They sat in white folding chairs that circled home plate, 21 in all, like a half-halo of family and friends guarding the dusty amber battleground Jason Varitek patrolled for years.
And when the captain finally emerged from the dugout, wearing khakis and his Sox jersey, the red “C” still stitched into the fabric, the crowd stood and cheered.
“It was surreal,” Varitek said. “For me to absorb what really happened, I think I’m going to have to watch it.”
When he does watch Saturday’s ceremony that honored the former catcher who retired in March, Varitek will see the taped video messages from Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe, the lengthy tribute set to “You Raise Me Up,” and plenty of career highlights, from the Little League World Series to the College World Series to him leaping into Keith Foulke’s outstretched arms as the Sox broke an 86-year curse in 2004.
“I played here 15 years, and to come up with the words of what it has meant to me to play here and only here . . . I can’t,’’ Varitek told the crowd. “How do you thank an entire nation for my entire career?”
Varitek’s three brothers wore his three All-Star jerseys, one for each year. A tarp that said “TEK” covered the visitors’ side on-deck circle. On the home side, “33.” Nearby, the two World Series trophies glistened, the culmination of a storied career that saw him catch an MLB-record four no-hitters and set team records for runs, hits, homers, and RBIs by a switch-hitter.
“By the time I got there, he was the established leader, whether he had the ‘C’ on his chest or not,” former Sox manager Terry Francona said by telephone. “When you have a guy who can play and can lead, to be able to do both is tremendous.”
The gifts were aplenty, too. David Ortiz swept away a black cloth like a matador, revealing a pair of Fenway Park seats, numbered 33 and 34 so, as the announcer said, “you can always be together.”
Varitek received the home plate from his final game, a $25,000 donation to the Children’s Hospital in his name, and golf clubs for retirement.
Out of the center-field gate, they drove a red Ford F-150 truck, and parked it under the Green Monster line score that read, in white block letters, “THANKS TEK.” His three eldest daughters stood behind the clear podium together, and called him a legendary dad for brushing their hair and tying their ponytails.
“He likes to be a tough guy, but when you get him behind closed doors . . .” Ortiz said, pausing for a chuckle. “He gave it all for this organization, and I’m proud of him. He did his business very well.’’
Varitek’s daughters echoed the sentiment expressed before the game in droves by his former Sox brethren. Jon Lester called him “a great leader, a great friend, a guy you want on your team.”
Manager Bobby Valentine, who never coached Varitek, said he was a “man’s man.”
“He wasn’t much of a talker, but when he did speak he commanded attention,” Francona said. “He ran the staff. Anybody that threw to him, he was always prepared. When he put a finger down, they knew there was a reason for it.”
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who spent some time under Varitek’s tutelage, still carries Varitek’s hand-me-down work ethic.
“I’m starting to appreciate it more and more,” Saltalamacchia said. “Seeing what, in just the last few years of his career, being at the age he was at, being able to do this position that’s so demanding, you really start to understand what he does in an offseason to get ready for this grueling schedule.”
After Varitek spoke, they invited him to the mound to throw out the first pitch, this time from the other side.
In a role reversal from Sept. 24, 1997, Varitek’s major-league debut, Tim Wakefield crouched behind the plate to catch, and held down four fingers.
Varitek threw him a knuckleball that bounced once. Then Varitek hopped into the bed of his shiny new truck and sat beside his family on a ride around the park, stopping by the Sox bullpen for more hugs, waving the whole way around.