February 17, 2008 | New York Post | By Kevin Kernan
BIG RED: The Red Sox may have more talented players than Jason Varitek, but Boston's captain, who already has said his goal is to help his team become the first repeat champs since the Yankees in 1999-2000, is the key to their success.
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Yankees fans need to know this: Josh Beckett is the horse but as long as Jason Varitek is around, he remains the brains of this Red Sox operation.
Boston's captain is his team's Derek Jeter and much more because of the position he plays. The catcher, the heart and soul of these Red Sox, made it clear yesterday his team is focused on one goal: back-to-back, baby.
For the Yankees this 2008 season isn't just about beating the Red Sox, it's about not allowing Boston to walk away with their legacy.
To understand the Red Sox mindset, understand Jason Varitek.
"Our work," Varitek said, "and where this organization is steered towards and we keep working towards, is that our focus out here has to be to come back out and win another championship."
There you have it. The gauntlet has been thrown down on the first day of official workouts for pitchers and catchers.
"It's been 2000-1999 since anybody has been able to repeat," Varitek said of the Yankees without mentioning the Yankees. "That's the goal. The goal of this team, this organization, is to keep putting winning teams out there. This was step one of trying to start that and set that tone now."
Varitek is a free agent after the season when his four-year, $40 million contract expires. He will be 36 next month. Jorge Posada signed a four-year deal worth $52.4 million. The Red Sox would be crazy to let Varitek go anywhere else.
All this isn't just about money. Remember, it was Varitek's mitt to the face of Alex Rodriguez in 2004 that began to turn it all around for the Red Sox. Varitek plays to win. He is a throwback in so many ways. Think Thurman Munson, without the biting humor, and you have Jason Varitek.
What would it mean to be captain of back-to-back championship teams?
"It would mean a tremendous amount," Varitek said. "It means this organization is doing the right things and heading in the right direction. But you also have to have a lot things go in your favor and a lot of things have to match up right. We have to make some adjustments as a team, especially as a pitching staff, to allow that to happen."
It's likely 22 of the 25 players will remain from last season, when the Red Sox swept away the Rockies, and the pitching staff, other than sore-shouldered Curt Shilling, remains the same. Young starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz figure to be stronger this season.
The young pitchers will be smarter, too, because Varitek and his 10 years of experience will be guiding the way.
"That's why my job is so much fun; it's a constant learning process," said Varitek, who plans to catch between 125-135 games. He said he does not expect the young pitchers to be "flawless."
As for the ace, Beckett, Varitek already is pushing him to be better.
"He needs to take another step forward," Varitek said. "Josh worked his tail off last year both mentally and physically, preparing for every start. You can always look to be a little sharper and a little sharper and a little sharper."
How can Beckett become sharper? "Work on his fastball, locate his fastball better and run his sinker," Varitek said. "Perfection we're not looking for, but consistency we are."
Varitek and the Red Sox had this same opportunity in 2005 but fell short. That 2004 championship came after lifetimes of failure. You had the sense in 2005 that the Red Sox were still celebrating the '04 title even though the calendar changed.
The early sense about this team is that the focus to repeat is clearer.
"Every team is different, and every year starts off different," Varitek said. "We have to have a healthy pitching staff and we took our first lump with that right away with Curt. We have a mix of younger and older players and the youthful players have another year of experience, so that's a great thing."
The greatest thing for the Red Sox is that Varitek remains behind the plate. Let the Yankees beware.