unique in this city and rare in professional sports. (Some random examples of retired numbers in other cities -- Nate McMillan with the SuperSonics, Mike Scott with the Astros, Wade Boggs in Tampa Bay, Brad Davis for the Mavericks, Vlade Divac in Sacramento and Mark Eaton in Utah. The Red Sox should be better than that.)
If you retire Vartiek's number don't you have to do the same for Dwight Evans? What about Dom DiMaggio, another WWII veteran who might've been a Hall of Famer (missed three prime years of a career that included seven All-Star games, scored 100 runs six times and is considered by many to be the best defensive center fielder with the last name DiMaggio)? Or Fred Lynn? Will Pedro Martinez still have to wait? And what about Boggs?
It might be hard for ownership to resist the temptation -- it's an easy PR move, I could easily see it happening -- but here's a vote for leaving Varitek's No. 33 off the right-field facade.
At least until 2065.