Monday, April 11, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:12 AM ET
By Jeff Bradley
There's a term that's been around baseball for ages, and it's about the worst label one player can hang on another. Actually, it's not what one guy would say about another, but rather what he'd say about the things that guy does.
Never heard that one before? It's simple: eyewash is soothing only to the eye. When players determine that a guy is doing something just because it looks good, well, that's eyewash. It's a creative way of saying the guy's a phony.
If you're thinking this is an odd way to begin a story about Jason Varitek, the most respected, best prepared catcher in baseball, bear with us. You see, the guy who answers to Tek is always doing something that looks like work. He's animatedly talking to one of his pitchers, pointing to something in one of his big, loose-leaf binders full of scouting reports. He's diligently tightening the laces on his gloves. He's obsessively packing and repacking his equipment bag. He's heading to the weight room. He's getting body parts wrapped in ice. He's removing the ice when he hears the timer beep. He's always busy.
None of it is eyewash.
IT'S A CATCHER'S job to care as much, if not more, about the lives and careers of other men-namely, pitchers-as his own. That sounds sweet, doesn't it? But the reality is that pitchers are not easily convinced. It's not enough for a catcher to bury his head in a notebook or to sit through a pregame meeting. It's not enough for him to give up a few BP swings to catch a guy in the bullpen. Pitchers need to believe that their catcher has his heart, soul and mind invested in them.
There are a lot of reasons the Red Sox were finally able to win a World Series. Talent and chemistry and luck. Schilling and Pedro at the front of the rotation and Keith Foulke at the back of the pen. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the heart of the order. A sprinkling of 21st-century thinking in the front office. But more than anything, there was Varitek, the fundamental difference-maker, behind the plate.
When Theo Epstein, the now-legendary 31-year-old GM, is asked about contract negotiations, he often replies, "We're always willing to walk away from one player, because it's a 25-man team." Epstein says this to cover himself in the event that, say, the Mets offer Pedro a fourth year. He says this because it's often true. If you lose a Martinez or a Derek Lowe, or if you trade Nomar Garciaparra, you have no choice but to move on.
But while Epstein is never going to add credence to the early-November rumor that the Yankees were ready to trade Jorge Posada for Randy Johnson and sign Varitek as a free agent, he does say this: "Jason is a player we did not want to lose to anyone. He stands for all the things we want our players to represent. He plays the game hard, respects the game. He is very selfless, a very supportive teammate. He's a great communicator, exceptionally well-prepared. He goes to children's hospitals all the time without telling anyone in the media. When you get a player who does all those things, who sets the right example, if you let him go, you send the wrong message to the rest of your clubhouse about what you're looking for in a player. And you might spend many years looking to fill that void."
In other words, as Kevin Millar puts it, "Theo could've gotten rid of anyone. Pedro, D-Lowe, me. But not Varitek."
Millar is just warming up. "You should see him when no one's around. That's when he really gets to work. We have these meetings on the road, we call them Show Lunches. Ten or 12 of us will meet in the hotel lobby and go someplace good to eat. Jason's never there because he's back in his room, going through paperwork on the opposing team. To me, that's what leadership is. What a guy is doing when no one's watching. Everyone's working hard when the manager walks by, but if you sneak up on them, you might catch them slacking off. Not Varitek. With him, nothing is a show."
Nothing, except maybe the C the Red Sox stitched onto the left breast of his jersey on the day he agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract. "He was worried about how that would look," says Millar. "Wearing the C, he was thinking it was a little too look at me.' He talked it over with some of us. And the guys, we wanted him to wear it with pride. We're like, Look at him.' He's our leader, and everyone should know it by now."
IN THE CLUBHOUSE at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla. the projected 11-man pitching staff is situated strategically around the catcher. As Varitek faces his locker, David Wells, Matt Mantei, Foulke, Wade Miller and Matt Clement sit to his left. To his right are Curt Schilling, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, John Halama, Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield. Each guy is within earshot. Five are new to Boston, and they're as eager to tap into Varitek as he is to tap their potential.
"The first thing I want the pitchers to know is this is not about me," says Varitek, a seven-year veteran who'll be 33 on April 11. "It's about us working together. We go through a developmental period, getting comfortable with each other. You talk. You play catch. You catch them in the bullpen. There are different creatures to deal with. There's the guy you catch in a spring training game. Then there's the creature you catch in a real game. And then you catch them when we're playing the Yankees, and it's another environment.
"You've got to see guys all different ways. You've got to see them good. You've got to see them bad. It's important to see them when they're bad physically, because then you can learn what you're dealing with mentally."
Clement says Varitek was the biggest reason he chose the Red Sox this winter. "I got unsolicited calls from people in the game," he says. "And they said, `This guy can make you better.' I'm not going to act like an expert on Jason when all we've got under our belts is some spring training innings, but I see things already. Knowledge of pitching. Knowledge of opposing batters and incredible recall of what's worked in the past."
When asked how Varitek can make Clement, a seven-year vet with a 69—75 career record, better, Red Sox manager Terry Francona says, "Matt has the arm, the pitches. We just believe Tek's the guy who can get him to throw with more conviction."
How's that possible? Ask Arroyo, a guy who was released by the lowly Pirates two seasons ago. "Jason has an idea of how we're going to get guys out," says Arroyo. "But as the game progresses, maybe he notices I don't have such a good breaking ball, but I do have a good sinker that day. He's perceptive because he's focused on me. His mind never wanders from the job at hand, which is getting three outs. I threw to Jason Kendall in Pittsburgh, and honestly, he cared more about his offense than anything else. With Tek, he could've just grounded into a double play with the bases loaded, and I know when he's back behind the plate, he's pulling for me. I can see it in his face, through the mask, that he's focused on me."
In last year's epic ALCS, Varitek coaxed miraculous things out of Arroyo. Two days after the Yankees beat him up for six earned runs in two innings en route to a 19-8, Game 3 victory, Arroyo was back on the Fenway mound in the 10th inning of Game 5, popping up Jeter and striking out A-Rod and Sheffield to help set the stage for Ortiz's 14th-inning walk-off single. Of course, Ortiz might not have gotten to hit if not for Varitek's brave handling of Wakefield's knuckler in innings 12-14 (not to mention Varitek's game-tying sac fly off Mariano Rivera in the eighth). Wakefield, who normally throws to knuckleball specialist Doug Mirabelli, says he felt no sense of trepidation throwing to Varitek, even as the catcher's failure to handle two knucklers put the winning run on third in the 13th, and no sense of relief when Varitek squeezed strike three to end the inning. "Total trust in him and what we were trying to do," says Wakefield. "The way my ball was moving that night, Doug would've had trouble back there too."
Schilling, who pitched Game 6 with a sutured ankle, had long since stopped worrying about how he'd go after the Yankees. That he left to Varitek. And Schilling was no easy sell. In Arizona, he'd become a stickler for preparation. Notebooks, video, the works. When former D-Back Mike Myers joined the Sox last season, he was stunned to see Schilling mixing with teammates on his start days, hanging out in his underwear, watching TV, playing cards. Welcome to the Circle of Trust.
Millar equates watching Varitek pore over his notebooks before a game to a college student studying for a final exam. He's got the colored highlighters working. He's flipping back and forth, making sure he's got the information straight. "We're looking for tendencies," Varitek explains. "What guys hit in every count. You look for patterns and irregularities. This guy's hitting .350 on 1-2. What's he doing? That's not normal. You look for things that stand out. Let's throw a name out of the past, Mo Vaughn. On 3-1 and 3-2, he swung 90% of the time. On 3-2! What's that tell you? Well, you don't have to give him much to hit in those spots. Now, if a guy has a low swing percentage on 3-1, pump a strike in there."
Varitek says his first role model in the big leagues was Dan Wilson of the Mariners, a pitcher's catcher if ever there was one. Before the Red Sox traded Heathcliff Slocumb to Seattle in July 1997 for Varitek and Lowe, Varitek shadowed Wilson around for a couple of spring trainings. "He always had time for his pitchers," Varitek says. "It made a big impression on me."
Clement says Varitek's style impressed him from the moment he arrived in Fort Myers. "I've had a different catcher every year I've been in the big leagues, so I've never really developed much of a rapport with any of them," Clement says. "But from Day One since I've been here, Jason's been there for me, ready to talk, ready to answer questions. This guy has a legit relationship with every pitcher on this staff."
This is the point of separation. There is the game plan and there is the game. A catcher who's truly into it is not a robot. He's got to think and feel for his pitcher. "There is no script," Varitek says. "I mean, there are days when a pitcher has such good stuff that you're on autopilot. But most of the time, there's a human element. That's why you have to get a feel for every pitcher."
As Varitek called pitches for a hobbled Schilling last fall, he emphasized location and changing speeds to make up for a drop in velocity. When he noticed the Yankees were keying on Lowe's sinker, he switched to changeups and sliders. He made sure Timlin and Embree attacked hitters. He had
no problem calling for Foulke to throw his sub-90 mph fastball in big spots on nights when his changeup wasn't sharp. "And he got the most out of every single one of them," says Millar. "Every single one."
There's another expression that's been around baseball for ages, and it's about the best label one player can hang on another: "He makes everyone around him better."
As Kevin Millar says this about Jason Varitek, he realizes it doesn't go far enough. He pauses and then adds something else: