As Jason Varitek heads offstage for the final time, it's fitting to take a look back at his career, and offer up some thoughts on the highlights of his long career for the Red Sox.
(10) Catching 16 innings of a six-hour game against the Rays—at age 39.
There's no doubt that Varitek was one of the mentally toughest players ever to don the Sox uniform. And the position of catcher is notorious for the wear and tear it puts on the body, more than any other position on the field. So, to be able, at the age of 39, to stay behind the plate for all sixteen frames in a game that outlasted the 2004 ALCS Game 5 (more on that in a moment), is an accomplishment to remember for the ages. From a personal perspective, I can barely tolerate sitting in a crouching position for five minutes. To have to do that for nearly three hours in a six-hour span seems to fall under the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment" for almost anyone not related to Gumby, let alone an aging catcher clearly on his last legs.
See the rest of the list after the jump.
(9) His grand slam against the Yankees in April 2009 in the ridiculous Beckett-Burnett slugfest.
This is more of a placeholder spot than anything else, to remind us that in his heyday, Varitek was as much an offensive force as a game-calling wizard. Josh Beckett struggled early in this one, giving up two runs in each of the first, third, and the fourth frames, putting the Sox into a 6-0 hole from which it seemed no recovery would be possible—if it weren't for the fact that A. J. Burnett was the opposing pitcher. Burnett managed to give up a run after walks to Pedroia and Drew, and singles to Youkilis and Bay. But the real damage was done by Jason Varitek, who took the first pitch he saw and launched it into deep right field. This made the game 6-5, and the tide had turned inexorably in the Red Sox' favor.
(8) The botched suicide squeeze in the 2008 ALDS.
The tag team of Jason Bay and Jed Lowrie would combine for the climactic, series-clinching sequence moments later, but the biggest play of the game was the suicide squeeze ordered up by Mike Scioscia. If it had succeeded, it would have given the Angels a lead in a must-win game. If it had ended with a "neutral" result—no harm, no foul—it still would have put the Angels in a situation where they could bring in the run with a sacrifice fly. Instead, Varitek managed to run down Reggie Willits before he could get back to third base, and had possession of the ball long enough to satisfy the third-base umpire, who called Willits out. No rundown here, and the series probably goes back to Anaheim, and who knows what could have happened from there.
(7) Taking part in the four-homers-in-a-row fest against the Yankees.
Jason Varitek transformed the third inning of the April 22, 2007 game against the New York Yankees from a memorable inning into a historic one. The three previous batters in the inning—Manny Ramirez, J. D. Drew, and Mike Lowell—each took pitcher Chase Wright deep: Ramirez and Lowell to left, Drew to right—in a sequence of just eight pitches. Lowell's homer notched the game at 3-3. Two pitches later, Varitek hit a 1-0 pitch into the Green Monster seats to give the Sox a 4-3 lead, and made the Red Sox just the fifth team in history to hit four consecutive home runs.
(6-3) No-hitters for Nomo, Lowe, Buchholz, and Lester.
Okay, I suppose it's cheating to simply lump all of these together into a single item, but how exactly does one rank these no-hitters? Every no-hitter is its own unique gem, and Varitek (thanks to a MLB redefinition of a no-hitter) remains the only catcher in MLB history to be behind the plate for four of them. If pressed, I would probably say that the historical sequence is also in terms of their accomplishment: Nomo's was good, and Lowe's was better, but the no-hitters for Buchholz and Lester were hors concours. Buchholz was a young pitcher making just his second MLB start, and Lester's tale by now needs no summary. To be able to take these two young talents to the heights of history, and to do so with no intervening no-nos, is something to remember, and will be a part of Varitek's legacy as one of the great game callers in Red Sox and MLB history. (And to think, for want of listening to Tek, Beckett could have finished his own.)
(2) 2004 ALCS heroics
The last four games of the 2004 ALCS will be remembered for the heroics of David Ortiz and Johnny Damon. However, in all the excitement, Jason Varitek's role in the improbable comeback may have received relatively short shrift. In an age where catchers rarely play more than four games in a row, Varitek started each of the last five games of the series, on consecutive days. Games 4 and 5 amounted, together, to a triple-header, lasting 26 innings and nearly ten hours. Varitek caught all of them, in a span of just over twenty-four hours. And finally, remembering back to Game 5, don't forget those fatalistic and frantic final frames from Fenway, featuring the fluttering, fluky knuckleball. Those three innings, which aged every Red Sox fan by decades in a matter of mere moments, represent one of those moments where history is balanced on a knife's edge—one small change in either direction can change the course of a franchise. It was of course fitting, then, that Varitek had to complete Game 5 by dealing with Tim Wakefield's knuckleball, which was the bane of his catching existence for many years (as witnessed by the fact that Doug Mirabelli has a 2004 World Series ring). Surviving the thirteenth inning, with its three passed balls, was a profile in courage, both for Varitek and for the Sox fandom at large. To this day, I still want to know exactly what it was that was said on the mound during that exchange after the final passed ball to Ruben Sierra. But whatever it was, it worked, and gave the Sox the breathing room they needed for the magic to begin.
(1) Varitek slugs A-Rod.
If this is the moment that Tek is least proud of in his career, it is perhaps the moment of the 2004 season. This is the indelible image that shall forever be imprinted in our brains in recalling the bitter New York-Boston rivalry of the 2003 and 2004 seasons. This one moment, captured forever in print, encapsulates the triumph of good over evil, the vanquishing of a rival and the exorcism of demons for all time. It is a "thank you" to Boston Red Sox fans throughout the ages, and for that, we shall be forever grateful.