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Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Strong work ethic defines Varitek

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

Last season, he hit nearly .300 and compiled an OBP of .390. He has hit as many as 25 homers in a season and knocked in as many as 85 runs. A year ago, he even managed to swipe 10 bases.

But those numbers are of secondary importance to Jason Varitek, who is quick to remind everyone that, first and foremost, he's a catcher.

The offensive production may be helpful to the Red Sox, but Varitek's primary responsibility is to handle the Boston pitching staff.

"Everything else,'' said Varitek, "is a bonus.''

In a survey of executives and scouts, Varitek's name surfaced more frequently than any other when the question was posed: "Who's best at calling a game?''

But Varitek's leadership behind the plate goes far beyond determining what pitch should be thrown next. He exudes leadership. When the Red Sox named Varitek as team captain in December, it was merely conferring an official title. As everyone who follows the Red Sox already knew, Varitek had been the team's de facto leader for several seasons.

"He's like having another coach on the field,'' said manager Terry Francona.

If Varitek is only now getting the sort of recognition that comes from being on a world championship team, his value has long been appreciated by teammates. It took Curt Schilling only a few weeks of spring training to determine that his new batterymate was the best catcher with whom he had ever worked.

Schilling was astounded at the amount of preparation Varitek routinely did, noting hitters' tendencies, defensive alignments and past matchups. If Varitek worked this hard to gain an edge in Grapefruit League games, what would he be like in the regular season? Or, for that matter, the playoffs.

And that's when Schilling began to understand that that was part of Varitek's success: no matter the relative importance, Varitek treated every game the same. He didn't work harder when the season started; he worked hard from the first day in spring training.

Boston's starting rotation a year ago was a varied bunch, both in terms of repertoire and personality. Varitek had a mostly veteran staff, led by twin aces Schilling and Pedro Martinez, and filled out by Tim Wakefield and Derek Lowe. Among Boston's starters, only Bronson Arroyo lacked much experience.

Jason Varitek
Jason Varitek, left, has a hands-on approach with the entire Red Sox staff.

"When you have to handle Schilling one day and Pedro the next,'' noted a major league executive, "that's a handful right there. They're both pros, but they can be a little prickly. They're both dominant personalities. The fact that Varitek handled them, without incident, tells you something about him.''

Personality is only part of the job, of course. When there's a runner on second base in the seventh inning, personality doesn't matter much. What does matter is getting his pitcher to throw the right pitch in the right location at the right time.

Above all else, they must do so with confidence.

"They have to believe in the pitch they're throwing,'' Varitek has said, "and that's part of my job.''

When Varitek calls for a particular pitch, it's based on countless variables: How many men are on base? What did the hitter do last time up? How fresh is the pitcher? What inning is it? Who's on deck? How is the infield positioned? How fast is the baserunner?

The mental checklist is a long one, and there's not much time for Varitek to decide. That's where all the work comes in -- the time spent watching video, scouring scouting reports and getting to know the pitcher on the mound.

"It's fun to watch him,'' says another scout, "because you know he's in full control back there. He's got a plan and he's going to follow it. And he's going to make the pitcher believe in [the plan], too.''

Varitek is the one constant in the batter-pitcher equation -- backup Doug Mirabelli generally catches only when knuckleballer Tim Wakefield starts -- but it's Varitek who must make the adjustments from day to day.

"When you look at that Red Sox rotation,'' noted a longtime scout, "everyone has a different signature pitch. Schilling has his split, Pedro has either his fastball or his curve, Lowe a sinker, Wakefield has the knuckler and Arroyo has that sweeping slider. Then, you get into their bullpen, and you've got [closer Keith] Foulke and his changeup. That's a lot of different pitches to keep track of.''

This week, Varitek will introduce himself to a new rotation. Gone are Lowe and Martinez. New to the team are Wade Miller, Matt Clement and David Wells. Only Wells has pitched in the American League before.

But Clement and Miller will be in good hands. Without having met Varitek before, Clement, during his contract talks with Boston, made it a point to ask Red Sox management about the status of Varitek's negotiations.

If Clement was going to change cities and leagues, and learn about new hitters and new ballparks and new surroundings, he wanted some assurance that Varitek was going to be there to ease the transition.

Told that the Red Sox were making every attempt to re-sign Varitek -- they would successfully conclude talks a few weeks later -- Clement made the leap and signed with Boston.

Like the rest of the Red Sox pitchers, he'll be in good hands.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.