Varitek's leadership helping Red Sox
Boston catcher's experience proving to be invaluable
Jason Varitek has all the makings of a Major League manager. As a catcher and team captain, he already fills that role, unofficially, with the Red Sox.
"Running the game has always been his strength. That's not going to go away. If anything, he's not going to get dumber," said Terry Francona, in his seventh season as Boston's official manager. "He's a leader, and a mentor with Salty."
"Salty" is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Varitek's eventual successor.
Varitek also is working with young Red Sox pitchers like Daniel Bard, whose 26 1/3-inning scoreless streak this season was the longest by a Boston reliever in 31 seasons, and starter Kyle Weiland, an almost certain September call-up from Triple-A Pawtucket after he spent a two-game cup of coffee with the Red Sox in July.
"I think early on, especially the first couple of months when you're up here, you look at the scouting reports and stuff like that, but everything's so new," Bard said. "What you really need to do is just go out there and look at the fingers that are put down and throw the pitch."
It's a matter of confidence, he said, knowing that Varitek puts a lot of thought into every pitch he calls for.
"Like when you have two strikes on a guy," Bard said. "He'll just stare at the ground for four or five seconds. He's not just looking at the dirt. He's replaying the guy's last few at-bats, replaying the pitches in those at-bats, really putting some thought into it."
Varitek is in his 15th Major League season, all with the Red Sox, after the Mariners made a July 1997 trade that, in retrospect, turned out to be one of the worst in Major League history.
They dealt Varitek and right-hander Derek Lowe, both then with Triple-A Tacoma, to the Red Sox for once-and-future journeyman reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. After the 1998 season, Slocumb was gone. Lowe departed Boston as a free agent after eight productive years (he's now in his 15th season, with Atlanta), and Varitek never left.
"It's meant the world to me [to spend an entire career with Boston]," he said. "You have to have a lot of things go right, you have to have a lot of pieces fall into place, and you have to have some good fortune. I've been lucky enough to have that."
Not that he plans in the near future to discard his mask and chest protector. Varitek wants to play into his 40s. A milestone birthday -- his 40th -- is next April 11.
"It all depends on how my body holds up -- how my knees and arm are," he said. "If I can still compete, I think I can still help this team win games."
He has caught nearly 1,500 contests, far more than franchise runner-up Carlton Fisk, who caught 990 for Boston (and then another 1,236 with the White Sox).
Among active big league catchers only Jorge Posada, who turned 40 on Aug. 17, has more games behind the plate -- all coming for the Yankees in a 17-season career -- and he hasn't caught a game since last year. He's New York's designated hitter and occasional first baseman.
"Obviously [Varitek] knows more about pitching and more about how to catch young pitchers coming up than anybody out there," Weiland said. "It's nice to be able to take my brain out of it a little bit and let him do the thinking for me.
"Sometimes I'll be in a game and suddenly I'll get it, why he's calling for a particular pitch at that moment."
Said Varitek: "You go along with them as they grow as players and grow as people. It's not about me; it's about them. It's nice to see when people put in the work and how things come together and fall into place for them."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa Bay.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.