Examining Varitek's impact on Red Sox history

April 9th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Previously in the series: Wally Joyner | Darrell Porter

Career: BOS 1997-2011
Accolades: All-Star 2003, '05, '08

The thing about Jason Varitek is that while he is an undeniable, and indelible, part of baseball history, it is kind of hard to tell exactly how much he has to do with it. Was he standing idly by as history unfolded around him? Or was he the central figure in his own story, the reason all that history happened in the first place? Or is it somewhere in the middle? The fact that there is no clear answer is one of the reasons baseball is so wonderful and mysterious.

Here’s a great example: Varitek is the only person in the history of baseball -- and, quite likely, the only one who will ever do this -- who has appeared in all of the following:

• Little League World Series
• College World Series
• World Series
• World Baseball Classic
• Summer Olympics

See? Varitek was not the best player on any of those teams (OK, maybe the Little League one), but he was central to all of them; each was better because of him, and each was obviously good, because jeez, look where they were! Were those teams there because of Varitek? Or was he just the recipient of good fortune, a helpful part but otherwise just along for the ride?

Or how about the fact that Varitek is one of only two catchers in baseball history (Carlos Ruiz is the other) to have caught four no-hitters? He obviously was a smart defensive catcher; Pedro Martinez has long credited Varitek for having a huge part in his brilliant 1999-2000 run. But you can’t really credit catchers for no-hitters … can you? Or at least you can’t credit them for catching four. Right? Can you?

When the Mariners traded Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997, the Mariners were one of the most exciting teams in baseball, and the Red Sox hadn’t won a playoff game in a decade or a World Series in nearly a century. But two years later, Varitek and the Red Sox were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. And five years after that, there was Varitek and the Red Sox doing the impossible: winning a World Series for Boston. Three years later, the Red Sox won another one. None of that happened until Varitek got there. Does that mean he’s responsible for all of it? No. Right? Probably not? But maybe?

After all: Of all those Red Sox heroes, including David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, only one had the "C" stitched on his uniform for “Captain.” It was only Varitek. That doesn’t sound like someone standing idly by, does it?

Heck, you didn’t see any of them punching A-Rod, did you?

Alex Rodriguez and Varitek ended up teammates on a World Baseball Classic team after that, but, it turns out, they did not talk. Varitek still felt bad about it, saying, “My kids were watching that.”

But there was Varitek again, in the middle of an epic moment in the middle of an epic season that ended with a true epic of history. That can’t be a coincidence either.

It’s not like Varitek didn’t put up stats. He hit 193 homers over his 15 years, and he made the All-Star Game three times. He actually received MVP votes three times, from 2003-05, perhaps the best years of that Red Sox era. (Can you believe he stole 10 bases in 2004?) If he had played for, say, the San Diego Padres his entire career, he might not have won two World Series, he might not have gotten a captain’s patch, he might not have caught four no-hitters, he might not be a franchise icon. But he still would have been a terrific catcher. He still would have had a heckuva career.

But being with Boston, during that era, leading those teams … that elevated him to an entirely different level than just being a regular catcher for a regular team would have. He would have been Jason Varitek for the Padres. But for Boston? He’s Tek. He’s the Captain. He’s their guy.

So that’s the question with a guy like Varitek. How much of it is him? And how much of it is his circumstances?

Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. We are all a product of our environment. And we are all our own person. Jason Varitek was put in situations where he had the opportunity to thrive. But not everyone who is put in those situations constantly thrives. Hardly anyone does, actually. But Jason Varitek did. Every time. Jason Varitek wouldn’t be Jason Varitek if he hadn’t played for some monumentally talented Boston Red Sox teams. But the Boston Red Sox wouldn’t have been who they were those years if they hadn’t had Jason Varitek. Circumstances combined with opportunity combined with achievement -- that’s precisely what makes history happen. That’s what we remember.