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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thanks for the Memories, Jason Varitek

Today, longtime Red Sox player and captain, Jason Varitek, officially announces his retirement from baseball. The 15 years he played in Boston were among the most notable in team history. Not only did he develop a reputation as one of the most hard working and gritty Red Sox of all time, but he is also responsible for a moment that I like to think helped transformed the franchise from cursed to winners.

Varitek first came to the Red Sox in a trade that many believe rank as the most lopsided of any ever made. He and Derek Lowe, who also enjoyed a lengthy run with Boston, were obtained in 1997 from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb. Varitek had been a college star and a first round draft pick, but by holding firm on contract negotiations that delayed the start of his professional career by a year, saw his stock fall a bit. Having traded Mike Stanley in 1996, the Red Sox were in need of a catcher of the future and decided to take a chance on the intriguing prospect.

By 1998, Varitek established himself as a regular in the lineup and never looked back. He was never a superstar, but became the type of player that ever team loves to have. He could hit a little, hit with some power, and played enough defense to not be a liability. Best of all, he was loved by his teammates and fans for the passion he brought to the game. Boston is a town where it can be hard to please some of the fans some of the time, let alone most of the fans all of the time. Varitek accomplished this with great aplomb, but little fanfare; cementing his place in the pantheon of the city's great athletes.

A major part of what made Varitek so beloved was his unwavering stability. From his flat top crew cut and goatee and mustache, to wiggling his bat from either side of the plate, to seemingly being as quiet as a church mouse, little seemed to change from the first time he put on his catcher's mask until now, when he is finally taking it off. In the age of free agency it is rare to see athletes spend their entire career with one just team, but it just wouldn't have seemed right to see Varitek play with another team. Productive longevity can often be a nice frame to a career, but with Varitek, it was his Red Sox legacy.

What I will always remember most about Varitek is what I believe was the defining moment that changed the Red Sox from loveable losers to a force to be reckoned with. Of course I am referring to the infamous game against the Yankees on July 24, 2004 where he made A-Rod eat his glove. Coming into that game the Red Sox had lost 4 of their previous 5 games, and were sitting 7.5 games behind New York in the standings. They had also been knocked out of the playoffs by the Yankees the previous year, with one swing of the bat from Aaron Boone and the failure of manager Grady Little to exercise good judgment. Although the Red Sox were 52-44 on July 24th, there was nothing indicating they would fare any better than they had the previous 86 years, which had seen zero World Series titles.

On that unusually cool July day in 2004, the Red Sox were already down 3-0 to the Yankees in the third inning, when starter Bronson Arroyo hit star Alex Rodriguez with a pitch. A-Rod didn’t immediately take first,  instead yelled out at Arroyo. When Varitek took exception and told the slugger to cool it, A-Rod beckoned towards him in a "bring it" type of motion. Varitek took him up on his offer and promptly jammed his catcher's mitt into A-Rod's face, causing a scuffle that broke out into a benches clearing brawl.

Varitek wound up being one of several players who received a suspension for the melee. While his mouth plant on A-Rod wasn't particularly violent, it seemed to change the persona of the Red Sox. Even if the team didn't feel any different in the aftermath, they certainly came across that way to the fans. A-Rod was already intensely disliked in Boston, being a figurehead of the hated Yankees and possessing the largest contract in all of professional sports. He personified all the negative things Boston fans felt towards the Yankees. Watching a beloved player like Varitek effectively put him in his place by planting one in his kisser was akin to watching an underdog take down a bully in a school yard fight.

Of course after the fight the Red Sox went on to win the July 24th game in exciting come-from-behind fashion. Of course they went 46-20 during the remainder of the season, earning the American League wildcard spot. And of course they mounted a historic comeback from a three games to none deficit in the ALCS against the Yankees; propelling them to a 4 game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series; their first title since 1918 (They won a second title in 2007 for good measure).

I realize that it is romantic, foolish, or perhaps both, to believe that Varitek's punch was so instrumental for what transpired. No matter what argument I may encounter to the contrary, that one moment will forever be how I define Varitek's career and what I believe was a catalyst for decades of disappointment and failure in Red Sox Nation. With one jab of his catcher’s mitt, he unleashed years of pent-up Red Sox frustration and made it seem that anything was possible for the Red Sox if they were willing to only go for it.

The way that Varitek's career is ending is more than a little sad. He platooned his final few seasons, was the captain of the 2011 team that so infamously belly flopped out of the playoff race during the last month of the season, and was relegated to practically begging Boston for a job this off-season before deciding to hang it up. Fortunately, none of these things negate what he did for the Red Sox, or how he will be remembered. He had a career well played and a reputation ever better earned. Enjoy your retirement and thanks for the memories, Tek.


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