Throughout their 110-year history, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have staged countless nail-biting battles against one another. But in 2004, something unusual happened: the Red Sox started to win. And win big. After suffering far too many backbreaking losses to the vaunted Bronx Bombers – who can ever forget the one-game playoff loss in ’78 or Aaron “Bleeping” Boone’s walkoff home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS – the Red Sox got fed up with losing to their arch-rivals and did something about it. And the player who turned it all around for Boston during that unforgettable season, the one in which they reversed the curse of the Bambino and won their first World Series title in 86 years, was none other than Jason Varitek.
As the longtime catcher of the Red Sox, “Tek” was the guiding light for Boston’s pitching corps – from his unheralded arrival in 1997 until his emotional retirement announcement last Thursday at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, the site of Boston’s new spring training digs. A rugged, durable backstop for 14 years in Beantown, Varitek was a two-time World Series Champion (’04 and ’07) and a three-time AL All-Star who caught an MLB record four no-hitters. If Dustin Pedroia is the heart of the Red Sox and David Ortiz is the soul, then Varitek was the glue that held the team together.
He earned his only Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in ’05, and caught the most games in Red Sox history (1,488). The latter accomplishment is all the more impressive when one considers that Red Sox Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk caught 990 games for Boston before moving on to play for the other Sox in Chicago. Lastly, Varitek was named team captain of the Red Sox after the memorable 2004 campaign, becoming just the third player since 1923 (following Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice) to earn the distinction. He would wear the coveted “C” above his heart over the next seven seasons.
For all he accomplished in Boston, Varitek’s legacy was forever etched in the hearts of Red Sox fans everywhere by what he did during one fateful afternoon in 2004 against the Evil Empire. It was Varitek alone who was able to awaken the listless giant in red socks who had taken one too many shots to the chin from its pinstriped AL East nemesis. With the season’s second half underway, the Red Sox found themselves battling their hated rivals in front of 34,501 screaming fans at Fenway. The date was July 24, the game-time temperature was 65 degrees and Boston trailed New York in the AL East standings by nine-and-a-half games.
Down by a score of 3-0 with two outs in the top of the third inning, Boston starter Bronson Arroyo plunked Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez with a fastball to the left elbow. As Rodriguez began to loosen his elbow guard on his way to first base, he shouted a couple of F-bombs toward Arroyo. Keeping pace with Arod up the first base line was Varitek. As Arod’s angry shouts at Arroyo got louder, Varitek wasted no time getting into the middle of the action and telling Rodriguez where he should go.
“I told him, in choice words, to get to first base,” Varitek said at the time. “And then it changed from him yelling at Bronson to [us] yelling at each other and then things got out of hand.”
Still wearing his catcher’s mask, Varitek jammed his mitt into Arod’s right cheek, grabbed a single-leg takedown and a benches-clearing brawl ensued. When all the dust had settled, both Varitek and Rodriguez had been ejected and Yankee starter Tanyon Sturtze was left dazed and confused. But it’s what happened over the next six innings that defined the Red Sox as a team that season and started them on their way toward making baseball history. With Varitek’s take-no-prisoners approach, the Sox battled back to take a 4-3 lead, before surrendering six more runs in the sixth. Down 9-4, they fought back to win the game, 11-10, in dramatic fashion when third baseman Bill Mueller launched a walkoff, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Yankee closer Mariano Rivera. In Boston lore, it was a baseball game to remember.
From that point on, the Red Sox posted the best record in the majors, going 21-7 in August and 18-10 in September to finish at 98-64. Their sprint to the finish was good enough to earn the AL Wild-Card, winding up just three games behind the AL East Champion Yankees. After dispensing of the Anaheim Angels in three games in the ALDS, the Sox found themselves facing the Yankees for the pennant. In what would go down as the greatest postseason comeback in MLB history, the Red Sox climbed back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win the ALCS in record-breaking fashion over the Yankees. Many baseball historians still point to Varitek’s impromptu fist-to-cuffs from July 24 as the turning point of the Red Sox season.
Although his bat was rarely a worry for most opponents (.256 career batting average, 193 home runs), it’s what ‘Tek did behind the plate that will be missed most of all. His mastery of Boston’s pitching staff, his expertise in calling games and his ability to calm pitchers in crucial situations can not be taught. He blocked the plate better than most and he caught many of the game’s greatest hurlers including Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett. Baseball was instinctual for Varitek and Boston’s current trifecta of up-and-coming catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnway can only hope to come close to duplicating what No. 33 did so well for 14 heart-pounding seasons.
Captain, my captain, I salute you. You will be missed.
Terry Melia is the former longtime Public Relations Manager for the Upper Deck Company and a freelance writer living in San Diego. His prose will be filling this Blog as often as he can spin them.