FORT MYERS, Fla. - Jason Varitek had his emotions in check until he looked up and saw so many of his teammates lined up behind the chairs where his parents sat.
There were Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, two of the four pitchers he guided to no-hitters. Tim Wakefield, his teammate for 15 years who had announced his own retirement only two weeks earlier, was there. So was Josh Beckett, the stubborn Texan who insisted Varitek had to catch him.
A dozen or so others stood among them, all paying tribute.
That’s when the wave hit, and for the first time that any of them could remember, their captain, the toughest ballplayer they knew, started to cry.
“Guys, you have no idea what this means,’’ Varitek said before he paused and wiped his cheeks.
A player so many Red Sox fans treasure stepped away gracefully yesterday, saying he could not envision playing for another team.
“After months of deliberating what to do, I decided it’s best for me and my family that I retire a Red Sox,’’ Varitek said. “This has probably been the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my career. The opportunity to start and finish my major league career in one place meant more to me. That’s why I’m standing here.’’
“It’s hard to watch a grown man cry. I just can’t say enough about the guy and what he meant to all of us.’’Josh Beckett
Varitek spoke from a podium just in front of the plate at JetBlue Park, a new facility he will never play at. His wife, Catherine, and his three daughters, Alexandra, Kendall, and Caroline, sat a few feet away.
“He’s been so emotional all week,’’ Catherine Varitek said. “It’s a tough thing for him. The guys mean so much to him.’’
Said Beckett, “It’s hard to watch a grown man cry. I just can’t say enough about the guy and what he meant to all of us.’’
The Red Sox offered Varitek only a minor league contract. He had offers from other teams but could not bring himself to change uniforms. That led to Varitek putting on a gray suit and standing in front of a plate he wished he were squatting behind.
“He was very steadfast about having a legacy,’’ said Varitek’s longtime agent, Scott Boras. “It was really, really important, knowing him. When you lead a pitching staff and you set a tone for an organization, he just really identified with this team.
“It was more than a uniform or a job or a place. For him, it was part of the fabric.’’
Varitek thanked his parents, his coaches throughout the years, and all his managers with the Red Sox. He singled out Gary Tuck, the team’s catching instructor for the last five seasons.
“He pushed me, got me better, stood by my side, and believed in me when no one else did,’’ Varitek said. “I will forever have a friend in Coach Tuck.’’
Varitek spent 15 seasons with the Red Sox, the last seven as captain. He caught a franchise-record 1,488 games and was a key member of the 2004 and ’07 World Series title teams.
Varitek was a three-time All-Star and is the only player in history to have competed in the Little League World Series, the College World Series, the World Series, the Olympics, and the World Baseball Classic.
Joe Varitek, who raised Jason and three other sons, said it was a proud moment for the family. He and his wife, Donna, watched their son speak with a small box of tissues at the ready.
“If you lead by example, which is what he does, it’s always a good feeling to see other people see and reflect on that,’’ he said. “It’s a great feeling. It’s something you cherish for a lifetime.’’
Owner John Henry said seeing Wakefield and Varitek retire felt like the end of an era for the Red Sox.
“It says more about them, the class acts they are, than it does about anything else,’’ he said. “These are two extraordinary players who gave everything.
“When you have two players of their stature who have been such a part of this organization for so long, it’s a new chapter when they leave.’’
Varitek, who turns 40 next month, is working with the team to structure a position that will allow him to stay involved in some capacity. For now, there is another daughter on the way, soccer games to attend, and no regrets.
“As I walk away from this game, I can look at the man in the mirror and be proud that I gave everything I could to this game, this organization, and my teammates,’’ Varitek said.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.