In 1997, the Seattle Mariners had their eyes on a World Series championship, and the Red Sox were well out of the playoff race. With no great need for relievers in another lost season, Boston agreed to send Heathcliff Slocumb out west in exchange for Derek Lowe, and 25-year-old minor league catcher Jason Varitek.
The young Varitek was not completely unknown. Before the 1996 season, Baseball America had placed him just outside of the 50 best prospects in the game. After a disappointing season produced only minimal improvements over his '95 campaign, however, he was left off the list entirely, allowing the Red Sox to pick him up for relatively little, leading to one of the greatest careers in franchise history.
It would take Jason Varitek two more years to truly establish himself in Boston, but a strong 1999 season saw Varitek hit .269/.330/.482 with twenty homers, securing his place in the starting lineup. But for a broken elbow in 2001, he would remain in that position for the next nine seasons.
That Varitek was a consistent producer for the team can be seen in his numbers throughout the years (particularly from 2003-2005), but at their best Varitek's contributions are not the sort that contribute to his own average, OBP, or slugging percentage. A master behind the plate, the captain was a steadying presence for just about every man who took the mound for the Sox. Utilizing an incredible wealth of knowledge on his pitchers, opposing batters, and baseball in general, Varitek's ability to call a match was unmatched. That he also happened to be behind the plate when Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester threw their no-hitters is no coincidence.
For all that Varitek contributed at and behind the plate, however, his most memorable moment came between pitches. The story is well known, but for the sake of posterity, here it is again.
The Red Sox entered July 24, 2004 a flagging team. Having lost seven of their last eleven games, they once again found themselves trailing the Yankees 3-0 in the top of the third when Bronson Arroyo hit Alex Rodriguez with a pitch. The New York Prima Donna was not content to simply take his base, however, and started shouting obscenities at Arroyo. Varitek was not about to stand for that, and when Rodriguez turned his wrath on the intervening catcher, Varitek put his glove straight into A-Rod's face.
The ensuing brawl would result in both players being ejected, but the day would ultimately go to the Red Sox, climbing back from a 9-4 deficit to walk off on a Bill Mueller home run (coming, of course, off the great Mariano Rivera). The win-and the brawl-have been considered a sort of turning point in the Sox' season. They would, of course, make the playoffs, come back from a 3-0 series deficit to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS, and end their 86 year title drought by sweeping the Cardinals out of the World Series.
15 years, 1546 games, 1307 hits, 193 homers, three All-Star selections, two World Series championships, and one historic brawl. It's an impressive resume for any catcher, and when it all comes with one team-the team that would name him just their third captain in 80 years-it makes for a legend. One of the all-time true Red Sox, Jason Varitek's legacy looms large regardless of numbers, honors, or awards.