Eventually, this had to happen.
Jason Varitek is no longer a voice in the Red Sox clubhouse. He retired Thursday and it’s best thing that could’ve happened for all parties involved.
He gets time to spend with his children and his new wife, Catherine. He won’t have to put ice packs on his back, shoulder and knees anymore.
Scott Boras comes out looking like he had Jason Varitek’s best interests at heart all along. And he did. As our Alex Speier pointed out this week, it was Boras who convinced Varitek to re-enter the draft pool after he was a first-round pick of the Twins in 1993. He is a rarity. A catcher drafted twice in the first round, as the Mariners scooped him up in 1994, only to have Varitek hold out for almost a full year after being drafted as a senior, just because Boras said it was in his best interest.
And the Red Sox finally get the chance to see if Jarrod Saltalamacchia can lead a pitching staff on his own.
The last part is what Red Sox fans should be most interested and concerned with.
We don’t get a look inside the meetings Bobby Valentine has had with Salty and the other catchers and the pitching staff, but from all indications, the pitching staff seems very comfortable with Saltalamacchia’s presence.
“He meant a lot, obviously,” Saltalamacchia said of Varitek. “He helped me out a lot last year. The year before, he was trying to recover from injury so we didn’t get to spend a lot of on-field time together, but still picking his brain a lot. But last year, [he] was a huge, huge help for getting my career back on track. And just the person he is, you can’t find a better person.
“Just the way he went about his business, watching him. Wasn’t even in the clubhouse, but I could just see from across the field how people looked at him, how people respected him. You definitely look up to a guy like that.”
There was a telling moment last Sunday when Josh Beckett -- known to be temperamental and demanding -- finished his live batting practice session to Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez.
Beckett was working on his secondary stuff, like his curve and changeup, and mixing it in with a mid-90s fastball. After the 10-minute session was finished, Beckett chatted with Saltalamacchia and told him, “Good job, Salty,” and gave him a pat on the butt.
Why is this important?
Because Beckett would always rave about how prepared Varitek was and how he would put down a signal and almost never shake him off. Beckett is trying now to get on that same level with Salty.
But there’s something else Saltalamacchia needs to do. Command and lead off the field.
“I was definitely a little hesitant,” Saltalamacchia admitted. “I didn’t know how to act towards the pitchers. I always kind of looked toward him, ‘Get this meeting started, get this started.’ But he did an unbelievable job of letting those guys know where I stood and where he stood. It was kind of overwhelming. I didn’t expect that, didn’t expect him to be so helpful and [tell me], ‘Hey man, this is your team.’ I said, ‘You’re the captain, it’s your team.’ ”
It became apparent late last season that Varitek had lost some of his pull inside the clubhouse. He was a captain who was privately upset with the way the clubhouse became splintered but didn’t have voice to change enough of what was going downhill.
The longer the wait went this spring, the more apparent it became that Varitek wanted no part of the cleanup in the clubhouse. Who can blame him?
He did what he could last season to keep things together, at least on the pitching staff until the wheels fell off in September.
He retires as a catcher who at least deserves mention of belonging in Cooperstown.
Why? Because no catcher ever held a pitching staff together like Varitek.
Not Roy Campanella. Not Bill Dickey. Not Yogi Berra. All of those catchers were phenomenal offensive players and that alone earned them a place in the Hall of Fame.
Varitek batted .256 with 193 homers over 14-plus big league seasons. He won just one Gold Glove, in 2005. He was an All-Star three times.
None of those catchers had the responsibility of processing pages and pages of scouting reports and statistical data and boiling it all down in pitchers and catchers meetings before every series. For that reason alone, and leading in catcher's ERA four times in his career, he deserves at least to have his No. 33 retired. Sorry, Kirk Minihane.
“Tek was the captain seven out of my eight years with the Red Sox,” former Sox manager Terry Francona said. “The 'C' on his chest was just a formality, he was the leader of the team with or without it. I could say a lot of things about Tek, but the most important thing was he kept everyone going in the right direction.”
The only other catchers who compare in terms of the absolute respect they commanded are Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench.
You didn’t cross those catchers, and if you pitched for the Red Sox from 1999 through last season, you didn’t cross Jason Varitek.
Bench was known as the “General” on Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine because he drove the fear of God into his pitchers.
There’s an infamous story of Will McEnaney pitching to Carl Yastrzemski with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, with the Reds leading the Red Sox 4-3.
McEnaney was trying to be slick and fancy and threw a pair of sliders to Yaz, crossing Bench up and falling behind 2-0. Bench called for a fastball and no more messing around. Yaz took a strike and then hit a lazy fly to center for the final out.
Like all the great catchers, they’ll give the pitcher just enough rope to show what’s working and what’s not. When the best course of action has been determined, it’s up to the pitcher to follow the leader.
“That’s the kind of person he is. He always wanted to make me feel comfortable. He always wanted to make me feel comfortable,” Saltalamacchia said in a wishful tone this week. “He always wanted to help me out, stuck up for me, and I can’t thank him enough for jump-starting my career.
“He kind of gave me the confidence back I need to be a player. He’s just such a special guy, special player. We’re going to continue to have that relationship open and I can go to him at any time.”
And maybe that’s the best part of all of this. Varitek will take some time away from the team but stay on as an adviser to the organization. He’ll still be around to lend a hand. But he knows these Red Sox have to learn to win without him for the first time since 1996.
How well the Red Sox and Saltalamacchia do this season will tell us how well Varitek taught them.
To the Trags Bag:
From @Rosstastik my favorite #tekmoment is when he gave Arod a face full of his catchers glove
Varitek has long insisted since that fateful moment on July 24, 2004, that he wasn’t proud of losing control that day and shoving Alex Rodriguez in the face. But facts are facts. That is the singular defining moment of Varitek’s career with the Red Sox. It galvanized a team for a run to take down its most fierce and hated rival. Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada both acknowledged Thursday that Varitek was big part of making the rivalry with the Red Sox what it was. Nothing though, from A-Rod.
From @drjefflo Always loved when #Tek would sprint around the bases on one of his Home Runs - No Trot for Tek. #TragsBag #RedSox
Funny you should mention that. Varitek never liked the spotlight, nor did he really ever appreciate it. That’s why he would sprint around the bases. He wanted to go about his business and not become a self-absorbed star. He succeeded in that. And maybe that’s the leadership quality his teammates appreciated the most.