It appears that everyone in Red Sox nation, despite our emotional attachment to our beloved Captain, has written off Jason Varitek.
“Come on” everyone says, “it's his 12th season….he's getting old…he’s lost his bat speed…his arm has gone soft…he can’t even throw out old ladies trying to steal second.”
If you scrutinize JUST the last season and one-third of Varitek’s work, then yes, all of the above rings true. But I think it would be prudent to look at other aging catchers and how their career paths have progressed before writing Tek’s eulogy.
For Red Sox fans, we only have to go back to our last great Red Sox catcher: Carlton “Pudge” Fisk.
Author’s Note: If you thought the Red Sox’ last great catcher was RICH GEDMAN, PLEASE stop reading this article now...and PLEASE refrain from reading any more of my stuff in the future…you make me feel dirty...Thank You.
After 1980, Carlton Fisk's 11th season with the team, the Red Sox’ bumbling management partners of Buddy Leroux and Haywood Sullivan failed to offer Fisk a new contract before he became an unrestricted free agent.
Once Fisk entered free agency the Red Sox lost him for good when they would not match the multi-year, big-money contract offer made by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
But I mean who could blame them? In 1980, Fisk was getting ‘old’ (like Varitek is now...the ‘aging’ catcher) as he was preparing to enter his 12th year behind the plate.
Fading into the distance was Fisk’s heroic blast in the 12th inning of Game Six of the 1975 World Series where a waving and bouncing Fisk seemed to “push” the ball fair…fair enough so that it struck the left field foul pole and won the game.
In 1980, Red Sox ownership believed they were about to see Fisk's numbers decline rapidly in a similar fashion to fellow veteran teammates Butch Hobson, Jerry Remy, and Fred Lynn; all who missed at least 50 games of the 1980 season with injuries.
The team failed to re-sign him despite the fact that concerns over his age and longevity were 100 percent speculative...After all, Fisk had just finished the season hitting his standard .290 and was still beating up Yankees at the rate of one bench-clearing brawl per series.
So was it a smart move to let Carlton Fisk go?
Well fast-forward to 2009…how much would Red Sox Nation be howling to hold onto Varitek if he was hitting an automatic .290 every year?
So what happened when Fisk went to the White Sox?
They managed how many games he caught, he stayed relatively healthy, and he continued those stellar numbers for three more seasons until 1984 when his batting average plummeted down to .231. In 1985 and then 1986, Fisk continued to flounder at the plate, hitting .238 and then .221 respectively.
So it was in the winter of 1986, after 17 years of service, that most in Chicago and in baseball thought the career of Carlton 'Pudge' Fisk was DONE. (HELLOOOooo...Jason Varitek anyone???)
So here's the point where Red Sox Nation needs to sit up and pay attention...
The White Sox stayed with Fisk in '86 and that decision paid off brilliantly for four more years. The next four years, Fisk's unbelievable 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st seasons in the major leagues, he hit a VERY respectable .256, .277, .293, and .285.
It wasn't until his 22nd season behind the plate in 1991 (when he hit .241) that injuries caught up to him and began the actual end to his great career. In 1992 and 1993, Fisk’s injuries limited him to part-time duty where he caught just 62 and 25 games, hitting .229 and .189 respectively.
After the 1993 season, after 24 years behind the plate, and at 46 years of age, Carlton Ernest Fisk took off his leg guards and his mask...and retired.
Jason Varitek is only half way there...
OK...so before you say it...I know...I know—Jason Varitek is NOT Carlton Fisk…
But my point is that if you use Fisk's career as a comparison, then Varitek's current 220-game stretch of .220 ball is not a large enough body of work to say with absolute certainty that he is done.
So what has caused Varitek to look like a third grader with Tourette’s syndrome and a learning disability at the plate?
It could be personal stuff. Throughout 2008 and this winter, Varitek has been going through the breakup and dissolution of his marriage. You never know how something like the ending of a marriage can affect a person. We all handle it differently, no matter whose fault it is.
And we all know how much “on-field" baseball success is tied to the player's "off-field" life. A player's emotional control, confidence, and stability all translate to continued excellence on the baseball diamond. It’s the main reason baseball players are such creatures of habit.
So while everyone is shoveling dirt and dropping flowers on top of the baseball coffin of Varitek, keep Carlton Fisk's mid-career slump in mind (and his hitting resurgence that followed).
The ups and downs of Fisk's offensive pedigree are a reason to believe that it is possible that Varitek COULD bounce back from the nasty black hole his bat has taken up residence in.
So in the end: Am I glad the Red Sox seem to be posturing to bring in the team's next franchise catcher soon? Unequivocally...Yes.
But do you think the Red Sox regret letting Carlton Fisk slip away in 1981?
I guarantee you they do...I know I sure as hell do.
So don't give up on Varitek yet Red Sox Nation.
The two-year contract he recently signed gives him a chance to get his groove back...and it gives us a chance to support a man who has done this town justice for 11 years.