It was July 24, 2004. The struggling Red Sox entered the day 52-44, 9.5 games behind the division leading Yankees, and in desperate need of a spark. Down 3-0 in the top of the third inning, Bronson Arroyo plunked Alex Rodriguez on the left elbow. After taking a slow stroll down to first base, staring down Arroyo the whole way, Rodriguez started spewing a few choice words beginning with “F” and rhyming with my last name. It was at this moment that Jason Varitek stepped in to protect his pitcher, and supposedly uttered six famous words to A-Rod, thereby causing a bench clearing brawl.
“We don’t throw at .260 hitters.”
Ok. Jason Varitek didn’t really say that, but that’s how I’ll always choose remember it. I’m sure many of you reading this will feel the same way. At the very least, it certainly makes for a fun, interesting piece of baseball lore. Regardless of what was said or wasn’t said on the field, that brawl seemed to deliver the Red Sox the spark they needed to make a move in the standings. Over the final 66 games, the Red Sox put together a league best 46-20 record, earning them the Wild Card and a playoff berth. The rest was history.
Varitek was initially drafted in the 23rd round of the 1990 amateur draft by the Houston Astros, but later decided to attend Georgia Tech on a baseball scholarship instead. In 1993, he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins with the 21st pick, but he eventually decided to return to Georgia Tech to play out his senior year. When he re-entered the draft in 1994, he was selected by the Seattle Mariners with the 14th pick. As a negotiating ploy, his agent, the enigmatic Scott Boras, used a series of loopholes in the draft process to allow Varitek to sign with the St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League, rather than sign immediately. (This would be a tactic he would later use for other clients, including J.D. Drew in 1997 and 1998.) While he eventually came to terms with the Mariners for $650,000, Varitek wouldn’t end up playing his first professional game until the 1995 season.
At the trading deadline in 1997, the Mariners held a slim lead over the challenging Anaheim Angels in the AL West. To bolster their roster, they dipped into their farm system and traded Varitek and promising starting pitcher Derek Lowe to the Red Sox in exchange for Heathcliff Slocum, an experienced closer. This trade ultimately backfired on the Mariners, and later became one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history. Slocum struggled with his control and inconsistent performance during his tenure in Seattle, and ended up losing the closer role by the start of the 1998 season. He was allowed to leave via free agency prior to the 1999 season, and never pitched another baseball game after 2000. Varitek and Lowe, on the other hand, had their most productive seasons ahead of them. Lowe would eventually pitch 7+ seasons for the Red Sox producing 23.5 fWAR, and Varitek produced 24.8 fWAR over his 14+ seasons. More importantly, they played key roles on the 2004 club that brought Boston home their first championship in 86 years. Both players would become free agents after the 2004 season, but only Varitek would return; signing a four year deal worth $40M.
Early in his career, Varitek’s career was marked with ups and downs. After a strong spring training in 1999, Varitek assumed the starting catcher role, and put together a break out offensive season producing a .346 wOBA and 20 home runs. Unfortuantely, the 2000 and 2001 seasons represented a step back. He struggled offensively in 2000, and had a promising season cut short due to an elbow injury in 2001. Determined to prove himself, he came back strongly in 2002; thus beginning an incredibly productive four year stretch in which he would leave a distinctive mark on Red Sox history. During that stretch he produced a .357 wOBA, and provided 13.9 fWAR in value. He became the bedrock of the pitching staff, masterfully calling games, and becoming one of the most trusted men behind the dish in the game’s history. More importantly, he was the silent leader of “The 25″– the team that helped break the so-called, fabricated Curse of the Bambino that had supposedly been holding the franchise hostage.
In 2005, after years of being considered the clubhouse leader, Varitek was officially given the title of Captain. The designation made him only the third player in the franchise’s history to be bestowed such an honor. Carl Yastrzemski (1969-1983) and Jim Rice (1983-1989) were the other two players.
Soon after, his skills fell into rapid decline. His offensive game crumbled first, and his defensive skills declined soon after. He managed to maintain the trust of his pitchers, and has been widely lauded for his game calling abilities even to this day. Still, his arm strength had declined to the point where he became a liability. Base runners ran at will to the point where it was actually embarrassing to watch. He maintained his job as the starter until August 2009 when the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez at the trading deadline. He’s served as both the backup and Josh Beckett‘s personal catcher since.
Tek wasn’t the greatest player we’ll ever see, and he’s certainly not a Hall of Famer. Still, he was both our Captain and an invaluable member of two teams that brought home a championship to Boston. For that, we’ll always be grateful for his contributions. On behalf of the staff at Fire Brand, we wish you well Jason. Thanks for the memories. The last fifteen seasons wouldn’t have been the same without you.