Varitek leaves behind a fine career - and one lasting, iconic image
FORT MYERS, Fla. - New England Baby Boomers know what I’m talking about.
The photo was always there. Go into a home, or even an establishment of commerce, and there would be an image of John F. Kennedy somewhere on the wall. Sometimes JFK would be flanked by Pope John XXIII or perhaps Richard Cardinal Cushing. It was a universal truth in the world in which I was raised.
Now we have something new. Something from the world of sports. Something from the Biblical baseball season that forever will be the greatest sports story ever told.
We have the iconic photo of Jason Varitek smashing his catcher’s mitt into the face of Alex Rodriguez. Try to find a saloon in Greater Boston that does not have this photo somewhere behind the bar.
It is the image of defiance. It’s a memory of stepping up for yourself and for your team. It’s a Red Sox captain saying “no more’’ to the bully of eight-plus decades.
It makes Jason Varitek immortal.
The catcher/captain officially retired late yesterday afternoon. In an emotional ceremony on the still un-trod-upon Fenway South lawn, Varitek finally met the professional death that awaits all athletes. He hung up his mask.
“You have been our rock,’’ said Sox chairman/John Henry wingman Tom Werner. “We vividly remember how you stared down opposing players. You did own that clubhouse.’’
There was nothing particularly surprising or dramatic about the farewell ceremony. We have suspected for several months that Varitek was not coming back to the Red Sox.
He was part of the group that fizzled so spectacularly last September. When the 2011 season ended, it was all over for Tek. The phone didn’t ring this winter. There was no market in Boston, or anywhere else, for a 39-year-old catcher (40 next month) who hit .221 in 68 games.
Sometimes, it no longer matters how much you know, or what kind of a game you can call. It’s simply a matter of numbers. Thirty-nine is a bad number for a catcher. And .221 doesn’t help. Time to put away the tools of ignorance.
He played 15 seasons in Boston. His entire major league career. Thanks to Dan Duquette, Varitek came to Fenway along with Derek Lowe in exchange for Heathcliff Slocumb. Wow.
The only players who spent their entire career in Boston and played longer than Varitek are Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Jim Rice. He was a switch-hitter who crushed 193 homers and caught 1,488 games. He made three All-Star teams and won two World Series. He caught the final strike in Colorado in 2007. He caught four no-hitters, including one tossed by Jon Lester in 2008.
“You hate to see him go,’’ said Lester. “He was such a good teammate. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around.
“It didn’t matter if you had a day in the big leagues or you’re Johnny Pesky, he treated everyone the same. For me, in the time I came up with a lot of the guys we had, that was something that was special to me. The way he treated us young guys.
“He’s obviously going to be missed. I think he’s one of the greatest catchers of all time and I hope he gets that respect down the road.’’
Varitek was renowned for his preparation and game-calling. He had the trust of his managers and his pitchers.
“It’s a comfort feeling,’’ said Lester, who first pitched to Varitek in the majors when he was 22 years old in 2006. “The comfort was a good thing that we had. And it was good to have Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] and [Ryan] Lavarnway around him last year.
“Everyone processes information differently. Tek was a very numbers-oriented guy, but he could go away from those numbers and have a hunch.
“That’s a big part of him he tried to instill in a lot of guys. When you’re sitting back there in the heat of battle, those numbers aren’t always right. As a pitcher, you know when he’s got that feeling. You get in that comfort and let him take over.’’
Varitek is probably the most decorated amateur player in baseball history. He played in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., the Florida state championship high school game, the College World Series in Omaha, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and the Cape Cod League. He is in the Cape League’s Hall of Fame and was named to the All-Time College All-Star team by Baseball America.
But here in Boston, we remember him most for a moment in time: July 24, 2004. The day he stuffed A-Rod in the face, then picked him up off the ground. It was the moment that galvanized the 2004 Red Sox. It led to the team’s first World Series title in 86 years.
Through the years, Varitek has refused to sign copies of the photo. I asked him yesterday what he thinks when he sees the image.
“I was just being a teammate,’’ he said. “It wasn’t something that you’re proud of. We’ve been down this road, talking to my kids. I was being a teammate. Things were going on, things being said to my teammate [Bronson Arroyo], and it just happened to happen that way.’’
Is it still his position not to sign the photo?
“It became ongoing as soon as the first day, my oldest daughter, when they were walking out in the parking lot, said, ‘Oh Daddy, look - it’s the picture of you fighting again.’ I thought, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t sign that.’ ’’
“I was right in the middle of that,’’ recalled Kevin Youkilis, who was a rookie in 2004. “Kenny Lofton was kind of going off and I grabbed hold of him. Then Jorge Posada grabbed me.
“Alex thought he got hit on purpose, and Bronson didn’t hit him on purpose. That’s just how it works. He said something to Varitek, and Varitek didn’t like it.
“It was kind of ironic, because they both have the same agent [Scott Boras]. I think it was just an emotional thing. Jason stuck up for his pitcher. It definitely became a symbolic thing in Boston.’’
That’s an understatement. The Varitek/A-Rod dust-up was the moon landing of Boston sports in the 21st century. Folks remember where they were and what they were doing. And they have the photo on the wall someplace - to remind them of the greatest sports story of all time.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.