Jason Varitek unmasked, unforgettable
Sox captain put in as much offseason work as ever, but finally recognized it's over
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The hands, tough and callused from the hours he had spent this winter swinging a bat in the basement of his Georgia home as he prepared for another season, told Jason Varitek that he still could play. Look at these hands, he told the gathering of family and friends and teammates and bosses here Thursday night.
His heart, however, informed him differently. So it was that two weeks ago, when Varitek and Leslie Eddins -- his personal trainer for the past 14 years -- walked into his weight room, Varitek closed the door behind him and hugged his trainer.
"That's when I knew it was over," Eddins said. "And then he broke down."
This was Jason Varitek unmasked, having come to a decision that every fiber of a body battered and bruised from 15 big league seasons of playing baseball's most demanding position had resisted until it could resist no more. Varitek conceded he would no longer be putting on the Red Sox jersey, No. 33 on the back, the "C" over the heart, that he had worn as captain of the Red Sox.
On Thursday night, that jersey was draped over the podium set near home plate of JetBlue Park where Varitek stood to announce he was retiring, his wife and three daughters from his first marriage sitting nearby.
"Well, he kept us on a limb all the way until the last week or so," said his father, Joe, wiping away a tear. "He's in shape to play, I'll tell you that. He can play tomorrow.
"But I think he knew it was inevitable. I was hoping he'd squeeze out another year, but on the other hand -- what was that movie, 'Fiddler on the Roof'? -- on the other hand, if he didn't, that's OK."
It was inevitable not because Jason Varitek believed he could no longer play, but because the Red Sox no longer had a place for him in a clubhouse that his last manager, Terry Francona, said he used to run like a personal fiefdom.
The Sox had signaled, when they signed Kelly Shoppach to share catching duties with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, that they were moving on. The choice was Varitek's to make: He could come on a minor league contract and a major league invitation. Not to compete for a job, but to be available if someone else got hurt.
The other option was to sign elsewhere. That wasn't going to happen.
"Deep down inside, I think he could have had other opportunities," Joe Varitek said. "But in his words, 'I'm a Red Sock. I don't want to be on another team. Period.'"
Scott Boras has been Jason Varitek's agent since he came out of Georgia Tech proclaimed as the best college catcher ever. Boras thought Varitek, set to turn 40 in April, could play another year. Boras prepared another of his famous dossiers and gave it to Varitek, enumerating all the reasons that supported his case, including the fact that Varitek had hit 11 home runs in limited action in 2011.
But Boras also recognized the Sox had taken the decision out of Varitek's hands, or at least part of it. He laid out the landscape to Varitek, then told him this:
"You're the type of man who has made right decisions your entire career. I need you to make this decision. I need you."
Still, Varitek resisted. He spent hours this winter doing power squats and working on balance, both he and Eddins convinced that he was failing to throw out baserunners not because his arm was weaker, but because he needed to work more on his core movements. And he hit, and hit, and hit.
What else had he ever known? Donna Varitek, his mother, remembered taking Jason to a Little League game when it was pouring rain, and they doused the basepaths with gasoline and lit it to dry the field. "Remember that?" she said to her husband.
Jason Varitek played in the Little League World Series. His high school team was down seven runs headed into its last at-bat in the Florida state championship and came back to win, Varitek delivering the game-winning hit. Donna Varitek, who was the scorekeeper that day, still calls that her favorite memory.
"He hit it right through the box, a line drive into center field," Joe Varitek said.
The U.S. Olympic team. The College World Series. The rings with the Red Sox. Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. A summer without baseball?
Jason Varitek looked at the line of teammates standing behind the seated guests. So many were there. Nearly all of the pitching staff, including Tim Wakefield, who had returned to the place where he'd announced his own retirement. Saltalamacchia, whom he had mentored with such generosity. Gary Tuck, the catching instructor Varitek idolized. Jacoby Ellsbury.
"My teammates," Varitek said, his eyes filling, "are what I'm going to miss most. The hardest thing to do is to walk away from your teammates and what they've meant to you over the years."
The day will come when Varitek returns to the Red Sox in another role, but Boras predicts that won't be anytime soon. "The one thing I know from players, I don't want to hear anything from you," Boras said. "I got to have 18 months from you. You got to get next to those children. Now it's all about what you're leaving, it's all foreign. Once it gets normal, then we'll talk about decisions related to your career.
"But we've built this bridge to the Red Sox -- Ben [Cherington], Tom [Werner], John [Henry]. Let's keep it open, and let it unfold what he's going to do."
For now, Varitek said, he is planning to spend more time going to his kids' soccer games and tennis matches. Boras, meanwhile, plans to lobby the Red Sox about retiring Varitek's number, while looking forward to the day Varitek returns to the game.
"I told Jason, 'I wish I could tell you what's ahead, but I can tell you this, they need you,'" Boras said. "You're going to bring a legacy to this game. Every catcher should know what you do, how you make the game better, how you make pitchers better, with discipline and commitment.
"They need to know the Varitek way."
But that is part of a future Varitek cannot yet see. On Thursday, the hurt was still too fresh.
"Congratulations," someone said, shaking Varitek's hand.
"I don't get the 'congratulations' part," Varitek said. "I'm not going to play anymore."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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