FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — It’s been pretty clear for some time that Jason Varitek’s career with the Boston Red Sox was coming to a close.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington signed two catchers in the winter and offered the soon-to-be 40-year-old Varitek an invitation to camp as a show of respect.
Pitchers and catchers reported, but Varitek did not. The first full-squad workout was held, and Varitek was nowhere to be found.
Still, there remained a glimmer of hope with most teammates that they would show up one morning, walk into the clubhouse and see Varitek sitting in front of his locker getting ready for the day’s work.
Not anymore. The news is out that Varitek has decided to retire, and even though it was expected for much of the winter, it doesn’t make it any easier to take for the Red Sox.
“It’s something that we are used to it, seeing Tek walking around and doing his thing,” slugger David Ortiz said Tuesday. “Been a while since you walk in here and the first person you see is Tek. Walking in and not seeing him, it’s like something unexpected.
“Watching Tek and this decision, hopefully he feels good about it. Hopefully he’s being honest with himself,” Ortiz said. “Man, I mean we’re going to miss him.”
He is expected to hold a news conference Thursday to put a bow on his brilliant career. Varitek spent all 15 of his big league seasons with the Red Sox after coming over in a trade from Seattle in 1997, using his relentless work ethic and unyielding tenacity to give the franchise a new, gritty identity.
“I was expecting Tek to play until he was 60,” said right-hander Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter to Varitek in 2007.
“He was awesome behind there. I still think he could be awesome behind the plate and have a job in baseball. That was his and his family’s decision.”
He served as the team’s security guard, never more so than on July 24, 2004, when Yankees star Alex Rodriguez bristled after being hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo.
Varitek immediately stepped in, cursed at Rodriguez and shoved his catcher’s mitt in A-Rod’s face, a conversation that cleared the benches and sparked the Red Sox to an 11-10 comeback victory.
Manager Bobby Valentine is in his first season in Boston, but the significance of that moment has already been hammered home.
“He is a man’s man,” Valentine said. “He was a big hitter when needed. He was a leader of the pitching staff. He was able to beat up Alex.”
“All that stuff is good stuff. He was exactly what he was supposed to be.”
Varitek’s smoldering intensity and icy glare weren’t just intimidating to opponents. Buchholz said it took him about two years to build up the courage to start picking his brain.
“He’s a guy that you know when you’re on the mound and you shake him off and he sort of just stares at you, you know that, ‘OK I’ll throw that pitch. Don’t worry about it,’” Buchholz said.
Even as his production dipped in recent years and he was replaced by Victor Martinez first and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the starting catcher, his influence on the team remained sky high.
He was ace Josh Beckett’s personal catcher to the end, and continued to set an example with his relentless preparation and scouting of the opponent.
“I loved working with him,” Beckett said. “I never had a catcher before that I felt like cared more about wanting me to be successful even before he wanted to be successful. He’s going to be missed, a lot, in the clubhouse and on the field.”
Saltalamacchia was struggling to find his way in the big leagues when he came to Boston in a trade with Texas in 2010. He credits Varitek with instilling the confidence in him that he belonged.
“That’s just the kind of person he is,” Saltalamacchia said. “He always wanted to make me feel comfortable. He always wanted to help me out. He stood up for me at a lot of times. I can’t thank him enough for jumpstarting my career again.”
It would have been easy for Varitek to let the struggling 26-year-old hang out there with no guidance, likely ensuring that he held on to his starting position for a little while longer.
But Varitek not only took him under his wing, he told the pitching staff to embrace Saltalamacchia.
“It was just kind of overwhelming,” Saltalamacchia said. “I didn’t expect him to be so helpful and say, ‘Hey, this is your team.’
“No, you’re the captain. This is your team.”
In some ways, it probably always will be.
His No. 33 jersey remains a popular seller with the team’s blue-collar fan base and there have been discussions about Varitek taking a job within in the organization.
“Especially now that he’s going to retire, it’s the kind of person that this organization needs to keep very close,” Ortiz said. “This is a guy who does nothing but add things, good things.
“It was an honor for me to be his teammate,” Big Papi added.