Friday, December 24, 2004

Mr. Red Sox

Okay, go ahead. You can exhale now. Jason Varitek has decided to stay.

The eight-year Red Sox veteran signed on for four more today, at the princely sum of $40 million. It's a sweet deal for the best Boston catcher since a guy called Pudge. But no matter the price, the Red Sox profited today, for they not only retained their starting catcher and No. 7 hitter, but their heart, their guts, their soul, and their conscience.

You know it, I know it, and thank the heavens above that the good men running the Boston Red Sox know it: This simply had to be done. The Sox had to keep Varitek not only for the present and future, but to allow us to enjoy the recent past a little bit longer.

The summer was fun and the fall magical, but the winter hasn't been so kind to the World Series champions. Pedro Martinez's strikingly graceless departure was our first reminder that the 2004 season was now in the past tense. Such a realization is always sad. As a fan, you want that team that won it all - and won your heart in the process - to stay intact as long as possible.

I was bummed when fourth-outfielder/good-guy Gabe Kapler signed to play in Japan - the first 2004 Sox to say goodbye - just as I was disappointed to see the likes of mediocre nickleback Terrence Shaw depart after the Patriots' first Super Bowl. You can't help it. You're always sentimental about a champion, especially when the wait has been so long and agonizing. You want the feeling, the moment, to last forever.

Alas, the show goes on. Players file for free agency, trades are made, subtle tweaks are made to the roster. But you hope they don't change too much, especially when such change is predicated by money, and not what is best for the ballclub. Losing Varitek? It would have been the worst thing for the ballclub, simply devastating. Oh, losing Pedro hurts, sure, especially after he pissed all over his legacy on his way out the door. Losing Derek Lowe is bittersweet, albeit a foregone conclusion, and besides, half of the fan base remained tired of his high-maintenance antics even after his unprecedented postseason heroics. And losing Cabrera . . . well, Orlando, we hardly knew ya, but we sure did love what we saw. Happy trails to all.

But losing Varitek? That wouldn't have just taken the luster off the championship - it would have been akin to taking a brillo pad to the World Series trophy.

Hell, you watch the Red Sox, live them, breathe them. You know he's a good hit/good mitt catcher, one of the three or four best in the game, a rock behind the plate, a confidante for the pitchers, and a dependable if pitchable hitter who'll give you .280-20-80 numbers in an average year.

You also know statistics cannot accurately portray his value. For all of this team's stars, Varitek may have been the most indispensible player, right there with Schilling and Ortiz.

His captaincy was made official today. It was nice gesture but a mere formality, really; it's a role he has unofficially held for quite some time. No Sox player is more respected by his peers. No one ever plays harder, even when all seems lost, particularly that night's ballgame. No one is better prepared or takes his job more seriously.

And no one symbolizes more what the Red Sox just accomplished. The he proof is right there on the front page of every newspaper you tucked away during this glorious season. On one, there he is force-feeding the insufferable A-Rod a heaping helping of leather. On another, the one you will keep forever, maybe even frame and hang in the den, he's leaping into Keith Foulke's arms, a beautiful smile creasing that chiseled face.

Jason Varitek was the epitome of 2004 Red Sox. He simply could not have been permitted to depart, no matter what the price to retain.

As obvious as the decision to keep him seems to us fans, I give Theo and The Trio an infinite amount of credit for realizing this and getting the deal done, for I strongly suspect this contract went against every last one of their business sensibilities.

Logic and Bill James tell us you don't give a 33-year-old catcher a four-year deal unless you have an inkling that a broken-down 37-year-old catcher is just what your team will need in 2008. You don't give a career .271 hitter 10 million bucks a season. And most of all - this is the Sox's fiscal mantra, right here - you never pay more that what you think a player is worth.

The Red Sox broke all of their rules to retain Varitek, every last one of them. And you know why? Because they are flexible, intelligent, open-minded, and wise enough to know numbers don't entirely tell the Varitek's story.

They considered intangibles, and leadership, and sentiment, and all those immeasurable elements that are so easily dismissed . . . right up until the moment a stoic catcher leaps like a Little Leaguer, the champagne flows along with a region's joyous tears, and an 86-year burden is lifted, and suddenly, for some unexplained reason, all the numbers in your calculator can't fully explain how this wonderful whirlwind quite happened.

Four years and $40 million dollars? For Jason Varitek? It simply had to be paid. Some things, after all, are priceless.