Their answers spoke volumes.
“Man, legendary.” — David Ortiz
“A great catcher, a great person, a friend.” — Jarrod Saltalamcchia
“A leader, great baseball player, a guy you want on your team.” — Jon Lester
Various Sox players were asked about former captain Jason Varitek, who was honored before Saturday’s game against the Blue Jays as part of Boston’s “Thanks, Tek Day.” Varitek retired at Fenway South in March to an emotional ceremony.
Similar feelings were palpable tonight as the man they call Tek returned to the real Fenway for a proper send-off. A montage played on the video board. Two blue tarps covered the on-deck circles. On the visitors side, it read, “TEK.” On the home side, “33.” The Green Monster line scoreboard said, “THANKS TEK.”
Varitek emerged from the dugout, wearing his familiar Sox jersey, the Captain’s “C” still stitched into the fabric. He took his seat and clutched his newborn daughter as high school friends, mentors, and old coaches walked up.
They played video tributes from Derek Lowe and Nomar Garciaparra. David Ortiz presented him with two Fenway seats. Varitek received the home plate from his final Sox game, $25,000 to the Children’s Hospital in his name, a red Ford F-150, and a touching tribute from his three oldest daughters, who called him a “legendary dad.”
“I played here for 15 years, and to come up with the words of what it has meant to me to play here and only here — I can’t,” Varitek said. “I still didn’t know what to say.
“How do you thank an entire nation for my entire career?”
His former teammates gave more than enough thanks.
“Pretty sure, he’s the kind of guy, he likes to be a tough guy, but when you get him behind closed doors…” Ortiz said, pausing to laugh, “when a ceremony like that goes down, you feel what you’re supposed to, give it all for this organization. Me personally, I’m proud for him. He handled his business real well.”
“It’s going to be nice to see him come back out here,” Saltalamacchia said. “He’s so appreciated by all the fans and all the players who have played with him. To see what he went through on a day-to-day grind, and see him … I don’t know if he’s getting to relax that much … see him relax a little bit, kind of enjoy what he’s given to this city.”
Varitek gave plenty.
The all-time Sox leader for switch-hitters in hits, homers, RBIs, and runs, Varitek caught an MLB-record four no-hitters over his 15 seasons. He is the fifth-longest-tenured Sox player ever, and became the 18th captain in team history in December 2004. Not to mention the three All-Star Game selections and two World Series rings.
More recently, his legendary work ethic and preparation has rubbed off on Saltalamacchia, who spent part of 2010 and all of 2011 learning from Varitek and picking his brain.
“I’m starting to appreciate it more and more,” Saltalamacchia said. “Seeing what, just the last few years of his career, being at the age he was at, being able to do this position that’s so demanding, you really start to understand what he does in an offseason to get ready for this grueling schedule.
“At the end of the day, the win is what matters. We can’t win if the pitchers don’t pitch. I’m not here to create all the offense, that’s what the others guy are getting paid to do. I’m getting paid to catch and call a good game and get our pitchers through the game, and that’s what I take pride in.”
And then there’s the iconic photograph, that ubiquitous 2004 image of Varitek and Alex Rodriguez sparring, the masked Captain blindfolding the Yankees star with his catcher’s mitt and palm. Varitek no longer autographs the picture. Ortiz says that’s just Varitek.
“As a fan, you look at things different than the way us as players look at it,” Ortiz said. “That was one of those moments you don’t see too often. Probably why it brought a lot of memories to the fans. But that was Tek, man. Every time he took the field, he’d give everything he had just to provide good things for this organization. He was the kind of teammate, he got your back.
“That photo, that video, whatever it is, it’s something that tells you what’s going through his mind when he’s on the field. Nicest guy ever, great human being, but the idea’s about the same. When you cross that line, he’s going to beat the opposition.”
After Varitek spoke, they invited him to the mound, to throw out the first pitch from the other side. In a role reversal from Sept. 24, 1997, Varitek’s major-league debut, Tim Wakefield crouched behind the plate to catch.
Varitek threw him a knuckleball.