'Tek supported: Teammates will miss captain
Sox players wish catcher happiness as he enters retirement
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Right up until word finally broke that Jason Varitek would formally announce his retirement on Thursday, his teammates half-expected they would walk into the clubhouse one morning to find the captain strapping on the gear for one more season.
"Definitely," said slugger David Ortiz. "It's something that we were used to, seeing 'Tek walking around and doing his thing. Usually you walk in here and the first person you see is 'Tek. Walking in this year and not seeing him was something unexpected. Hopefully he feels good and he's been honest with himself. Man, we're going to miss him."
There had been times in the past when it seemed Varitek might be gone. He was a free agent at the end of the 2004 season. However, Varitek not only came back on a four-year deal, but he was named the captain, a role he had effectively served in without the title for several years prior.
Following the 2008 season, when the Red Sox lost a heartbreaking Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to the Rays at Tropicana Field, Varitek shed some tears at his locker not just due to loss, but because he thought he might be through in Boston.
It went down to the wire, but Varitek finally signed with roughly a week to go before Spring Training in 2009. And again after the '10 season, Varitek was a free agent, but the team re-signed him.
This time around, there was no vacancy for Varitek. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the full-time catcher and Kelly Shoppach was signed during the winter to be the backup.
Out of respect for Varitek, general manager Ben Cherington gave him the option to retire on his own or take one last stab at a roster spot by coming to camp as a non-roster player.
"He's an animal," said right-hander Clay Buchholz. "You see every Spring Training what he looks like -- he's just a specimen. I was expecting 'Tek to play until he was 60. He was awesome behind there, and I still think he could be awesome behind the plate and have a job in baseball. That was his and his family's decision."
As awkward as it might have seemed for Varitek to come to camp fighting for a roster spot, it sounded as if his teammates were hoping he would take Cherington up on the offer.
"I know he would've been ready for that," said Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett. "That's kind of why I say I hope he's happy with his decision. It's unfortunate. I think he wanted to play another year, but I don't think he wants to go anywhere else. I can see why."
Varitek spent his entire Major League career in a Boston uniform, and it would have been hard to picture him wearing a different one.
To the Red Sox, the beauty of Varitek's leadership is that he didn't believe in idle chatter. When Varitek delivered a message, be it to an individual or in a group setting, everyone perked up and listened.
"He did say a lot. He did," said Ortiz. "He just always found the right moment to say it, you know what I'm saying?"
While some players drift away as they retire, Varitek is expected to remain with the Red Sox in a yet-to-be-announced capacity. That is welcome news to his teammates.
"'Tek is somebody that I think this organization is going to need forever, especially now that he's going to retire," Ortiz said. "I think he's the kind of person this organization needs to keep very close. This is a guy who does nothing but add things -- good things. And like I say, it was an honor for me to be his teammate. I learned a lot of good things from 'Tek.
"One of the most important things from 'Tek was the hard work. He based his whole life on working hard and making sure that you were OK. His preparation was so good, it was ridiculous. He was a guy that as long as I watched him play, he wanted to do well, he wanted to do good and he wanted to be prepared for that."
What teammates perhaps marveled at the most was Varitek's was his selfless nature.
"I loved working with him," Beckett said. "I've never had a catcher before that who I felt like cared more about wanting me to be successful even before he wanted to be successful. He's going to be missed a lot in the clubhouse and on the field."
Varitek is the only player in Major League history to catch four no-hitters. He might have caught a fifth if Curt Schilling hadn't shaken him off with two outs and two strikes in the ninth against Shannon Stewart in Oakland in June 2007.
Without Varitek's firm grasp of dissecting the opposition, it's doubtful Buchholz could have thrown a no-hitter in just his second Major League start. That magical night was Sept. 1, 2007.
"There were a couple times early in the game I shook off him and had a couple missiles hit," said Buchholz. "They were caught, but after that, it was just, 'I'm going to throw what he puts down.' The game started speeding up on me a couple times and I remember him calling timeout, running out there, telling me to take a couple deep breaths, throw a pitch down and away and get a ground ball and get out of the inning. That's what I'll always remember about him. He was always the guy that could calm you down when things started to speed up."
One will never know how the Varitek story would have unfolded were it not for a master stroke by Dan Duquette, who convinced the Mariners to trade him two prospects (Varitek and Derek Lowe) for a closer (Heathcliff Slocumb) who was on his way to a sharp decline.
"We were looking for a catcher," said Duquette, now the vice president of baseball operations for the Orioles. "Everybody in the business knew Jason Varitek, because he was drafted twice in the first round. Did we know he'd be with the Red Sox for 15 years and lead the team to two championships? No, but to his credit, he had all the skills and he deserves all the credit for the great work ethic that he developed and his tenacity as a competitor. This kid, whenever we went into Yankee Stadium, he always had a big game. He always did something to help the team win on the big stage."
As the rigors of catching continued to challenge his body, Varitek would often be wrapped up like a mummy as he made his way around the clubhouse in recent years. Ice, heat, tape, heavy wrap -- Varitek was always covered in something. But by the next day, he'd be back in the lineup.
"He's a monster, man. He's a monster," Ortiz said. "I'm telling you. You can tell sometimes when he was hurting. He would still go out there and try to change things around. That's a true teammate right there."