Fourth Edition, 2008 | Red Sox Magazine | By Ian Browne
For so many years, many of Jason Varitek's most invaluable traits have been immeasurable. How, exactly, do you quantify what Varitek's tireless preparation has meant to the success of his pitchers, not to mention the rest of the team? Fans and media members aren't privy to what goes on in the advance scouting meetings that Varitek and the pitchers take part in for each series. Nor, can they listen in when Varitek holds a one-on-one with that night's starting pitcher a couple of hours before the game. They can't sit in the dugout and get a feel for the way Varitek loosens up a pitcher in the middle of a game with a light-hearted - yet meaningful - piece of advice.
But on the magical night of May 19, it suddenly came to light just what type of value Varitek has to the Boston Red Sox. This time, it was black and white, there for everyone to see. Sure, it was Jon Lester who threw the no-hitter that evening against the Kansas City Royals. While this very likely was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Lester, it most certainly was not for the man behind the plate. This was the fourth no-hitter Varitek had caught every pitch of, as he also served as the batterymate for the historic performances of Hideo Nomo (April 5, 2001), Derek Lowe (April 27, 2002) and Clay Buchholz (September 1, 2007). It's easy to count how many catchers have been on the receiving end of four no-hitters because Varitek is the one and only to do so in the history of Major League Baseball. Finally some individual recognition for the man who does all the grunt work. Not that Varitek would ever seek out any of the accolades.
"I'm just extremely fortunate to be a part of something like that. You have to have good pitchers," notes Varitek. Only Varitek has so much perspective on what it is like to catch the late innings of a no-hitter. "It's pretty intense," Varitek said. "For me, my mind spins 100 miles an hour. You just try to be aggressive, evaluating each pitch. I don't want to be the guy that screws up by making a stupid call."
In a way, the significant accomplishment of catching the four no-hitters served as an emphatic symbol of the work Varitek has done for years. The man brings several things to the table. He has a switch-hitting bat with power at a position that doesn't have many quality hitters. He is an immovable rock behind the plate, so adept at blocking his territory and tagging would-be run scorers. He is a leader, as evidenced by the "C" that has been on his chest since 2005. Still, Varitek doesn't flinch when you ask him what his most important job is.
"Working with the pitchers is by far the biggest job that I have," said Varitek. "Dealing with that on a day-to-day basis. Communicating with John Farrell about little things, things that certain guys need to adjust on. Or finding out what certain guys are working on. It's an open line of communication."
As much preparation as manager Terry Francona and Farrell do for each game and each series, they have another coach on the field in Varitek, one who serves as the eyes and ears for everything that takes place between the lines.
"I think the most important thing is that every pitcher that walks to the mound has the utmost confidence in what he calls, and we're fortunate to have him here," Farrell said. "His ability to not only retain information, but to recall it at various points in the game, is very unique. As a pitching staff or pitching department, we're fortunate to have him behind home plate."
Trust is the most common word associated with how pitchers feel about throwing to Varitek.
"I just follow 'Tek," said Red Sox right-hander Bartolo Colon, the American League's Cy Young Award winner in 2005. "Tek is a professional and I just follow his lead and whatever he puts down, I throw."
It's hard to remember a time when Varitek wasn't catching for the Red Sox. After being traded to the team with Derek Lowe for struggling reliever Heathcliff Slocumb on July 31, 1997, Varitek shared the position with Scott Hatteberg in 1998. A year later, it became his job for good. Through that time, Varitek has caught not just no-hitters, but championships - two of them in fact.
"A good catcher who prioritizes the pitching staff over his own offensive performance is a huge asset to the organization," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He's like the command center of our operation in terms of run prevention. He takes all the information and is ultimately the one who puts down the right fingers. It's a great asset."
Playing a position where age tends to get in the way, Varitek - who turned 36 on April 11 - continues to show no decline.
"I think the thing that's helped me is my size," said Varitek. "And my years of training to keep me in this position and keep me functioning. I've had fortunate health and fortunate favor."
It's important to note that the two times Varitek did get hit with major injuries - a fractured right elbow in 2001 and a left knee ailment in 2006 - the Red Sox went from contenders to post-season spectators in a hurry.
"You want your catcher to be indispensable," said Francona. "And we've found out the hard way in the past that's exactly what 'Tek is."
When you speak of great Red Sox catchers, Varitek and Carlton Fisk are the two that immediately roll off of the tongue. When Fisk watches Varitek either on television or live, he has great admiration because he knows better than anyone all that has gone into it.
"He's the only Red Sox catcher to catch over 1,000 games in a Red Sox uniform," said Fisk. "He's the glue that holds that team together. He doesn't get the Manny publicity or the Ortiz publicity or even the Ellsbury and Lester publicity, or the hype that all the young phenoms are going to get. But a few years ago when he got hurt and was out of the lineup for an extended period of time, you saw where the team went. They slid and slid until he came back. I like the way he plays."
Varitek's contract will expire at season's end. Yet it has been no type of story around the Red Sox in part because the catcher doesn't bring attention to it. What would it mean for Varitek to finish his career in Boston?
"Right now, I can't answer that question, from the fairness of me, the organization, and everybody," said Varitek. "So I can't answer that until I've been presented with that opportunity, or not."
But when the question comes up of who is the leader of the Boston Red Sox, it is a fairly easy one for anyone to answer.
"A lot of that is positional. It came upon me positionally," said Varitek. "The responsibility is just kind of the same as it was before they put a decal on my jersey. I've had to learn to communicate more. I just go out and try to evaluate the heartbeat of the team, keep an eye on some little things that go on. Most importantly, be accountable for my actions on the field."