BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no use trying to sugarcoat it. The end of Jason Varitek’s Red Sox career was a little bit ugly.
There was his premature farewell at the end of the 2010 season, followed by his signing a one-year deal that winter. There was his .221 average in 2011, a season in which the captain wasn’t able to keep his team together as the Red Sox spiraled out of contention in September amid one of the most embarrassing collapses in baseball history.
“Being part of this Boston Red Sox organization for the last 14 years is something I truly cherish,” Varitek said at his retirement press conference on Thursday.
It was an unceremonious ending, but it shouldn’t overshadow a career that was, for a very long time, truly remarkable.
It begins with a number that has been taken for granted for the past decade and a half: 12,166. That’s the number of innings Varitek has caught in the big leagues. If you use the rough estimate of 145 pitches per game, it breaks down to 16 pitches per inning, or roughly 194,656 pitches. Talk to any adult who used to catch, and he’ll tell you that he still has back problems, that his knees still ache or that he had to stop catching at 14 years old because the wear and tear was just too much. Then picture Varitek behind the plate for nearly 200,000 pitches since the ’90s. That’s an almost unfathomable amount of work for any human, and it’s representative of the type of worker the Red Sox have had behind the plate for 14 years.
It also spoke to Varitek’s consistency. He averaged 130 games per season from 2002-08, only missing significant time in 2006 during that stretch. He never once played first base, and he only served as a DH a handful of times. The Red Sox — or most teams, for that matter — may not see that type of steady reliability for a long time.
“It’s something, we’re used to — to see Tek walking around and doing his thing,” David Ortiz, teammate of Varitek from 2003-11, said this week in Fort Myers. “It’s been a while since you walked in here and the first person [wasn’t] Tek. Walking in here and not seeing him was something unexpected.”
Then there was the production. Varitek wasn’t a Hall of Famer by any means, but tell any team that it could pencil Varitek in his prime into the lineup for 10 years, and they’d all eagerly sign up. From 1999-2007, the switch-hitter batted .268 with an .801 OPS, averaging 16 home runs and 64 RBIs per year. He topped the 20-homer mark three times in that span and recorded 30-plus doubles in five of those seasons.
And beyond the numbers, there were the moments. He homered off Barry Zito to tie Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS. He launched a two-run homer in Yankee Stadium to give the Sox a 2-0 lead in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. His two-run triple in the bottom of the first of Game 2 of the ’04 World Series opened the scoring for that Red Sox victory. He batted righty in the ALCS against Mike Mussina after batting .090 against the righty in his career, a move that confused Mussina enough to force a bases-loaded walk. He caught no-hitters from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Derek Lowe and Hideo Nomo. He caught what should have been another no-hitter from Curt Schilling and what could have been another no-hitter from Daisuke Matsuzaka.
And there was of course July 29, 2004. There’s no way to quantify it or provide a statistic, but when he launched his hand into the face of Alex Rodriguez at Fenway Park, it became the launching point for a late-season run that ended in the team’s first World Series victory in 86 years.
The legacy Varitek leaves will be one that can likely only be appreciated fully by Red Sox fans. He played every single one of his 1,546 games in a Boston uniform. As managers changed, as the pitchers whom he caught changed, and as the lineup around him changed, he remained a Red Sox constant. He may not join Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams and Jim Rice in Cooperstown, but he joins them as the only players to spend their entire careers of at least 15 years with the Red Sox. He brought two championships to a fan base that so desperately wanted just one, and the image of him celebrating is one that will always hang in Fenway Park.
“He’ll be missed a lot,” said Josh Beckett, who pitched to Varitek 139 times, four times as many as any other catcher in Beckett’s career. “It’s kind of sad to see him go, but it’s a hell of a ride for him. I’m thankful to have been able to play with him.”
“Great teammate,” Ortiz said of Varitek. “It was fun. It was a good ride being Tek’s teammate.”
And it was just as fun to watch.
Varitek may return to the team in some capacity, but his role isn’t clearly defined yet.
“We’re still discussing and hopefully as we continue to do this, we figure out a role [with the Sox] to maintain and stay involved,” said Varitek.