Jason Varitek’s Red Sox legacy was pretty much encapsulated in two iconic photographs. Making Alex Rodriguez eat the glove in perhaps the pivotal moment of the 2004 season. Then, rejoicing and hoisting Alan Embree a few months later, at last victorious in a must-win moment on the Yankee Stadium turf after closing out a win in the ALCS. One photo is pure toughness. The other, pure elation.
The first World Series in 86 seasons was secured a little more than a week later, and should you prefer a photo of Varitek bounding into Keith Foulke’s arms after the final out of the World Series to the one of Embree, well, either is a fine choice for man-cave decor. The meaning remains the same: Faith was rewarded. History was overcome. And Varitek’s role was so integral to that season of a lifetime that these images will
immediately flash to mind when he’s 57 years old and receiving a rousing ovation while throwing out the first pitch at Fenway during the 25th anniversary celebration of the ‘04 champs. Bet the coffee table book is already in the works.
But the photos don’t tell the entire story. Words are required to address the nuances of Varitek’s 15 seasons with the Red Sox, a run that began with one of the great heists in baseball history -- Varitek and righthander Derek Lowe arriving from Seattle in July 1997 for ignitable closer Heathcliff Slocumb -- and apparently ended this week when the Red Sox signed Kelly Shoppach.
For a player who is assured of permanent reverence in New England, his departure is a complicated one. It’s a day that’s overdue -- he hasn’t had an on-base percentage higher than .313 since ‘07 and threw out just 12 of 85 base-stealers last season -- and yet it’s one that tinges you with melancholy now that it has come around. With Varitek moving on and fellow tenured favorite Tim Wakefield likely to follow, only two players remain from the ‘04 champs. (David Ortiz, the driving force of course, and Kevin Youkilis, a bit player then.) Was it really that long ago?
The calendar insists it was, and you get the sense that Varitek himself has had a hard time coming to grips with that. “At a loss for words,” his wife Catherine wrote on Twitter Tuesday after the Shoppach news broke, and you imagine her sentiments are mutual with her husband’s. But Varitek has seen hundreds of teammates come and go, the one-name superstars such as Nomar, Mo, and Pedro as well as the one-shot obscurities such Walt McKeel, Ken Grundt and Dario Veras who never got that second cup of coffee. While it would be counterproductive for athletes to give much thought to the end of their run while they’re still immersed in playing, the writing on the wall for Varitek was much closer than 310 feet. Yet he wants to stay longer still.
Maybe that mind-set is easier to comprehend when you consider what’s he’s accomplished, how long he’s been revered and how that must affect his own perception of what he means to the franchise. He’s the best and most beloved Red Sox catcher since Carlton Fisk, whose franchise record for games caught he now owns. The irony is that Varitek’s decline reminded us of how difficult it is to find a catcher who could dependably do all the things he mastered in his prime -- call a smart game, whack 20 or so homers a season, win the trust and raves of the pitchers, block the plate like it was a precious personal heirloom. From the time he supplanted Jim Leyritz behind the plate in ‘98 to but a few seasons ago, he was damn good at his job, and often exceptional, having received Most Valuable Player votes every season from 2003-’05 and collected a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award in ‘05.
But as his skills began to erode, his value became less evident on the field and in in the box scores, and instead his loyalists began relying upon on that vague word often applied to admired players whose contributions are no longer easily quantified, if they exist at all: intangibles. That ‘C’ on his chest suggested his leadership was essential and unquestioned, justifying his salary when his production no longer could. It was the Tao of Tek, and the ballplayer himself was clearly a believer. But as the layers peeled away on the ugly details of how the Red Sox’ September collapse came to be, it became apparent that Varitek was at least somewhat complicit in the borderline insubordination by the infamous trio of pitchers. During a radio interview in the season’s aftermath, Varitek couldn’t muster anything kinder to say about manager Terry Francona other than that he respected him as “his elder,” and you got the sense his leadership essentially dwindled to recommending the chicken breasts over the wings when a beleaguered John Lackey couldn’t make up his mind.
Still, it was a special run, and it will be strange not seeing that familiar mug, the granite scowl beneath that perma-brush-cut, when Opening Day 2012 comes around. Varitek still looked the part, even when he could no longer play it. No, it doesn’t always end well for Red Sox icons, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll depart gracefully, perhaps by retiring to accept a job in the organization, or spew some choice frustrations en route to his next destination. But there’s no doubt it’s ending appropriately. Here’s hoping Varitek recognizes that you don’t get to keep the roster spot forever. That’s what the photographs are for.
This was originally published in Chad Finn’s Touching All the Bases blog on Boston.com.