Red Sox honor Jason Varitek

Updated: July 22, 2012, 12:08 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Former Boston Red Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek was at a loss for words.

He stood on the grass a few feet in front of home plate during a pregame ceremony in his honor Saturday night at Fenway Park and said he was speechless. The 15-year veteran couldn't describe his emotions and feelings toward the Red Sox organization, his teammates and the fans, so he simply said: "Thank you."

[+] EnlargeJason Varitek
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesFormer Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was honored by the team on 'Thanks, Tek Day' at Fenway Park prior to the game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

"It was surreal for me to really absorb what just happened," he said. "I spent a lot of my time out there trying to absorb but I don't think I fully can because, on my mind, you're there, they're doing this for you and I in turn want to say, 'Thank you,' and how do you say thank you after 15 years? How do you say thank you to a fan base that has been nothing but supportive? And a fan base I fit with my style of play and what they demanded."

Varitek admitted he was anxious about the moment and called it "weird" being on the field at Fenway and not preparing to play.

When he decided to retire last offseason, it was a difficult decision because he felt he still had enough left to continue his career. But he knew he would have to leave Boston and play for another organization to do that.

It still hasn't sunk in that he's no longer playing.

"It probably never will," he said. "But I'll be all right."

Varitek was presented with gifts, then a video montage that showed highlights of his career, dating back to the 1984 Little League World Series and honoring him for the two World Series titles with the Red Sox in 2004 and '07.

The fans cheered every moment of the video tribute, but the place erupted when it showed the beginning of the famous benches-clearing brawl on July 24, 2004, after then-Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo drilled the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez with a pitch, resulting in Varitek giving the third baseman a face wash with his glove.

"It was important for an organization, a team and a time period where it signified a turnaround point," Varitek said of the incident. "But that team turned it around a good two to three weeks before that. We played great baseball, but we would happen to lose 2-1, 3-2, win one then lose one 2-1. We were playing really good baseball because we were pitching the ball well and it all started to come into play, and then after (the brawl) it just catapulted, but I don't think if what was going on before that had happened, it would have never been a turning point."

Earlier on Saturday, current Red Sox players and former teammates spoke highly of Varitek as a person and a player.

Every time he took the field, he would give you everything he had. He was the kind of teammate who had your back. He was the nicest guy ever, a great human being.

-- David Ortiz on former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek

"Legendary," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said. "A lot of success and a great career. He's a good friend of mine.

"Every time he took the field, he would give you everything he had. He was the kind of teammate who had your back. He was the nicest guy ever, a great human being."

Without Varitek around on an every day basis, current Red Sox starting backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia appreciates even more the education he received from the former Red Sox captain.

"He's a great person, a great catcher and a friend," said Saltalamacchia, who later hit a three-run home run in Boston's 7-3 loss to Toronto. "He's a guy that I was really happy and humble to be able to work with."

The importance of taking care of the pitching staff and the preparation that went into that daily is probably the main aspect of Varitek's career that Saltalamacchia learned. It really doesn't matter what a catcher does at the plate offensively; what happens behind the plate has a bigger effect on a team.

"I'm starting to appreciate it more and more," Saltalamacchia said. "Seeing the last few years of his career, being at the age he was at and being able to do this position that's so demanding, you really understand what he did during the offseason to get ready for this grueling schedule.

"At the end of the day the win is what matters. We can't win if the pitchers don't pitch. I'm not here to create all the offense -- that's what the other guys are getting paid to do. I'm getting paid to catch and call a good game and get our pitchers through the game and that's what I take pride in."

Current Toronto Blue Jays manager, and former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, worked closely with Varitek during their time in Boston.

"The most prepared player that I've been around," Farrell said. "From the way he studied a game plan and put together a game plan, and the things we would talk about, his ability to execute it as it related to what a given pitcher's strengths were on a game that night. Every pitcher had the utmost trust in him and his game calling. He was always about one thing: Getting the most out of the guy on the mound. Whatever he did offensively, in his mind, was a bonus. He was a leader in every sense. It was an honor to be in the same uniform as Jason Varitek."

Varitek caught a total of four no-hitters during his career, including Hideo Nomo (2001), Derek Lowe (2002), Clay Buchholz (2007) and Jon Lester (2008).

"It was neat," Buchholz said. "That day was pretty special for me, obviously. I didn't shake off anything after the sixth inning because I felt like he was going to come out and wring my neck if something stupid happened. That's where the preparation kicked in."

Fittingly, Varitek tossed out the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday, a knuckleball, to former teammate Tim Wakefield who also retired prior to the season after a long career with the Red Sox.

Everyone in Fenway Park was standing, including Varitek's former teammates.

"I'm proud of him," Ortiz said. "He handled his business real well."

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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