The much-admired catcher — at least in this corner of the AL East — will announce his retirement today after 14 seasons and a single 1997 at-bat with the Red Sox.
The timing is right, and it shouldn’t be taken as rude to suggest it may even be overdue. His effectiveness waned in recent seasons, his stay extended by a consensus belief in his intangibles and leadership, at least until the C on his jersey proved little more than a mocking decorative ornament as the season crumbled last September.
But even those who recognize the necessity of the moment know it just won’t be the same without him around. His retirement feels like the end of something bigger than the end of a single admirable career. Like Carlton Fisk a generation before, Varitek was not just the backstop, but the ballclub’s backbone. He will never join Pudge in Cooperstown nor should he, but he is a pivotal, beloved figure in Red Sox lore, so essential in the affirming championships of 2004 and ’07.
The praise from ex-teammates — particularly those who stood 60 feet 6 inches away — has preceded his formal farewell, and it’s more than just predictable platitudes.
Pedro Martinez told Tony Massarotti, “To be honest, half of my success in the big leagues is because of Jason Varitek.” Now, whenever someone prefaces a comment with “to be honest,” I’m instantly skeptical of what’s to follow. But Pedro’s respect for his longtime catcher is well-documented, heartfelt, and real, and one could compile a damned impressive staff who consider Varitek relevant to their own accomplishments.
“I never had a catcher before that I felt like cared more about wanting me to be successful even before he wanted to be successful,” said Josh Beckett, an extraordinary bit of insight into what pitchers want from a catcher and what Varitek delivered.
We will hear more of these anecdotes and testimonials at 5:30 this afternoon and in the coming days, of course. We’ll hear about the record four no-hitters he called and caught (Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester), and since I wrote what I felt like was an appropriate tribute to Tek’s place in Red Sox history back in December, I thought today I’d take a different approach and look at how close he came to catching another no-hitter or two. It’s something had a fun time pulling together while considering Nolan Ryan’s career, a chance to revisit Pedro Martinez’s greatness, and one more tribute to Varitek’s consistent proximity to greatness and history.
As it turns out, he came within a curveball here and a fastball there to catching more than four. With the assistance of baseball-reference.com’s remarkable Play index, my accounting concludes that Varitek actually caught seven one-hitters — two by Pedro, one apiece by Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, and Hideo Nomo (!), and combined efforts from Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon as well as Daisuke Matsuzaka (!!) and Daniel Bard.
Here’s a quick look at each, in chronological order, while acknowledging I may have missed a combined one or two along the way:.
September 10, 1999: Objectively, the best-pitched game I ever saw might be Kerry Wood‘s 20-strikeout one-hitter against the Astros in 1998. Subjectively, nothing will ever top this, Pedro’s 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Yankees at the Stadium. His fastball, curve, and changeup that night all might have been better than any pitch in the repertoire of any other pitcher in the big leagues at that moment. And I still say Chili Davis totally had his eyes closed when he connected for the Yankees’ only hit, a solo homer in the second inning.
August 29, 2000: Pedro again, and this one was as bizarre as the one-hitter over the Yankees was beautiful. Devil Rays leadoff hitter Gerald Williams charged Pedro after he was hit with the fourth pitch of the night. The Rays retaliated by turning Brian Daubach into a human bull’s-eye, drilling him twice. Three other altercations ensued, with eight Devil Rays eventually ejected. And through it all, Pedro was absolutely mesmerizing, retiring 24 batters in a row after hitting Williams. But John Flaherty, a career .252 hitter, led off the top of the ninth with a single. The hit came a pitch after Pedro’s cross necklace broke and fell to the ground, something Red Sox fans read as a certain omen since we punished ourselves with such nonsense then. “I don’t really care. I’ve achieved enough,” Martinez said afterward when asked if he was disappointed he didn’t get the no-hitter. “I’ve had enough achievement in my career. A no-hitter is not what’s going to dictate what kind of pitcher I am. I think my career is more interesting than one game.”
May 25, 2001: During his one year with the Red Sox, Nomo threw basically two pitches — a hard, straight fastball, and a splitter that looked just like the hard, straight fastball until the bottom fell out of it as it approached home plate. Nomo was rather hittable if his command was off or the hitter laid off the splitter (which usually dipped out of the strike zone) or guessed right, which explains the 4.50 ERA, league-high 96 walks, and 26 homers allowed. But when he was on, he was a strikeout machine (he led the league with 220) who was all but unhittable — and on one occasion, was unhittable. Ten starts after pitching an 11-K no-hitter in his Boston debut, Nomo was nearly as spectacular, whiffing 14 (including Carlos Delgado three times) while permitting just a fourth-inning double to Shannon Stewart.
July 18, 2006: In his eighth career start — and fifth victory without a defeat — the rookie Lester threw eight innings of one-hit ball before Jonathan Papelbon closed out the 1-0 win with a perfect ninth. This was an even more dreadful edition of the Royals than the one he no-hit in May 2008. The loss dropped them to 32-61. Esteban German was the DH and No. 2 hitter. Mark Grudzielanek hit third and Emil Brown cleanup. The lone hit was by No. 5 hitter Mark Teahen, a one-out single in the seventh. The Red Sox lineup wasn’t without quirks, either. I’d kind of forgotten that Kevin Youkilis hit leadoff from time to time.
June 7, 2007: This game, a 1-0 Red Sox victory, went a long way toward enhancing Varitek’s legacy and legend as a masterful caller of pitches. With two outs in the ninth, Oakland’s Shannon Stewart — yep, same dude who broke up Nomo’s no-no bid six years earlier — sharply hit the first pitch he saw from Curt Schilling — a fastball — for a single. “We get two outs, and I was sure, and I had a plan, and I shook Tek off,” lamented Schilling afterward. “And I get a big ‘What if?’ for the rest of my life.”
May 22, 2010: As maddening as he can be, Daisuke Matsuzaka sure had a knack for mixing in a true gem every now and then. Even last April, four starts before he’d be shut down and eventually undergo Tommy John surgery, he pitched eight innings of one-hit ball in a win over the Angels. That wasn’t a one-hitter since Daniel Bard gave up a hit in the ninth, but this unexpected gem against the potent Phillies the previous May was, with Matsuzaka allowing just Juan Castro‘s single with two-outs in the bottom of the eighth before Bard’s flawless ninth secured a 5-0 victory.
June 15, 2011: In the aftershocks from September, it was easy to forget how good Beckett was for much of last season. He had a 2.27 ERA in the first half, finished with 47 more innings pitched than hits, and had careers bests in WHIP (1.02) and adjusted ERA. (147). He was among the best, at least right up until they needed him to be at his best, and he was never better than during his 97-pitch, one-hit, no-walk performance against the Rays, the lone hit an infield single by .174-hitting Reid Brignac in the third inning.