Thursday, March 1, 2012

This Was Not The Greatest Catcher In The World. This Is Just A Tribute ...

In my lifetime, I have willfully purchased exactly one piece of sports apparel that was not associated with a team based somewhere inside the Georgia state border. (I say "willfully purchased" because I received a lot of non-GA sports-y swag from various family members when I was a kid, the most tremendously awesome of which was/is an Alonzo Mourning Charlotte Hornets home jersey.) That one rogue willful purchase? A red Boston Red Sox t-shirt jersey with navy lettering that reads on the back: Jason Varitek 33.*

I bought that t-shirt at a store on Boylston Street shortly after I moved to Boston in the fall of 2007. I don't recall what I initially wandered in there for, but once I saw that shirt, I was certainly walking out with it. Did I feel slightly like a traitor to the Braves and Atalanta in general the first time I donned it on my way to Fenway Park? Yes, I did. But it was a minor twinge of conscience almost instantly overwritten by the fact that I had been a Jason Varitek fan well before he began his career in Boston.

Tek is and likely always will be my very favorite college baseball player of all time, and is considered by many to be the greatest college player ever at his position. He was the linchpin on some transcendentally great GA Tech teams in my formative years, the guy who kept me glued to a crappy little clock radio at night long after I was supposed to be in bed, waiting for his next at-bat. (The fact that he was my favorite player on a loaded team that also included Nomar Garciaparra should tell you something.) He was a switch-hitting monster with a semi-gun of an arm and an absolutely tireless drive. Through college, the minors, and 15 years in the bigs, I'm fairly certain he's never dogged a single play.

When the Sawx snapped their long championship dry drought in 2004, I could not have been happier for Varitek, who was in the midst of a 3-year career peak that season, bolstering an already-formidable offense and catching his usual brilliant games behind the plate. Despite having averaged 20 homes a season, Varitek's career offensive numbers are nowhere near gaudy, but his leadership and true talent, his inherent genius, are self-evident if you just watch game tape of him flashing signs. What Peyton Manning is (was?) to signal calling under center, Tek was to pitch calling. He knew the most minute tendencies of every pitcher on his staff, knew their placement down to the nanometer. He knew which hitters would fall for whose stuff and how to pace an at-bat for the maximum efficacy of his hurlers. The guy was an encyclopedia crossed with a Grand Master-level baseball IQ. Watching him call games was watching artistry of the highest caliber.

Of course, he was named the Red Sox captain, an honor bestowed previously by that venerable franchise to only Yaz and Jim Rice. You can see how much he meant by the myriad of articles paying homage that have been published since his retirement was announced. I can assure you there will be very few dry eyes, if any, at the official retirement announcement/ceremony later on today. Along with Tim Wakefield calling it quits and the offseason departures of Terry Francona and Theo Epstien, Varitek hangin' 'em up signaled the end of a glorious era for the Boston. Whatever the Red Sox are ready to become now post-Theo and -Tito, Varitek was the undisputed leader, the heart and soul and guts of that iteration of the team. (No disrespect to Youk and Pedroia, but it's the truth.)

It seemed to me, too, in the manner of a fan imagining thoroughly ridiculous telepathic connections with his favorite players, that Tek always knew when I was in the stands. I felt like we had some sort of strange solidarity; two Atlantans living in the northeast. Or maybe it was more akin to the feelings of a long-time fan of what used to be an unknown band watching them headline a huge venue. (I liked him before he was big, man!) Anyway, Tek always had himself a hell of a game when I showed up at Fenway. Even as his playing time and abilities waned, he was always in the starting lineup when I came and he killed it every time. I distinctly remember one game I went to with my dear friend Laura. We were in the bleachers in right-center, a little more than halfway up, and I had a fresh Sam Adams in my hand when Tek strolled to the plate for his first at-bat. He was mostly out of regular catching duties by then, but he was starting that day. Naturally, he sent a three-run dinger into right. "That's my boy!", I crowed excitedly over the roar of a capacity, drunken (drunk to capacity?) Fenway crowd, which is the only kind there is on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July. "Always delivers when I'm here!" Laura just grinned. She understood my obnoxiousness because she gets that way about Colby Rasmus. Anyway, the next time around, Tek absolutely crushed one; launched it clean over the Green Monster and out onto the pavement of Lansdowne Street. Absolutely made my day. I know it sounds stupid, but he was always doing uncharacteristically badass things like that with the bat when I was around.

Anyway, I just watched Tek's retirement broadcast. Damn thing came over the air while I was trying to finish typing this post, and now I'm a little too melancholy to properly word anything coherent, so I'll wrap this up. Here's to you, Tek. Ramblin' Wreck, Red Sawk, Captain, class act. Thanks for 25 years of incredible memories.

*Coincidentally also 'Zo's NBA number.

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