Receivers on the rise
Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada have caught on as first-class backstops through work and perseverance, adding new dimension to a classic AL rivalry.
Roger Clemen's fastball glanced off catcher Jorge Posada's black and tan Wilson mitt and struck his right knee with such force that it split his shin protector.
Suddenly, the vocal Yankees fans at Altanta's Turner Field for an interleague matchup last week were hushed. Posada crumpled to the ground on all fours and the Yankee's bench could only cringe along with their catcher, hoping the injury was not as terrible as the expression on Posada's face.
"That's not a guy you want to lose," manager Joe Torre says. Fortunately for the Yanks, Posada's knee was only bruised and kept him out of action for a few days. Torre was obviously relieved the next day, even managing to inject a bit of humor into the situation. The pitch had been to Greg Maddux, and Torre told reporters: "When I ran past Maddux on my way to check on Jorge, I told him, 'Everything with you has to be at the knees.' "
How important is Posada to the Yankees? About as important as his counterpart, Jason Varitek, is to the Boston Red Sox.
As the two AL East rivals battle again - a three-game series ends June 14 - both catchers are crucial to their team's success.
There are alot of debate-stirring matchups within this most storied rivalry in baseball. Take your pick:
Pedro and the Rocket.
Nomar and Derek.
Carl Everett and Bernie Williams.
But so far this season, the most indispensable performers on the Red Sox and Yankees are:
Jason and Jorge. This might not be Thurman Munson vs. Carlton Fisk quite yet. Even so, 25 years later, the Red Sox and Yankees rely heavily on two of the most improved catcher in the game - players whose offensive numbers are above average at their position.
And ther is a mutual respect for these rising stars.
"No question, Varitek has meant a lot to that ballclub," Torre says. "Jorge, probably because he's come through the New York Yankees chain, has had a lot more publicity. He's had the tag to be a superstar type of guy. But Jason Varitek, no question, is a quality guy, a durable guy, like we expect Jorge to be. There are a lot of similarities there. It looks like the Red Sox pitchers are very comfortable with Varitek behind the plate, and that's half the battle."
Boston Manager Jimy Williams says: "These two guys are good. Posada has improved immensely. You look at his numbers, his throwing skills, what he's done for that Yankees team. They're both switch-hitters and they've both got power."
The 29-year-old Varitek is a dead serious workaholic with the prototypical catcher's build. Strong and sturdy with a pair of oak trees for legs, he's most often found studying pitching charts in front of his locker, swinging a bat or working in the weight room. Rarely does his mustache-goatee admit a smile.
"Maybe sometimes I need to take a step back from that and let myself enjoy things a little bit more, " he acknowledges. "But I feel there's no other way to get my job done. That's a part of me just trying to make sure I'm focused. I think I got that from my parents. When I was a kid I was always told that anything I do I should do at 100-110% or there's no sense in me doing it."
"I find it hard to remember any catcher who works any harder htan Varitek does," says veteran Boston first baseman Mike Stanley, a former catcher. "Whether it's during infield practice or if you need someone to catch and your second baseman wants to take some throws, he doesn't just sit there and catch, he works on his exchange. Catchers, for the most part, just hang around and mill around in the outfield during batting practice. But he's trying to get something accomplished."
It's little things. Before taking his rips in batting practice, Varitek grabs a bat and mounts the narrow dugout steps this day at Pro Player Stadium. Without moving his feet, he levels it one way, then swivels his hips and levels it the other, gently practicing his swing from both sides of the plate. "I know if I took a step in or a step out, I'd fall off the steps," he reasons. "It's just a little trick I use to get me used to starting out swinging evenly."
The 28-year-old Posada, in contrast, is more wiry, more likely to crack a smile, more likely to incur ribbing from his teammates. The catcher just smiles and shakes his head. He knows he's an easy target - which is OK if you happen to be the starting catcher for the world champs.
He's also quite intense when the situation dictates. Says Torre (who refers to Posada as "Jorgie"): "The only thing I try to do now with Jorge is just to remind him it doesn't have to be 110% all the time. Let's get down to 80-90%, because he tends to want to do too much at one time. What a lot of young people have to know is to let the game come to you. Enjoy it and calm down a little bit."
"Catching is the toughest position, especially when you're going to catch a veteran staff. It's important that he have the confidence, the communication skills - all those things that you need to be successful as a catcher."
One thing Varitek and Posada have in common is their drive to succeed.
"Something I see in both of them," says Yankees' TV analyst and former catcher Tim McCarver, "Is their fervent desire to improve."
Varitek didn't establish himself as Boston's No. 1 catcher until last season, when he hit .269 with 20 home runs in 144 games. In 1998, Boston signed Jim Leyritz, expecting he'd handle much of the duties. But Varitek impressed manager Williams so much in spring training that he soon became part of the platoon with Scott Hattenberg.
"Hattie became the No. 1 guy," Varitek says. "I didn't even think I had a chance to make the team. I just did what I always do - play hard - and Jimy liked what he saw."
"He made that decision for me in spring training," Williams recalls. "That's when we had Jim Leyritz, who, to me, was a good player for our team. But I used that spring training to evaluate players. I was looking for something and I saw it. I just felt Varitek should be on our team."
"They said he couldn't hit left-handed, but that spring he showed me somethng when he hit a homer, left-handed, against Toronto up in Dunedin (FL). I felt maybe there was something that this kid has that maybe other people haven't been able to get out of him. Maybe it was (hitting coach) Jimmy Rice helping him a lot or his work ethic, trying things. I just believed in him."
"There was always something about this kid I liked. I guess it was his enthusiasm. I remember when he first came up at the end of the season in '97. He got one at-bat and got a base hit in Detroit. I can still see it - a one-hopper between third base and short. I liked his focus and concentration, pitch in and pitch out, inning in and inning out, game in and game out. He has a plus arm, loves to catch and has imagination behind that plate. You have to have imagination."
You also have to have a chance to play in order to improve.
Varitek's development was likely slowed by his decision, in concert with agent Scott Boras, not to sign with the Twins when they made him a frist-round pic (23rd overall) out of Georgia Tech in 1993. The Mariners took the three-time All-American with the 14th pick in 1994, but didn't get on the field until 1995. Contractural decisions had cost Varitek up to a season and a half of professional experience.
"You can't take at-bats away from guys, and I missed some game experience," Varitek concedes. "I missed out on a season of at-bats. That could have been 500 at-bats. Did it slow me down a year? I don't know."
But Varitek insists he has no regrets based on the way things worked out.
Seattle traded him to Boston, along with pitcher Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb at the 1997 trading deadline. It's a deal which remains of of Boston general manager Dan Duquette's shining accomplishments.
"I might not have ever gotten the chance to play in Boston and play for Jimy if none of that happened", Varitek says of his holdout. "That (playing for Williams) is what's gotten me here. The man has instilled a lot of confidence in me. He knew I had the will to play and the will to win. It was a matter of time until I figured everything else out."
Varitek, a third baseman in high school, admits he wasn't ready to catch in Seattle and credits instructor Roger Hanson for making him a respectable defensive receiver. "I don't even know how many hours we spent working on my receiving, working on my throwing, working on my balance," Varitek says. "He just kept on me. Things were so difficult for me. When I started, I couldn't catch Lowe's sinker. The ball would go right by me. It was frustrating. But he kept working me and said, 'You're going to see the light at the end of the tunnel one day.' At that time, I didn't believe him, I couldn't get the ball to second accurately to save my life. It was just alot of things. I know the more and more I catch, the more and more I play, the better I become."
Lowe, now Boston's closer remembers those frustrating days for Varitek, who never hit about .262 or topped 15 homers in three minor league seasons but whose batting average currently flirts with .300. "We were in Double-A at Port City (NC) and he really had a hard time with my sinker and my breaking ball, which was maybe just a little bit about average. Because he relied on his bat when he was in college, I think it was difficult for him getting put directly into Double-A ball. Most guys start in Class A and work their way up. But he just worked his fanny off. Everyone knew he had the talent to become a good catcher, but I think he's exceeded what some people thought he would do."
For the most part, Varitek and Posada are handling veteran pitchers - some of the best in the business at that. Varitek has the confidence of everyone from Pedro Martinez to knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Posada, meanwhile, has built a relationship with the likes of Clemens, Orlando Hernandez, David Cone and Mariano Rivera.
Varitek gets high praise from Pedro Martinez: "Jason is one of the most improved players in this game right now. Jason is a complete catcher - a star, one of the best in the big leagues. You cannot judge Jason by his average or his hitting. You have to think about the game he calls, about the things he does - his defense, his sequence (of pitches), his knowledge of the game and the way he handles the game back there. I pitch my own game, and Jason calls whatever he thinks I would like to throw. We're pretty much in agreement most of the time."
Varitek believes he's getting better but still has a way to go. "I've improved most notably in my game-calling and my pitch selection, and I'm really learning, offensively," he says, noting that he sees tougher pitches this season. It's one reason he's been limited to just two home runs. "Good things happened for me last year. This year I've had to make a big adjustment. They just went after me last year. I've got to progress - keep taking steps. I'm probably a little further behind Jorge, offensively."
Having catchers younger than age 30 at the top of their game is an asset for any club. It's one of the factors that separates the Red Sox and Yankees from the rest of the AL pack. Chances are they'll continue to improve for at least a few more years.
"Johnny Bench became a better catcher toward the middle to end of his career," McCarver says. "Rodriquez is the same way. They're so gifted from the get-go. But most guys have to work, and you have to understand that you're part of the most important aspect of baseball. That's pitching."
That's why Varitek and Posada are so indispensable, and perhaps that's why the Red Sox and Yankees have ranked 1-2 in ERA in the AL the last two seasons. It's also why they're likely to battle right through October.