You probably won't believe me by the time you arrive at the final syllables of this piece, but it is the truth as I know it: There's little satisfaction to be found in criticizing Jason Varitek.
Through his 11 full seasons with the Red Sox, which coincide with the franchiseís modern Golden Age, there has been much to admire about the catcher and captain. He occupies a meaningful place in Red Sox history, having caught four no-hitters and backstopped a pair of world champions. His smell-the-glove beatdown of Yankees narcissist Alex Rodriguez stands as a pivotal and defining event from the emancipating 2004 season. And it does not hurt that his persona and approach fall somewhere between stoic and heroic. With his scrub-brush haircut and impossibly square features, heís an artistís rendering of what a Red Sox catcher ought to look like, just as Carlton Fisk was a generation ago.
In many ways, he is our Derek Jeter, though the Yankeesí calm-eyed, fist-pumping captain is obviously superior in talent and production. They both have extremely recognizable profiles as central figures in baseballís marquee rivalry. They both are greatly respected by their peers. They both loathe A-Rod. And one more commonality: When it became clear that the tangible measures were now suggesting that the player had significant flaws, they both had a well-stocked army of vocal and oblivious supporters who began clinging to the flimsy concept of ďintangiblesĒ as a vague means of denying the erosion of their idolís talent. The emperor has no clothes ó and in Jeterís case, the emperor canít go to his left, either.
And you can bet your bobblehead that punching holes in that particular argument carries a tremendous amount of satisfaction. For all of Varitekís alleged intangibles ó handling pitchers, hustling, grit, guts, toughness, chewing glass, spitting nails, squatting, scowling, etc. ó recent events suggest heís teetering on becoming one of the most vile subspecies of professional athletes: an aging, subpar performer who demands the salary and security of a prime-of-career star.
I would pay good money ó though surely not as much as heíd demand ó to read agent Scott Borasí lengthy treatise on why Varitek, a free agent apparently on an outlandish quest for one last jackpot, is an ďinherently valuableĒ player who deserves a lucrative multiyear deal after putting up an OPS of .672 at age 36. There just isnít enough genuinely funny fiction these days.
I guarantee you there is more truth to be found in the following sentence than there is in Borasí entire sales pitch: Varitek cannot competently hit major league pitching now, and he never will again. He hit .225 after the All-Star break in 2007. He hit .220 this season. Ancillary factors have become another easy excuse for Varitekís 2008 decline. Please, spare me the Dr. Phil nonsense that Varitekís personal problems somehow affected his performance this season. If anything, they would affect his mental preparation, not his ability to connect with a fastball traveling above 87 mph. I donít doubt that Varitek knows opposing hitters better than many, if not all, catchers in the American League. Pitchers of great accomplishment and credibility, from Pedro Martinez to Curt Schilling to young Jon Lester, have said as much so often that there has to be some measure of truth in there. But his ability ďto call a good gameĒ has become such a tired mantra that itís a wonder any young pitcher ever makes it to the big leagues without his guidance along the way.
Varitek deserves some ration of credit for Lesterís development into one of the premier left-handers in the game, and his rapport with other successful members of the Red Soxí diverse pitching staff, from Josh Beckett to Jonathan Papelbon, reflects well on him. But let me throw some other names at you here, along with a word of warning: Prepare to cringe.
Scott Sauerbeck. Chad Bradford. Jeff Suppan. Byung-Hyun Kim. Ramiro Mendoza. Bobby Howry. Matt Clement. Wade Miller.
The point is the Red Sox had enough pitchers who failed miserably here in recent years to fill every staff in the Can-Am League. If Varitek is going to get heaps of praise for the successes, shouldnít he accept some measure of fault for the failures? Funny how no one ever mentions he caught 13 of Clay Buchholzís 15 starts this season.
If there is a trace of venom in this piece, itís only because Iím galled by the brazenness of his current salary demands, though I probably should know better. The perception is that Varitek would play this doggone wonderful game for free, yet a cursory look at his history tells you that his bank account has usually been very high on his list of priorities, dating to when he refused to sign with the Minnesota Twins out of Georgia Tech. You cannot have the execrable and remarkably effective Boras as an agent and claim that youíre playing for the love of the game without being the very definition of duplicitous.
Still, Iím simply dumbfounded that theyíd even suggest that the starting point is four years and $52 million, at least not without a laugh track. Itís those ridiculous salary demands ó coupled with the Iím-a-team-guy-so-Iím-not-going-to-complain-even-though-Iím-complaining incredulity he showed when Terry Francona had the nerve to pinch hit for him in the postseason ó that has me convinced of this: No one believes in the value of Jason Varitekís intangibles more than Jason Varitek.
Then again, thatís all he has left. His bat speed is gone for good, and so are most of the primary skills that made him such a valuable part of so many outstanding Sox teams.
Itís okay to admit it. It happens to all of them. Yes, Virginia, even to stoic and heroic captains who run out every predictable 4-6-3 grounder, all the way to the bank.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org