June 17, 2005 | The Sporting News | By Kyle Veltrop
On a gray, drizzly Memorial Day afternoon, it's sleepy inside the Red Sox's clubhouse. About 12 hours have passed since the team returned to Boston in the middle of the night from a weeklong trip, and today's game against the Orioles still is more than three hours away. A couple of players watch a Marlins-Pirates game. Bill Mueller pecks away on a computer. Others, in their street clothes, are filing intermittently into the room.Jason Varitek, already in uniform pants and practice jersey, is oblivious to it all. He is in front of his locker, placing written scouting reports and color-coded charts on Orioles hitters into neat stacks on the floor. After everything is sorted to his liking, Varitek collects the papers, snaps them in a binder, slides on some headphones and starts cramming. Baseball 401 is in session.
For the next 55 minutes, Varitek flips through the pages in the binder--there are seven others just like it on the top shelf of his stall--and makes notes or assorted scribbles, some with the black pen in his right hand, some with the yellow highlighter in his left (he is a switch hitter, after all). Nearby, reliever Mike Timlin, who is reading his mail, points an envelope in Varitek's direction and says, "You can just look at him and see the work that he puts into his job."
Some say Varitek is the hardest worker in baseball. Some say he's the best-prepared player. Some say he's the most passionate about playing the game right. Which is it? It depends on whom you ask. All Varitek will say is, "I'm just doing my job." That attitude, that approach has earned Varitek admiration around baseball--and adoration in Boston.
Pitcher Matt Clement says, "To throw to someone like him, to someone who cares so much, it's an honor."
Varitek's official job description is catcher for the world champion Boston Red Sox; his unofficial title is best all-around receiver in baseball."He's kind of the model right now," says one American League executive. "He's a plus offensive catcher, works well with a staff. He brings a lot to the party--leadership, preparation, throwing ability. Go right down the list and put a check mark next to everything."Make that check next to offense a little bolder this season. Varitek has gone from one of the best-hitting catchers to simply one of the best hitters, batting .310 with 10 homers after posting a career-best .296 average last season.
Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson says Varitek has shortened his stroke over the past two seasons and has learned to go with the pitch more. He also has become more relaxed at the plate.
"He just continues to develop into one of the best hitters in the game and rightfully so because he puts his time in," says Sox right fielder Trot Nixon. "Everybody talks about various superstars around the league, and Jason Varitek is a superstar."
Varitek explains his offensive proficiency thusly: "I've had a few balls drop in."
To him, what he does at the plate is big--Who wouldn't want to take Mariano Rivera deep in the ninth or hit a walk-off homer at Fenway?--but what he does behind it is bigger.
Varitek almost is obsessed with squeezing everything possible out of a pitching staff. Danny Hall took over as Georgia Tech's coach in 1994, which was Varitek's senior season and the year the Yellow Jackets advanced to the title game of the College World Series. Tech had only eight pitchers--and a couple of those were walk-ons.
"Even with those guys who had limited ability," Hall says, "Jason would figure a way to get outs."
Varitek would talk baseball and strategy between innings. College coaches often call most, if not all, of the pitches, but Hall says, "I don't know if I called a single pitch Jason's senior year."
Whenever possible, Varitek caught for guys in the bullpen so he could get a feel for how they were throwing--even though most starting catchers would have left that chore to the backup or the bullpen coach. Even today, Timlin says Varitek works in the bullpen on his days off. After all, the more you catch someone, the better you know his stuff.
When a pitcher gets lit up in a game, it hurts Varitek. Despite Varitek's prep work on Memorial Day, Sox starter Bronson Arroyo had more hits allowed than batters retired and was gone in the third inning. The next day, Varitek said Arroyo's poor performance is the kind of thing that stays with him.
"I've seen Tek get so wrapped up in how prepared his pitchers are," Nixon says. "Enough guys have said to him, 'You can only do so much. The pitchers have to take care of themselves.' "
Pitchers, though, fully appreciate a catcher who takes their ERA personally. When Clement watches a game, he monitors how the catcher calls it and handles pitchers. So when Clement was a free agent last offseason, he wanted to go to the team that signed either Mike Matheny, who went to the Giants, or Varitek --likely the two most respected defensive catchers in baseball.
Clement signed with the Red Sox after he was confident Varitek would return to the team--and that happened two days later. Boston's three-year, $ 25.5 million investment in Clement largely was panned. He always had been known for having excellent stuff, but his starts often were marred by high pitch counts, walks and one big mistake. His pre-Sox record: 69-75.
Working with Varitek, Clement has been remarkably efficient and is 6-0 with a 3.17 ERA. He hasn't overhauled his mechanics or his general approach; instead, he has coupled his talents with Varitek's ability to play to a pitcher's strengths and exploit hitters' weaknesses.
"Before coming here, all I heard were glowing reviews about him," says Clement, "and he's better than what I heard."
To which Varitek says, "Matt has a remarkable arm. It's all about him."
Baseball people, however, aren't fooled by Varitek's modesty. Says a longtime major league scout: "Varitek is one of the two or three smartest players in baseball. He will manage in the majors; there's no doubt about it in my mind."
When Lesley Visser was nudged off the Monday Night Football sideline in favor of Melissa Stark in 2000, it was written a lot that age was a big factor. It was written so much that Visser joked to a reporter that her name had been changed to "Visser comma 46 E ."Anyone who followed the free-agent market last November and December would have thought that a sought-after catcher's name had been changed to "Varitek comma the heart and soul of the Red Sox E" as media members tried to place a value on Varitek's potential worth. Agent Scott Boras and Sox general manager Theo Epstein decided $ 40 million over four years sounded right.
Along with the big money, the Sox gave Varitek something else: a red stitched "C" on his jersey, right above his heart, making him Boston's first team captain since Jim Rice in 1989.
Varitek isn't necessarily comfortable with being singled out, but he should be used to it.
Georgia Tech has an impressive cast of former players in the big leagues,including Mark Teixeira, Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Brown and Jay Payton, yet Varitek is the only Yellow Jackets baseball player whose number (33) has been retired, which really makes Tek "Mr. Tech."
Why Varitek? Partly because he was a three-time first-team All-American, a two-time first-round draft pick, an Olympian and a Golden Spikes winner as the college player of the year. Partly because he fulfilled the program's graduation requirement. And partly because Hall calls Varitek "the hardest-working player I 've ever coached."
Ideally, when someone gets his number retired or is named captain, it's because he embodies everything you want in a player, in a teammate.
That's Varitek, who credits his parents for his work ethic. "They told me that if I was going to do something, then I was going to do it 100 percent. And if I didn't, then I wasn't going to do it anymore."
Finding Varitek testimonials around Boston is as easy as getting a pint of Sam Adams and cup of chowder. Teammates note how Varitek, his back and knees often weary from squatting, puts his head down and runs all-out on ground balls and tags up and takes an extra base if an outfielder is too lax catching a fly ball. Varitek is never late. He always gives an honest day's work.
"He's not rah-rah," Timlin says, "but this is what he does: He does his job and shows others how they should do theirs."
The contract drive has become a big part of pro sports, so it's notable that Varitek's career year is coming the season after his big payday. The money is nice, but there are other reasons why Varitek plays.
"Words like leader and captain get thrown around, but he is," says Clement. "There are probably two guys in this league who, when they walk in the clubhouse, it's clear that they are the leader of that team, and that's him and (Derek) Jeter, just in the way they are respected by their teammates, the way they are respected by opposing teams. Jason is a real baseball player, and I haven't been around many players who never waver in the way they go about their business."
The veteran scout says Varitek has--you're not going to like this, Red Sox fans--the qualities of past Yankees like Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and Paul O'Neill, guys who always played with passion.
"Varitek is that same way," says the scout. "It sounds funny, but it almost hurts to watch him lose. You feel for him because he plays with his heart on his sleeve."
Or, rather, a "C" on his chest.TSN
In Boston, love is apparent in the apparelFor roughly a decade, Red Sox fans had either Mo, Nomar or Pedro to worship. But now that the Sox are champions--and Mo, Nomar and Pedro are long gone--the love is spread out more evenly. Adam Bohmiller, who works at The Souvenir Store across from Fenway Park on Yawkey Way, says David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and Johnny Damon shirts sell the best--but they aren't the only Sox players who are beloved throughout New England.
David Ortiz: Probably the favorite, thanks to his penchant for clutch hits and always-present smile.
Jason Varitek: Once shoved A-Rod in the face.
Johnny Damon: A cult hero, especially among a certain gender. The only shirt at The Souvenir Store that is offered in dark blue with pink lettering is Damon's. "That should tell you something," says Bohmiller.
Manny Ramirez: Kids across New England dressed as Manny last Halloween,complete with wild wigs, Sox caps and No. 24 jerseys.
Curt Schilling: Earned a few points last October.
Trot Nixon: A Sox rarity: a home-grown talent. He plays with a no-nonsense
Tim Wakefield: No player has been with the Sox longer than Wakefield, who is in his 11th season in Boston and has a "lifetime contract." --K.V