Captain, Oh Captain: Jason Varitek Tries Boston's Patience

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Captain, Oh Captain: Jason Varitek Tries Boston's Patience

As we sit here, at 2:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Jason Varitek has just stopped holding the Boston Red Sox catching situation hostage.

Whether the deadline the Red Sox allegedly attached to their recent contract proposal was imaginary or not had long since become moot. The only thing we knew, until the one-year, $5 million deal with options for a second year was announced moments ago, is we didn't know any more than we knew this morning.

What's troubling is this situation had become about as confusing as my last sentence. And for no reason. Varitek was trying my patience, and the patience of all those in Boston. And the more I think about life without the veteran backstop, the more I think the Sox could have been fine. Am I glad he stuck around rather than bolting? Sure. But I'm not as convinced as I was about a month ago.

And the question remains: After months of complicated and contentious negotiations, can the relationship between the captain and club ever be the same?

When discussing the merits of Varitek—which are quickly dwindling, it should be noted—everyone comes back to his character and dedication and ability to handle the pitching staff. Inevitably, someone utters some phrase about "the 'C' on his chest" and all that it means.

So, less than three weeks before pitchers and catchers report, what does it mean?

 

C, as in Crazy

If you were coming off a season in which you hit somewhere in the neighborhood of .220, and hit somewhere in the neighborhood of .185 over the last five months of the season, and you were offered a one-year contract at a significantly higher pay rate than you were previously receiving, would you take it? How about if you add the fact that it came from the only franchise you've ever played significant games for? Or the fact that you are guaranteed a chance at another World Series title? Would you take it then?

Varitek didn't. He passed up a one-year, $10 million dollar deal earlier this off-season, assuming other teams would come charging to the door. And when they didn't, and the Red Sox offered him a $5 million crumb, he still hesitated. Rumors swirled that he would consider sitting out the 2009 season or retire before signing the deal.

How could it possibly be that bad? How did, all of a sudden, playing for the Red Sox take on the same connotation as scrubbing toilets for a living—which, by the way, anyone would do for $5 million a year. Varitek seemed to be indicating his desire to return to Boston ranged somewhere between plucking his chest hairs out one at a time and eating a bowl of warning track dirt.

Take all that into consideration, and I say he's crazy.

 

C, as in Cash

That had to be the motivation. Anytime Scott Boras is involved, it's a good assumption, anyway. But what else would keep Varitek from inking a deal right away? Only the misguided belief he could land a juicier contract somewhere else. Read into that what you want about Varitek's loyalty. To me, it's telling.

And don't try to tell me Boras is at fault and it was Boras keeping 'Tek from re-upping and it was Boras this and Boras that...last I checked, Varitek is a grown man, one who can make his own decisions. If he wanted to be back in Boston, he already would have been. But he was looking for that final big payday, which never materialized. I wonder if the fact that he flirted with the Mendoza line for much of last season had anything to do with it?

 

C, as in Crippling

To the Red Sox lineup. Varitek's offensive abilities have deteriorated to the point that you can no longer hide him in a lineup. He's essentially the equivalent of a No. 8 hitter in the National League - a sure out four times out of five. That's part of the reason the Teixeira sweepstakes were so crucial this off-season...if the Sox had managed to add a bopper like Tex, it becomes a lot easier to bury Varitek in the No. 9 spot and keep telling yourself, "don't worry, it's worth it. Look at how he handles the pitching staff."

It's how the Sox won the World Series with a 2004 lineup that featured either Pokey Reese or Mark Bellhorn on a daily basis. When you have Manny and Ortiz in the middle, the No. 9 hitter might as well have one arm (and Bellhorn often swung like he did). But now the Sox have to find a way to generate more offense with a catcher who is likely still getting worse at the plate, if that's possible.

 

C, as in Confusing

Confusing because, despite it all, the Red Sox are probably still better with Varitek on the roster. Think about the development of Jon Lester...how much of that is Varitek's doing? How about Papelbon, whose only slump during a standout career just happened to coincide with Varitek's long-term injury in 2006? Think about Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

There's no doubt that all of them will improve more quickly with Varitek calling the pitches. It's no secret that 'Tek has made pitchers better. And it's no accident that he's caught four no-hitters, including improbable ones from Hideo Nomo and Derek Lowe. The other two? Lester and Buchholz. Good like finding better evidence that the catcher has already made a difference in their careers.

That's why it's all so maddening. The process has turned Boston on its head. I'm left feeling almost uneasy about the fact that the Red Sox signed the only catcher I've watched on a regular basis for the past decade or so, the guy who has most embodied the Red Sox attitude since Trot Nixon left town.

If you asked me a month ago, I'd have laid out a case for keeping Varitek at almost any cost. Now I'm left feeling like he's a consolation prize, and that the damage done in the process is irreparable. The team is better—at least I think it is—but I don't have the same sense of admiration I did as recently as last October.

Perhaps it'll all come back once spring training starts. Perhaps Varitek will surprise us all and hit .260, at which point he becomes a remarkable bargain. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Until then, consider me in a Jason Varitek holding pattern.

C, as in wait and see.

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