As the Red Sox continue their current road swing this weekend through Minnesota and then on to Chicago this coming Monday, I couldn’t help but dwell on the struggles of John Lackey and Ryan Dempster this season as both have had a mighty hard time getting to the fifth inning under 100 pitches. And in watching Dempster fail to get a decision in Boston’s 12-5 Saturday night win, the obvious thought passed through the feeble mind of this life-long Red Sox fan: How much difference would a different catcher make to this portion of the Red Sox rotation? And that question kind of triggered a natural Red Sox fan response: What if “Tek” was still behind the plate?
Arguably the best franchise catcher in history (I can appreciate support for Carlton Fisk as well), it is easy to overlook the compelling impact Varitek had on the franchise and it’s pitching staff. Most ardent fans can easily recall Tek’s position as the only Major League player to catch four No-Hitters: Hideo Nomo in 2001; Derek Lowe in 2002; Clay Buchholz in 2007; and Jon Lester in 2008. Varitek stands one notch higher on the no-hit podium than Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Alan Ashby and Ray Schalk who belong to history, having caught three no-hitters each in their respective careers.Since Tek was named Special Assistant to the General Manager this year, returning to baseball after a one-year retirement hiatus, a trip down memory lane seems appropriate. And for those who have followed the career of “The Captain,” it’s easy to see that Varitek was destined for something special dating back to his days in youth baseball.
Varitek is one of only two players in all of Major League history to have ever played on a Little League World Series team, a College World Series team, and a Major League World Series team. Ed Vosberg is the other player to match that feat and you will have to look into the Bible of Obscurity to find what became of his career.
Playing shortstop, 3rd base and of course catcher for his 1984 Little League team out of Central Florida’s Altamonte Springs entry, Tek toiled for the U.S. Championship bracket team which eventually lost the World Series title that year by a 6-2 score to Seoul, South Korea. In three games for Altamonte Springs, Tek went hitless at 0-7, but managed to coax a pair of walks and scored a run for his team.
From there, he went on to star for Lake Brantley High in Altamonte Springs, helping the Patriots to the 1990 Florida High School Championship. (Just this weekend, Tek’s Patriots won their 4th state title since his graduation more than two decades ago).
Drafted by Houston in the 23rd round, Tek opted for college and went on to star at Georgia Tech, earning a few accolades along the way. Playing alongside future pro stars Jay Payton and future Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, Tek helped Georgia Tech to the 1994 College World Series title game which they eventually lost to the University of Oklahoma. Along the way he was named Baseball America’s 1993 College Player of the Year, while earning a degree in Management that would certainly come into play in the future in his ability to handle a Major League pitching staff. During that time Tek played five summer seasons in the Cape Cod Baseball League with the Hyannis Mets, and following the 1993 summer session, was selected as both the League’s MVP and led Cape Cod hitters with a .371 batting average.
His stock measurably improved, he was drafted in the first round of the 1994 draft by Seattle (14th overall pick) and signed with agent Scott Boras. After playing one season of minor league ball with an independent league team, Varitek joined the Mariners farm system and became part of one of Boston’s most beneficial trades in 1997 when he and Derek Lowe were sent to the Red Sox from Seattle.
This began his amazing 15-year run with the Red Sox, which included a few more accolades along the way.
On July 18 of 2006, Varitek broke Carlton Fisk’s record of most games caught by a Boston backstop at 991. He would go on to be named an All-Star three times and in 2005 enjoyed his most prolific year both offensively and defensively for the Red Sox, winning a Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger Awards in the same season. A year prior, in 2004, he received the rare distinction of being selected by his teammates as “Captain,” and wore the “C” with dignity and pride. Oh, did we mention that he was also part of two rewarding seasons for long-suffering Bosox fans when he played instrumental roles in leading Boston to two World Series titles: the first in 2004 ending an 86-year Curse, followed by the team’s 2007 World Series Championship.
Age and injuries began to take their collective toll on Tek by the conclusion of the 2011 season. In his final game as a Red Sox; Sept. 25, 2011, Tek went 1 for 2 with an RBI in Boston’s 7-4 win over the Yankees that went 14 innings and capped a day-night double header against the Evil Empire. Fittingly his career ended on a win over the team’s fiercest A.L. East Rival.
When he hung up his cleats, Varitek’s career line included 5099 major league at bats; 1307 hits; 193 home runs; 306 doubles; 1216 strike outs; 614 base-on balls; 757 rbi; a .341 OBP, .435 slugging percentage and .776 OPS.
And consider this: Since he joined the Red Sox roster in 1997, no less than 25 other catchers served the Red Sox in either starting or back-up capacities; including well-know backstops like Victor Martinez, and much lesser known catchers like Corky Miller in 2006 and Lenny Webster in 1999 (yep, go scrambling through your Elias Sports Bureau stats to find the career numbers on those guys).
I’ve followed Tek’s career since his days as a Lake Brantley Patriot, but perhaps my fondest memory of him is the brawl he started when he got in Alex Rodriguez’s face in yet another testy moment between the Sox and Yankees. We wondered in 2011 when Varitek announced his retirement as a player if he would find his way back to the game. He did that this season in not only returning to baseball, but in a Red Sox uniform where he always did, and always will belong.
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- Selecting the Boston Red Sox’s All-Time Dream Team (bleacherreport.com)