Roche: Varitek Like No Other
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BOSTON (CBS) – People are constantly asking me about the Red Sox everywhere I go, which is pretty cool. I am a positive person by nature, so sometimes it can get hard due to the 162 individual soap operas (or games) that we have in a season.
First and foremost, I love the game. I just think that it is so hard to do, especially at the MLB level. Hit, pitch, catch, throw; all of it. I admire anyone that gets to the Bigs.
Which leads me to Jason Varitek.
Believe it or not, I have been covering the Boston Red Sox since the early 80’s. I was able to get a pass while working part-time for Curt Gowdy’s radio stations up in Lawrence, Ma. I was in college, but whenever I could I would make the trek into Fenway. Loved it. Didn’t say much to anyone because I was a kid, but loved being around the game.
With that, I have one thing to say about the soon-to-be retired Red Sox captain: I have never covered a player over the last 30 years quite like Jason Varitek.
He was different. Didn’t say much, but wasn’t unfriendly. He was just focused; from the moment he arrived at the park pretty much every day.
I would talk to Tek constantly about his craft, that is when I could muster up the courage! I was afraid of him for a good part of his career here in Boston. He had that intimidating style that was hard to read. And, after they won it all in 2004 — after I spent a few hours riding on a duck boat with him, Doug Mirabelli, Gabe Kapler, and Trot Nixon — I told him that.
He laughed, but then admitted that he wasn’t the most approachable ballplayer you’d run into.
I remember a pre-game one time in Atlanta when the Sox were playing an exhibition against the Braves. I asked crack Sox PR man Peter Chase if he would ask Tek to do an interview for our broadcast on TV38, especially with Tek being a Georgia Tech guy. Peter went and asked him and Tek said he would “try” to fit it in. About 20 minutes later during BP, Peter and I were sitting on the top-level seats in the dugout. Tek came wandering in and sat right below us, almost on my feet. But… he didn’t say a word! Peter and I looked at each other and just shrugged. A few minutes later Tek got up and went to hit. And, that was it. Never did the interview. I didn’t know if it was a test, if Tek was upset with me, testing me? Never knew. Just the way he was.
Now there would be other times where he would chat away with me, both on and off camera, because I loved the catching position. I was fascinated with his thinking. The little things. Like why he chose to wear All-Star catching gear? Why he preferred to have the pocket of his catcher’s mitt loose? What he did to learn and then handle each pitcher differently? Those types of things.
I remember him telling me that when Derek Lowe was right physically, then all he would do is simply put his mitt right in the center of the strike zone and tell him to aim for it. Lowe’s sinker would do the rest, darting all over the place while baffling hitters.
Or, how Tek would prefer to stay at a Homewood Suites or a Marriott Suites type of hotel on the road because the extra space in the rooms would allow him to spread his data and worksheets all over.
Spring Training was my favorite time to interview Tek. I would always tell him to pick a day for a sit-down interview where he wasn’t in a rush to get home. I would then wait until he had done all of his work and the do the interview. And, he was almost always great. He would always say, “don’t ask me about team chemistry until late August when we’ve been through tough losing streaks, long road trips….”.
The stories just never end with Tek.
I remember in 2004, the front office guys telling me that Tek — not Manny (who actually won it) nor Keith Foulke (who finished out all four games) — should have been World Series MVP for the way he had taken all the advance scouts work, absorbed it, and led the pitching staff brilliantly to a sweep.
I also remember Tek dumbfounded that the team gave up so quickly on Mark Bellhorn in 2005 after he was such a big part of 2004.
I remember him chastising just about anyone and everyone who criticized Curt Schilling after 2004 because of what Curt did to help win that Championship.
Tek was a leader too. There were many times when I would be standing in the clubhouse chatting with a player when Tek would walk over and say, “Hey Rochie, give us a minute….”. He would then proceed to go deep into conversation with the player.
It was also never, ever about Jason Varitek. It was always about the pitchers. He would staunchly defend them night after night. He would also prepare them as well, sometimes better than the pitching coach ever would. And, he was almost always right on what his pitcher should be throwing because of how prepared he was. He knew hitters inside and out.
I will remember the fight with Alex Rodriguez and how Tek hated to ever discuss it.
I will remember him carrying the Re-sign Mike Lowell sign in the 2007 parade.
I will remember how great a dad he was and still is. His girls mean everything to him.
I also remember in his final years as a full-time catcher having it take three or four HOURS of preparation physically to be able to go out and play. Ice packs everywhere after the game, but he never complained.
I could go on and on……
But finally, I remember (and I always, always tell my kids) if there’s one player to watch from the moment he arrives at the park UNTIL the moment he leaves –on how to pay the game the right way –it’s Jason Varitek.
Varitek was a warrior. He was a pleasure to cover and watch from his arrival in 1997 to his departure in 2012.
And, all I can say is “thanks,” it’s been a pleasure and an honor.
Follow WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche on twitter @RochieWBZ