It isn’t often that one play, one moment can define a career. For Varitek, that afternoon in July of 2004 forever altered the course of Red Sox history. Lest we forget, the Sox at that point were still the beaten-down little brother of the New York Yankees, still stinging over the Aaron Boone incident the previous October.
The July brawl was the first sign that perhaps things would turn around for the seemingly cursed Red Sox franchise. The Sox came back and won the game, then came back on the Yankees again in the playoffs, and haven’t looked back since.
Even that Yankee playoff comeback, though, would not have been possible without Varitek. In the 12th inning, the Sox brought in Tim Wakefield to pitch, whom Varitek had not caught all year.
The result was three excruciating innings where Varitek battled to just keep Wakefield’s fluttering knuckleball in front of him and give the Sox bats a chance to win it. Without his defense, the Sox would likely have lost the game and thus the series.
Beyond anything he did on the field, Varitek’s attitude changed the culture of the entire Red Sox franchise. Unafraid to sell out for a pop-up or to stretch a single into a double, he embodied the self-sacrifice and hustle that this team had been missing for decades.
His legendary intensity and preparation for each pitch set an example that impacted countless players in the clubhouse. No matter how many little injuries he was carrying (and there were many), Varitek never allowed them to show on the field. He was always prepared, always one step ahead of the hitter.
His work with the pitching staff has been praised since he first came up to the majors in 1998. He has gotten the best not only out of Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, but also the likes of Pat Rapp and Mark Portugal. The careers of young pitchers like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been shaped by working with Varitek, whose diligence rubs off on his fellow players.
While he won’t be remembered as an offensive juggernaut, Varitek did have several good seasons at the plate as well. He hit 20-plus home runs three times, won a Silver Slugger and was named to three All-Star teams. He represented his country in the World Baseball Classic and the Little League World Series.
His résumé will likely not be enough to gain him entry into Cooperstown, but that does not take anything away from his accomplishments in Boston. His heart, passion and ability to connect with his teammates were the reason why he was named the first Red Sox captain since Jim Rice.
In the coming days, there will be many tributes to Varitek from fans, the media and his teammates. It is time for us to fully pay tribute to an excellent career, and to salute the man who revived the moribund Red Sox franchise with one shove.