I grew up with Carlton Fisk. He, along with Dwight Evans, Yaz, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Rico Petrocelli, Luis Tiant, and Bill Lee made up the dreams of my youth. In the late summer of 1980, I was uprooted from New England and plopped down in Winter Park, Florida. The Sox, though, were still my team despite the fact that fall never came and I had to follow them through an entirely new and unreal steamy Florida summer. That year the Sox finished 83-77 in 5th place behind the Yankees and Orioles, winners of 103 and 100.
During my teen years in the late ’70s (before the Florida move) the Sox were good with 97 wins in 1977, 99 wins in 1978, and 91 wins in 1979. They were, though, never quite good enough and looking back on it now, that was part of the pleasure. They tantalized but never finalized. Coming oh so close, they left me with great, but slightly painful, World Series memories in 1975. It was a good time to be a young baseball fan in New England. Glory and heart break tempered the souls of thousands of New England teenage boys. When we moved to Florida it was tougher to maintain that bond – there was no Ken Coleman, Ned Martin, Johnny Pesky, Dick Stockton or Ken Harrelson on the television and no Ned Martin on the radio. There were just box scores to recreate the games in my mind. And, worst of all, there was no Boston Globe sports section. Eventually, though, I meandered my way back to New England in 1987. My suffering would be better and more palpable closer to Fenway. The memories of those 70s players were always with me.
Back to Fisk for a moment. During the years 1976 to 1980 (when I still lived in New Hampshire), he cranked out 17, 26, 20, 10 and 18 HRs, made 4 All-Star teams and was a good defensive catcher. In all, Fisk would amass 162 HRs during his Red Sox career. He was a good catcher, maybe even best described as very good; he wasn’t yet great.
But, in 1981 his ten year Red Sox career came to an abrupt end when Haywood Sullivan mailed him his new contract a day late, turning Fisk into a free agent. The parallel for me was too stark. Fisk was leaving the Sox and so had I. Coupled with the trades of Rick Burleson and Fred Lynn, this newly based Florida Sox fan felt empty and alone. Fisk would sign with the White Sox in 1981 and, with many more years of fantastic production from behind the dish (and some at DH), would solidify his Hall of Fame credentials, playing with the White Sox for thirteen more years until he was 45.
Fisk’s Red Sox replacement was Rich Gedman, the guy with the weird wood chopping swing. He seemed more like someone out of Snow White then a baseball player. He had a decent three year stretch from 1984 to 1986 (his age 24-26 seasons) and was part of the 1986 Sox team that lost to the Mets. He was a two time All-Star but fell off the map after the 1986 season, never getting more then 350 ABs in a season the rest of his career.
The Red Sox would go through a series of catchers over the next decade (1987-1997): Gedman, Marc Sullivan, Rick Cerone, Tony Pena (his age 33-36 seasons), Damon Berryhill, Rich Rowland, Dave Valle, Mike Macfarlane, Bill Hasselman, Mike Stanley, and Scott Hatteberg.
Then, in 1997, Dan Duquette traded Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe and the Red Sox had miraculously acquired the greatest catcher in team history. Varitek, set to announce his retirement on Thursday, played his entire 15 year career with the Red Sox – 1546 games, 5099 ABS, 1307 Hits, 193 HRs and 757 RBIs. While Varitek will never make the Hall of Fame, he will, in my opinion, go down as the greatest Red Sox catcher of all-time.
Over their entire careers, Varitek was not even close to Fisk as a player. Varitek is certainly not a Hall of Famer. He did, though, win two World Series rings,* make three All-Star teams and win a Gold Glove. And, some of the things Varitek did for the Red Sox are not readily countable or quantifiable. They say he was a great game caller. I don’t know how you quantify that but I do know he is the only catcher to be behind the plate for four no hitters – Nomo, Lowe, Buchholz and Lester.
*Fisk never won a World Series ring and only reached the playoffs two more times in 1983 and in 1993, his final season.
Varitek accumulated the 9th most number of games of anyone in Red Sox history and only Yaz, Ted Wiliams and Jim Rice had longer tenures with the Red Sox without playing for another team. In the modern baseball era the list of one team players is filled with some pretty big names: Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Cal Ripken, George Brett, Willie Stargell, Robin Yount, Alan Trammell, and Craig Biggio. Yet many of Varitek’s contemporaries, Pujols, Bonds, Clemens, Frank Thomas, Pedro, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Andy Pettite, can not lay claim to having played their entire careers with one team. Now, I know baseball is a business and players need to move around to maximize their value, but we fans have lost something over the last two decades with all this player movement. Owners and players don’t seem to care much about that, but fans do. Fans will hold people who were with them year after year in higher regard. With Varitek, I do.
Despite his lack of Hall of Fame credentials and my admiration for Fisk, Varitek, in my book, goes to the top of the career Red Sox All-Time catcher line. Not just for the stats he accumulated as a Red Sox player over fifteen years, but also for what he did for Sox fans that glorious 2004 season. He shoved A-Rod and the Yankees in the face in July of 2004 and started the regular season playoff push that would lead to an improbable and impossibly wonderful World Series title. He was the heart of the Red Sox for a good decade and a half and for that I thank him.
Happy retirement Jason Varitek. You will be remembered fondly.