Sox praise Varitek as model teammate

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When pitchers and catchers reported to Red Sox spring training earlier this month and Jason Varitek was not in camp, it was a strange feeling.

Even though most players thought the captain would retire, they still had a feeling he could walk through that clubhouse door at some point. Varitek will be at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on Thursday -- to announce his retirement after 15 seasons with the Red Sox.

"Great teammate," Red Sox DH David Ortiz said Tuesday morning. "It was fun. It was a good ride being Tek's teammate. There are a lot of memories involved."

Ortiz and Varitek won two World Series titles in Boston and were teammates from 2003-11. Now Varitek is retiring a member of the Red Sox, something Ortiz also hopes to achieve.

"Tek is somebody, I think, this organization is going to need forever, especially now that he's going to retire," Ortiz said. "He's the kind of person this organization needs to keep very close because this guy does nothing but add things, good things. It was an honor for me to be his teammate. I learned a lot of good things from Tek, but the most important thing was hard work.

"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 be prepared for that.

"Hopefully he feels good about it. Hopefully he's being honest with himself," Ortiz added. "Man, I going to miss him."

After every game, even if he didn't play, Varitek wrapped himself in ice packs. When each season ended, he would admit he couldn't walk straight down a flight of stairs. He played through pain. He played through injuries.

"He's a monster," Ortiz said. "You could tell sometimes he was hurting, but he still went out there and tried to change things around. That's a true teammate right there."

Now that Varitek and Tim Wakefield have retired, Ortiz is the longest-tenured player with the Red Sox. He and Kevin Youkilis are now the only players remaining on the roster from the 2004 championship team.

"That's something I really don't look at it that way, but it is what it is, right?" Ortiz said. "We'll see how long that goes."

Down at the other end of the clubhouse Tuesday morning, the pitchers were all ready to wax poetic about Varitek. Red Sox starter Josh Beckett always said he was at his best when Varitek was his battery mate. Varitek caught 905 of Beckett's career innings, far and away the most by any catcher.

"We're still going to be friends," Beckett said. "Obviously he's not going to be catching me this year. I hope he's happy with his decision. I think it's a tough one to make. [Wakefield] did it earlier and I think it's cool they did it the same year and I hope they're both OK with their decisions.

"I loved working with him. I've never had a catcher, before [Varitek], who cared 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."

During the offseason, the Red Sox offered Varitek a minor league contract with an invitation to big league camp, but he turned it down. He probably could have signed with another organization, too, but it was clear he wanted to finish with Boston.

"I think he wanted to play another year, but I don't think he wants to go anywhere else, and I can see why," Beckett said.

Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz will always have a special bond with Varitek. In only his second big league start on Sept. 1, 2007, Buchholz tossed a no-hitter with Varitek behind the plate. Varitek caught four no-no's during his career: Hideo Nomo ('01), Derek Lowe ('02), Buchholz and Jon Lester ('08).

"I sort of have a foggy memory of that," Buchholz said with a smile. "That was something that I never expected to go out there and do, and even during that game when I started getting going too fast and everything speeding up on me, he was the guy to run out there and calm me down. He would say, 'Hey, just take a couple of deep breaths, throw a fastball down and away, get a ground ball and get out of this inning.' That's how he worked and I had a blast with him.

"Man, he's a guy who everybody always looked up to, especially from my point of view, being a young guy coming up. He was never really loud vocally a lot, but you could tell by the way he looked behind the plate that he knew what he wanted to do. It was awesome getting to spend four or five years with him. He'll always be remembered as the captain of the Boston Red Sox."

Jarrod Saltalamacchia resurrected his career with Boston. The onetime catching prospect struggled earlier in his career and the Red Sox took a chance when they acquired him from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline on July 31, 2010.

Varitek took on Saltalamacchia as a pupil and it wasn't long before the pupil took over for the teacher.

"He meant a lot, obviously," Saltalamacchia said. "He helped me out a lot last year. The year before he was trying to recover from injury, so we didn't get to spend a lot of on-field time together, but I was still picking his brain a lot. But last year was a huge, huge help for getting my career back on track. Just the person he is, you can't find a better person."

Even before Saltalamacchia arrived in Boston, he respected the veteran.

"Yeah, without a doubt. Just the way he went about his business. Even without being in the clubhouse, you could look across the field and see how people respected him, so you definitely look up to a guy like that."

When it was clear the Red Sox were making the transition and began leaning more on Saltalamacchia, Varitek accepted the backup role, something Salty won't ever forget.

"I was definitely a little hesitant. I didn't know how to act toward the pitchers because I always looked at him to get the meetings started, but he did an unbelievable job letting those guys know where I stood and where he stood," Saltalamacchia said. "It was overwhelming. I didn't expect that.

"I didn't expect him to be so helpful and say 'Hey man, this is your team.' I was like, 'You're the captain. It's your team.' That is the kind of person he is. He always wanted to make me feel comfortable. He always wanted to help me out and stuck up for me. I can't thank him enough for jump-starting my career again."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.