Jason Varitek: 'I've defied odds before'
For Red Sox captain, new backup role could mean Fisk-like longevity
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The contract is due to end this year. The desire to play remains strong.
Turns out that was anything but idle chatter, bullpen coach Gary Tuck's remark Friday that catcher Jason Varitek is capable of playing four or five more seasons.
"I've defied odds before," Varitek said Saturday morning when Tuck's comments were relayed to him. "You never know."
There was even less ambiguity in his answer when asked if he wanted to extend his career as far as it would go.
"Absolutely," he said, and in case his questioner wasn't paying attention, he repeated, "Absolutely."
Varitek turns 38 on April 11. Only one catcher, Carlton Fisk, has caught as many as 50 games past the age of 42. The Hall of Famer retired at the age of 45.
Could Varitek see himself lasting as long as Fisk?
"Let's get to 40 first," he said. "Get through this, see how things change for me, see how my health will be. When I'm healthy and keep my strength, some things can be good. There are things that are not in my control, but as long as I'm healthy ..."
On Friday, Tuck said he didn't see Varitek's career ending anytime soon if the veteran was so inclined.
"I think Jason Varitek can catch as long as he wants to catch," Tuck said. "I think his body will hold up to that. Obviously, there's the shape he gets himself in, and in the [backup] role he is in now with Victor [Martinez] here, I think he can catch at least four, five more years.
"His game hasn't really slowed down. It's the wear and tear of the physical that has affected him along the way. The formula for him this year is to stay strong and healthy. You've got a pretty irreplaceable guy there. No one has the same experience. Only one other guy sticks out, and that's Jorge [Posada]."
For the first time since becoming the team's everyday catcher in 1999, Varitek comes to camp as a backup, to Victor Martinez, acquired from Cleveland last July. A reduced workload should mean less wear and tear and fewer aches and pains, the kind that Varitek refuses to acknowledge as a factor in a batting average that plummeted to a career-low .209 in 2009.
He hit just .157 after the All-Star break. He had just one hit all season in Yankee Stadium, batting .094 overall against the Bombers. According to baseball-reference.com, he batted .296 against soft-tossers, .188 against everybody else.
Some of that decline can be attributed to the natural attrition that comes with age. The swing has slowed down. But it has always been part of Varitek's credo to play through injuries, and say little about them. When he undergoes his team physical, Sox doctors don't look for what body parts hurt they try to find one that has been spared through the course of 1,381 games spent behind the plate, all but 100 as a starter.
"I may need one of their [medical] charts," Varitek joked when asked if he would enumerate all of his injuries after he retires. "'Oh yeah, I remember that one.'
"But that's part of what you do. Bob Boone used to say, 'The more I'm out there, even when I'm hurt, the better I can service the team.' Didn't he say something like that?
"I can't tell you in the course of your career how many times, whether you're sick or something and you shouldn't be out there and all of a sudden, boom, one swing of the bat, three-run home run, you won that game. Or you're part of a play at the plate, or the guy [you're catching] throws a shutout. It's being out there."
Dependability may be the virtue Varitek prizes above all.
"Dependability aids in what I do best, game-planning and calling games," he said. "If you're not dependable on that end, or you transfer your offense into your defense, guys know. You can't trick your teammates. You can't."
Varitek's game hasn't slowed down, Tuck said, to which Varitek appended, "He'd tell you if it was."
It's the wear and tear, Tuck said, of playing through injuries and sickness, playing because you don't take off day games after night games, because day after day, you play.
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"Go look at those numbers, probably interesting, the day games after night games. I guarantee you I don't get them off. I never have. You've got a pitcher [Tim Wakefield] designated with somebody, and if it happens [the day game] falls on his start, you reap the benefits, two ways. If not, you don't.
"But that's part of what I believed in. Being able to go out there sometimes may have [hurt the statistics]. But you're out there, you're dependable."
Varitek is not making playing time an issue, nor will he.
"He's a good boy, he's a good man," Varitek says of Martinez. "I want to make sure he knows I'm his teammate and I'm here to help whatever way I can."
That's the plan for the 2010 season. And it may remain the plan for much longer than anyone expects.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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