FORT MYERS, Fla. - Not long after speaking with Jason Varitek yesterday, Doug Mirabelli, the captain's catching partner in crime since 2001, was given his unconditional release. It was further proof how difficult the job is - never knowing when the end is near and hoping your body doesn't betray you before you're ready to hang up your spikes.
According to team sources, the 37-year-old Mirabelli's bat had slowed since last season, when he appeared in 48 games and hit just .202 with 5 home runs and 16 RBIs. His defense, particularly his throwing arm, has declined. In the end, the Red Sox decided Kevin Cash, as solid as there is defensively, was the better option.
General manager Theo Epstein said the coaching staff was high on Cash last season after watching him handle knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
The developments made it clear how valuable the soon-to-be 36-year-old Varitek is to this team. Varitek said yesterday he has no crystal ball, but he does have one realistic goal. "I'd like to keep playing every day until I'm 40. I think that's the immediate goal. I want to play as long as I can competitively, as long as I don't hurt myself or the team. I've thought about this a lot. I don't have a magic answer, but I know that I can probably do this for a while."
Which is precisely what his agent, Scott Boras, will say when he pitches an extension to the Red Sox in the near future. With Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, 36, signing a four-year, $52.4 million contract in the offseason, Boras has a player to compare Varitek with. The Red Sox would likely offer Varitek a two-year deal worth $20 million, but Boras might be looking for more money and more years.
Catching is hard to find and unless Dusty Brown, George Kottaras, or Mark Wagner develops very quickly, Varitek is still the best in the organization.
Varitek shrugged when asked whether the four-year deal he signed after winning the World Series in 2004 was done too late for comfort. After all, Varitek has never thought about playing in another uniform. If he's on the market after this season, he will have plenty of suitors, but Varitek quickly changes the subject, directing business questions to Boras.
His bat isn't as potent as Posada's, which is how the Yankees justified giving him a big contract. After his catching days are over, Posada can DH or play first base. Yet Varitek, given the way he takes care of himself, could surely reach his goal of playing at 40. When posed with the comparison with former Sox great Carlton Fisk, who caught until he was 45, Varitek smiled. He knows that might be a stretch, but if he could do it, he would.
"That would be a nice thing," said Varitek.
To this point, the years have been kind to Varitek. There might not be a better handler of pitchers in the game. Teammates who have gone on to other teams, especially pitchers, will tell you he has no equal.
"He's the best," Pedro Martínez said recently. "I have so much respect for him and what he means to a pitching staff and what he meant to me. He thinks along with you. He's like another coach out there. There's nobody better than Tek."
Sometimes catchers get their second wind in their middle 30s. Fisk did. Others, such as Mirabelli, who joined the Sox in 2001, was dealt to the Padres in 2005, and was reacquired to handle Wakefield in May 2006 - cementing his reputation as a knuckleball-catching specialist - fall by the wayside.
Always a great worker, Fisk stepped up his workout routine as he got into his late 30s. Varitek went into the offseason without having to rehab an injury, so he worked on strength and conditioning. He said he's learned to vary his routine to get the most out of it. He's gotten smarter when it comes to balancing work and rest during the season.
He revealed yesterday that catching is actually tough for him. Not only the physical nature of it, but the mental aspect. This is a guy who starts preparing for the next game about a minute after the previous one ends. He always has thoughts and ideas spinning through his head. He wants to catch the next day's pitcher's warm-ups, so he knows what kind of stuff his starter has. He pores over scouting reports. It's a tedious, exhausting job.
"I've been on 10 teams, had a lot of catchers," said former Red Sox reliever Mike Myers, "[and] he's the most prepared. I mean, I've always said that Jorge Posada is to the Yankees what Tek is to the Red Sox, but Tek's preparation for getting a pitcher ready to pitch [is] off the charts. There are guys who might be more athletic. Guys who hit better. Guys who even throw better. But, overall, he impacts a team like nobody else."
"I think his preparation is legendary," said Posada. "He makes that team tick. What he does with those pitchers is incredible. I think anyone in baseball respects him."
As Epstein and his staff calculate where Varitek should be on the pay scale, they realize that numbers, graphs, and charts don't tell all of Varitek's story. They know that anything Bill James comes up with won't account for the intangibles the captain brings to the table. There are plenty of studies that try to pinpoint when a catcher's skills decline and when it would be a gamble to sign him.
The Red Sox felt they made a gamble in the winter of 2004, when right before Christmas, the Red Sox staved off a late challenge by the St. Louis Cardinals to sign Varitek to a four-year, $40 million deal. The outlay of resources was worth it. The Sox won another championship and Varitek has had a hand in breaking in pitchers Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, and Jonathan Papelbon.
"That part never gets easy," said Varitek. "Even if you've been around guys for a while, you have a situation like Curt [Schilling] where he could throw a 95-mile-per-hour pitch on the black and throw in a back-door cutter, and now he's different. You always see guys take the next step. Dice-K coming up. Even a guy like Josh. That part is continuous."
He said he's spoken to Fisk briefly, and respects what he did and all the games he caught. He would love to be the modern version - a guy who is ageless and goes out on his own terms.
Oh, he has his share of aches, pains, and injuries. He's going through a dead-arm stage now, which he says happens like clockwork every season.
Yesterday's news was an eye-opener. Mirabelli didn't go out on his own terms. He went out the way most aging catchers do - a trip to the manager's office, where the bad news is delivered.
Varitek, however, seems far, far away from that day.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.