ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Jason Varitek could not mistake the line of questioning he has heard ever since the Boston Red Sox faced elimination. His inquisitors were preparing the veteran catcher's professional obituary, ready to pronounce sentence that given his age (37 on April 11) and failing bat, his final game of 2008 would be his last in a Red Sox uniform.
“The first part may be true," he said Saturday night, “but I don’t think I’m through playing baseball."
With Varitek hitting perhaps October’s most improbable home run – a tie-breaking shot in the sixth inning, a lead they never relinquished – neither the Red Sox nor their captain have to contemplate a separation just yet.
“I hope not," said Varitek’s father, Joseph, who was in the stands at Tropicana Field with Jay Williams, Varitek’s Little League coach in suburban Orlando, when Varitek connected off James Shields in Boston’s 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the ALCS. “He wants to end with Boston.
“He’s their captain, by their selection. I think what he wants to do deep down is let (the Red Sox) bring in whoever they want as his replacement and spend three or four years with him, breaking him in right, whoever it is. I’m sure he’d like to get three or four more years with them. Let’s hope this was meaningful to them."
Varitek, without a hit in 14 previous at-bats in the ALCS, without a home run in more than a month (Sept. 15 at the Trop), without any assurances that manager Terry Francona would not send a pinch-hitter to take his place, hit a homer only slightly more improbable than that of Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, who had hit his second home run of the season one inning earlier.
Meaningful? “I don’t think I’ve ever felt that good for anybody hitting a home run," said Dave Magadan, Boston’s hitting coach. “As hard as he works, as much as he wants to do well, for him to come up big like that, words can’t describe it.
“Because he cares, he cares so much. I’ve never been happier for anybody in my life. Anybody."
Left for dead when they trailed by seven runs with seven outs to go in Game 5, the Red Sox are now a win away from returning to the World Series for the third time in five seasons.
“The biggest hit of the series, as far as I’m concerned," said Kevin Cash, Boston’s backup catcher. "If they tie it up and we don’t answer back right there, the momentum is with them. We quickly took it back from them. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I felt like running from the bullpen to high-five him."
This has been a summer of considerable distress for Varitek, both off and on the field. His wife, Karen, filed for divorce in July. And since June 15, he batted just .193. He had only 14 extra-base hits, of which six were home runs. He finished the season batting a career-low .220.
For much of the summer, Francona said it was unthinkable to lift Varitek for a pinch-hitter, no matter how much he struggled. “We need him," Francona said in Seattle in July. “I believe in him. I will always believe in him.
“Sometimes when things are going tough, you don’t bury him. It would be the easy thing to do, but I don’t think it would be right."
But when October arrived, and with Varitek showing little sign of reviving offensively, the Red Sox elected to carry a third catcher in the postseason, a decision made for one reason: It gave Francona the flexibility to hit for Varitek.
The catcher was hurt when Francona broke the news to him on the eve of the division series. J.D. Drew hit for him against the Angels. Drew and Sean Casey have batted for him in the ALCS. Varitek acknowledged how tough it was to accept.
“He made it very clear," Magadan said. “He’s got a lot of pride. You don’t want a guy to be happy that he’s being hit for."
But Varitek soldiered on. “You have a guy scuffling at the plate," Cash said, “it’s not easy not to show it, but he doesn’t. Nobody who throws to him ever sees whether he’s 0-for-4 or 4-for-4. There’s something to be said for that. We have young pitchers, and he’s invaluable to them."
Varitek has always insisted that his offense may be the least important aspect of his game. He made a huge play in the deciding game of the ALDS series against the Angels, running down and tagging out Reggie Willits after Erick Aybar missed a suicide squeeze attempt. In May, he caught Jon Lester’s no-hitter, making him the only catcher in big-league history to catch four no-hitters. (Lester, Clay Buchholz, Derek Lowe and Hideo Nomo).
“I can fortunately go 0-for-2,000," Varitek said, “and put down the right fingers and get pitchers through stuff and come away gratified. You may not have that opportunity at other positions that I have, and I enjoy it."
Varitek had flied out with two on to end the second inning and grounded out to first base in the fourth. But with two out and nobody on in the sixth, Joseph Varitek and Jay Williams had a good feeling when the catcher walked to the plate for a third time.
“Jay had said, ‘He’s going to hit one tonight, I just don’t know when,’ " Joseph Varitek said. “And that at-bat, we both had a good feeling. It was what, a 2-and-0 count? It was perfect."
The father laughed. “Hey, he’s got a batting average now. I don’t care what the number is, but he’s got a batting average."
Varitek is in the final days of a contract that paid him $40 million over four years. The last time he was up for free agency, after the 2004 season, he instructed his agent, Scott Boras, not to shop around until they’d finished talking with Boston. He ended up signing, and Boras never got to test the market.
This time around, the Red Sox want Varitek back, but the leverage is surely theirs, even if the market is devoid of satisfactory options. They will hope that Varitek decides to come back, but if negotiations are unresolved by mid-December, it’s conceivable that they will part ways with their captain. The prediction here is that Varitek will be back, but the Sox have invested considerable energy looking for a successor.
"I don’t know what the future will hold, but I still was able to play in 100-and-something games was able to play day games after night games, do those things," said Varitek, who made 120 starts and appeared in 131 games, the most he's played since 2005. "I’ve had a real rough patch, but we’ll see. I’ll talk about it after this is over."
And thanks in large part to the captain, the end is at least another game away.