September 2007 Issue | Boston Baseball Magazine| By Alex Speier
Jason Varitek's rich, 10-year history with the Sox
That Jason Varitek has spent a decade in a Red Sox uniform seems utterly unsurprising. The 35-year old is entrenched as a Boston institution, both behind the plate and in the clubhouse.
The difficulty comes not in reflecting upon Varitek's decade with the Sox, but instead in imagining that there was ever a time when he played for another club. Yet as he approached the 10-year anniversary of his big-league debut on September 24, 1997, the memories of his minor-league upbringing and the trade that brought him to Boston remain fresh.
"It still seems like yesterday", Varitek smiled.
Two years before the Sox swapped Heathcliff Slocumb for Varitek and Derek Lowe, the catcher broke into pro ball for Seattle's Double-A affiliate in Port City, N.C. Though he was heralded as one of the finest offense/defense catching packages in college history, Varitek endured a jarring adjustment period.
"Both offensively and defensively, I think the game was a little ahead of me," reflected Varitek. "I had some guys like Derek Lowe that had these sinker thingies that I hadn't seen much of before. I swung and missed quite a few times with my glove."
Enter Roger Hansen, a roving catching instructor in Seattle's minor-league system since the early 1990's. The Mariners charge Hansen with the task of turning amateur catchers into men, and Varitek described the instructor - who he first met in instructional ball after the 1995 season - as his most influential tutor since turing pro.
Hansen is a de facto sergeant who runs Mariners backstops into the ground. A Seattle writer once described his program for catchers as "Camp Hansen", a title that elicits a proud chuckle from the instructor.
"There's hours and hours of getting the [snot] beat out of you blocking balls," said Hansen. "If they can handle Roger, they can handle Lou Piniella. They can handle everything. I won't let them rest. I'll make sure that they address every point about themselves and what we have to do...The good ones all come through it."
Indeed, Varitek not only survived, but seemingly embraced the demands established by Hansen. The student offered a hint of the work ethic that would come to define him. Varitek strove for perfection, seeking pointers from his coach on the finer details of balance, blocking balls in the dirt and thowing mechanics.
The lessons paid off quickly. After spending his first pro season in Port City chasing balls to the backstop, Varitek repeated the level in 1996 and was named the Rooster's Player of the Year while leading all Southern League catchers in fielding percentage.
In short time, Hansen no longer needed to push Varitek. Instead, a role reversal took place, with the student demanding more discipline, more lessons from his teacher, a development that reached it's height with Varitek's promotion to Triple-A Tacoma in 1997, months before he became a Red Sox.
"There were lots of days that it was pouring rain in Tacoma, the game was rained out, him and I were out on the warming track blocking balls or throwing balls," Hansen recalled. "We were never going to give up until he got it. That was the way we always approached it."
Yet despite Varitek's grit, he realized that his future was likely with another club. Seattle had Dan Wilson - a backstop who anchored the Mariners pitching staff from 1994-2004 - entrenched as it's starter. For that reason, it came as little surprise that Varitek became a trading chip in 1997 as the Mariners made a desperate effort to find help for a bullpen that was hemmorrhaging runs at an historic rate.
His name was attached to every rumored Mariners deal, whether for White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez, Toronto reliever Mike Timlin, Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico or Heathcliff Slocumb, the Red Sox fireman.
Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette liked Varitek, whom he had scouted - alongside Georgia Tech teammate Nomar Garciaparra - several times at Georgia Tech. Yet the man in charge of Boston's personnel decisions still considered Varitek an insufficient return for Slocumb.
Just one year earlier, after all, Slocumb had amassed 31 saves (with 8 blown saves) and a 3.02 ERA. His performance had been impressive enough that the Sox explored a three-year contract extension before the 1997 season. Even when the pitcher rebuffed the team's proposals for an extension, Slocumb remained under Boston's control through 1998.
That prospect, however, was anathema to New Englanders. Boston's bleachers made little secret of their contempt for a pitcher who seemingly started more fires than he extinguished for the Sox in 1997.
"Oh my God - they buried [Slocumb]. Every time he warmed up, they started booing," remembers Jim Corsi, a Sox reliever that year. "After he failed a few times, it was probably a blessing in disguise that he got traded, for his own sanity."
Duquette was eager to restock his team to ensure that a losing campaign in 1997 would prove to be an isolated incident. The Boston G.M. hoped to aquire both a pitcher and a catcher, particularly given that Varitek remained, in his own words, "a huge question mark at the time."
Duquette, who had deployed scouts Eddie Haas and Gary Rajsich to search the Mariners farm system, targeted 22-year old Ken Cloude, a Double-A power pitcher. Seattle was more interested in shopping Lowe.
The 24-year old pitched well for Triple-A (3-4, 3.45 ERA) but got hammered (2-4, 6.96) during a brief call-up to the Mariners. Despite his big-league struggles, Lowe's raw stuff that year was the best that Varitek ever saw from his former teammate.
"All of those pitches that he had that year in Triple-A were probably the best I'd seen from him," said Varitek, eyes wide. "I thought, 'This is special.' "
On July 30, 1997, a perfect storm set the deal in motion. The Mariners, facing the Sox in Fenway, steered a 7-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Seattle's bullpen, which had entered the night with a league-worst 6.14 ERA and 14 blown saves, then commenced an epic collapse.
The Sox rallied for a pair of eighth-inning runs, and Slocumb entered the 7-4 contest in the ninth. Though his 0-5 record and 5.56 ERA made him the subject of fan wrath, for one pivotal night, Slocumb was filthy.
He threw 95-97 miles per hour and he got his breaking ball over," recalled Duquette. "He overpowered Seattle. (Mariners manager) Lou Piniella saw that."
Piniella also saw that his bullpen lacked such an arm. In the bottom of the ninth, Mariners closer Norm Charlton wilted. A trio of hits and an RBI groundout made the score 7-6, bringing Normar Garciaparra to the plate with two outs and a runner on third.
The eventual Rookie of the Year bounced a grounder, fielded cleanly by Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez. But Rodriguez - who would, seven years later, engage in a memorable dust-up with Varitek at the same ballpark - threw the ball into the Sox dugout, allowing the tying run to score. One inning later, Garciaparra lined a walkoff single to left.
"I take full responsibility," A-Rod told reporters. "I don't blame anybody but me."
The Mariners didn't see it that way. The brutal loss forced Seattle, which had declared its top prospects untouchable, to change course and make available players who they never wanted to market.
"We were desperate at the time," remembered former Mariners head of scouting and player development Roger Jongewaard. "I didn't think we were that desperate, personally, but that's the way it goes."
On July 31, the Mariners bit hard and traded top prospects Jose Cruz Jr. to Toronto for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Upon learning of the deal, Duquette dialed Mariners G.M. Woody Woodward.
"I was just praying," recalled Duquettte, "that they'd still have some interest in Slocumb."
Woodward reassured Duquette that his team wanted another reliever. He stayed in contact with the Sox throughout the day.
That night, Slocumb was asked to close out a 2-1 lead. Instead, he produced a calamity: hit batter, groundout, single, walk, game-winning single. Woodward took note of Boston's 3-2 defeat.
"I called Woody back at 10:30 p.m. and he said, "Don't tell me Slocumb blew the lead," Duquette said. "I said, 'Okay, I won't tell you that.' "
Seattle still wanted Slocumb. Duquette made a one-for-one offer of Slocumb for Cloude. Seattle countered by offering Lowe for Slocumb. With the trade deadline nearing and Seattle unable to make a deal on its terms, a compromise was struck 30 minutes before midnight.
"I said, 'Woody, we'll take Varitek and Lowe for Slocumb if you want to do the deal.' " said Duquette. "He felt that he was in a position to trade two young kids for a closer. That's how we got 'em."
It took little time for the Sox to realize that the deal would work in their favor. Long-time Sox ambassador Charlie Wagner told Duquette that Lowe was the second coming of Jim Lonborg. Varitek, meanwhile, received direct praise in the waning days of the '97 season.
"[Red Sox manager Jimy Williams] saw something in me that he liked," Varitek said. "He said, 'Son, keep doing what you're doing. You're a baseball player.'...That meant the world to me, because that's how I wanted to be viewed. That terminology means you play the game right and go about your business as expected."
That laud has been repeated by the Red Sox for years, spanning five playoff appearances and a World Series title. The time when Varitek was left to wonder about his professional home now seems like a distant memory.
Instead, the Boston captain has spent a career defined by stability - that in which he has provided for his team and, conversely, that which he has gained through a decade-long residence in Fenway Park. It is a development that Varitek never could have predicted in 1997, but one for which he is entirely grateful in 2007.
"It's very valued on my part, very appreciated," said Varitek. "I'm very fortunate to be here for my whole career so far.
*Thank you to Sara for sending me the magazine so I could type it up and add it to the site!