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Varitek is a backstop and backbone

The initial diagnosis was a right elbow contusion. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, spitting up dirt as he dived for a foul pop hit by Detroit shortstop Shane Halter near the on-deck circle, came up with the ball on that sultry June night in 2001, but staggered into the clubhouse, writhing in pain, clutching his right arm. His teammates looked on anxiously, knowing it took a lot more than a bruise to knock their catcher out of the game.

"He's just so tough," said Nomar Garciaparra. "I've been watching Tek work so hard for so long, and never complaining. You never would have known how bad that injury was by looking at him, because he'd never tell you. That alone says so much."

Elbow contusion? That's probably what Varitek was trying to convince them of in the clubhouse two summers ago, hoping to find his way back onto the field. He was in the throes of the best season of his life, both behind the plate and beside it. He had caught Hideo Nomo's no-hitter in April, then cracked three homers in one game in May, becoming the first Red Sox catcher in history to do so. He was batting a career-high .293 when he threw himself, full speed, into the dirt to make that play on Halter. It was precisely the kind of hustle -- or was it reckless abandon? -- that endeared him to his teammates and coaches.

This time, however, his zealousness came at a hefty price. The second and correct diagnosis on Varitek was a fractured right elbow, which required surgery and caused him to miss the remainder of the 2001 campaign. Last season, Varitek caught 127 of the 132 games he played, but his teammates knew he still wasn't completely healed.

"He never said a word," said pitcher John Burkett, "but it seemed like he wasn't 100 percent. Tek doesn't complain, but he was having treatment all the time. I'm certain he played with discomfort at times."

In the weeks following his injury, Varitek faced something far more dire than discomfort: the uncertainty that his career could be over.

"Any time you're dealing with an elbow, there's an element of risk that the player simply might not come back," said Sox vice president of baseball operations Mike Port. "We had those concerns, but we also had optimism because of the young man in question.

"Jason Varitek is a professional warrior. His approach, his preparation, and his work ethic all gave us hope."

The fact that Varitek's elbow is hardly ever a topic of conversation during this 2003 season is a testament to his dutiful, albeit grueling rehabilitation, and the results he has submitted on the field. He was voted to his first All-Star team this summer, and is routinely mentioned in tandem with Jorge Posada, the New York Yankees catcher who will be in town tonight with the rest of the Pinstripers for a pivotal three-game series. As if the Red Sox-Yankees rivarly needed any more hype, you can now add that it features the two top catchers in the American League.

"I've never had Posada, but I'd put Jason's preparation and abilities up against anyone," said Burkett. "He's the total package."

Toronto Blue Jays director of baseball operations J.P. Ricciardi, a far more objective observer, agrees the contest for the best AL catcher is a two-man race.

"It's Varitek and Posada," said Ricciardi. "You'd have to say Posada has been doing it a little longer. But if you had the first choice, and you took Posada, I wouldn't be unhappy with the second choice. I've long admired Varitek from afar. And you can see the effect he has on this team. They really respond to him."

In a recent poll, Varitek was voted as one of the current major leaguers who would make the best manager. Perhaps that's because of the paperwork strewn about his locker before each game, which includes pitch counts, sequences, tendencies, and other data he's compiled on his stable of pitchers. For his fastidious attention to such details, Varitek is indispensible. The fact he has become one of the true leaders of the team doesn't hurt, either. Nor does the knowledge his elbow will no longer hinder him from maintaining his current success.

He admits he wasn't always sure that would be the case.

"The first month after I got hurt, the only thing I focused on was getting back before the end of the season," Varitek said. "Once I realized that wasn't going to happen, it got a little discouraging.

"But I never lost faith. I got scared a little bit at different times, when some of the news wasn't so good. But I was getting enough information to give me hope for the next appointment."

Garciaparra, who underwent surgery himself that year on his wrist, watched his former college teammate closely as they both recovered.

"It was hard for both of us to sit down and watch," Garciaparra said. "He had a devastating injury. But there was never any doubt in my mind he'd bounce back. He's one of the hardest-working people I've ever seen in my life."

Varitek is enjoying a consistent offensive season that has enabled him to fall into a rhythm and stay with that groove, without too many alterations.

"The only thing different about this year is I've hit for a few more power numbers," he said. "A lot of that has to do with opportunities.

"I hit the ball really well last year, too. In fact, last year was probably the best I've ever gotten the bat on the ball. I just have a little more upper body strength this year."

Varitek's three-run shot against Toronto Wednesday night gave him 22 homers on the year, a career high. He's hitting .283 and has knocked in 79 runs but, he reminds, "my primary job is helping our pitchers."

For Burkett, that means presenting himself as a big -- and informed -- target.

"I've said it over and over -- he's the best-prepared guy I've worked with," Burkett said. "I'm out there trying to concentrate on executing pitches, and it makes it a whole lot easier when you know he's going to handle all the other stuff, like how we're going to set a hitter up, pitch sequences, things like that."

For Jeff Suppan, who joined the Sox a month ago, Varitek's ability to establish chemistry between the two has been critical.

"The first day I got in, we started talking," said Suppan. "You need to have trust in a catcher. If you're in a situation where you're not able to focus on the right things, you need a catcher to get you over the hump. He has already done that for me."

Garciaparra, who played with Varitek at Georgia Tech (where Varitek's -- and not Garciaparra's -- number is retired), said Varitek's handling of the pitching staff has always been his best asset.

"People don't realize how hard his job is," said Garciaparra. "There are pitchers coming and going all the time. He has to find a way to connect with all of them and build their confidence in him. It takes great chemistry to make that happen, and Tek has it with almost everyone. I don't think people realize how vital he is to our team."

"He's one of the best in baseball right now," agreed manager Grady Little. "His No. 1 job is defense. He's had a good year offensively, but if he doesn't get any hits on a given day, he doesn't let that conflict with his defense."

While Trot Nixon has often been recognized as the heart and soul of this Red Sox team, the right fielder may have to share that mantle. As respect for Varitek blossoms, he, too, has become a quiet presence.

"He doesn't talk that often," said Little, "but when he speaks, the guys in here listen."

Although Varitek reports there are "zero problems" with his elbow, that doesn't mean he has the luxury of forgetting the injury ever occurred.

"I have to maintain it," he explained. "I have to stay on top of it. I have certain treatments I've got to keep up with. Last year, I had to do things to continue to rehab the elbow. That meant something the whole season, every day. I was playing and going through rehab at the same time."

Now all Varitek has to be is a switch-hitting catcher that can swing for power, knows how to block the plate, and pays such close attention to his pitchers, he even dreams about their tendencies.

"He's one of the better teammates I've had," said first baseman Kevin Millar. "He's such a big part of this team. He's intense, he works hard, and he cares about the other guys. The other night Bill [Mueller] got forced out at second on one of his hits. Tek is the first guy patting him on the rear running off the field. Those little things matter."

The little things have always been what set Jorge Posada apart. Now he has company.

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