Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek retired last week. While his major league career was a significant one—with two World Series championships as captain of the Red Sox, 1,307 career hits, a .256/.341/.435 slash line and 193 career home runs—Varitek’s college career, in relative terms, was even more significant.
For all intents and purposes, Jason Varitek was the best catcher in college baseball history.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” says a biased source, Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall. “He might not be just the best catcher in college baseball history but the best at any position. His career is unparalleled. He was an All-American twice, twice a first-round pick. He was heavily criticized for not signing (in 1993) and came back and had an amazing senior season.”
Hall arrived at Tech (after having coached at Kent State) in the fall of 1993. Has there ever been a more plum coaching position? Jim Morris had left Atlanta for the University of Miami, where coaching behemoth Ron Fraser had retired and his successor, Brad Kelly, had flopped after one season.
It was obviously a successful move for Morris, but he left behind a loaded Yellow Jackets team that included Nomar Garciaparra at short and ace righthander Brad Rigby. Varitek figured to be gone; he hit .404 with 22 home runs in 1993 and was the Twins’ first-round pick that June.
But Varitek didn’t sign, and suddenly Hall had a potential juggernaut on his hands. The Jackets went 50-17, 16-8 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and hit their way to the College World Series for the first time in school history. They lost to Oklahoma in the national championship game, still the best season in school history.
Varitek hit .426 with 17 home runs, 86 RBIs and a ridiculous 76-41 walk-strikeout ratio that season and was the rare senior to win BA’s College Player of the Year award. (Clemson’s Khalil Greene did the same in 2002.) The Mariners’ first-round pick, Varitek again was a tough sign, finally beginning his pro career when he signed April 20, 1995.
His pro career was one to be proud of. His college career remains singular, as a switch-hitting catcher with amazing offensive numbers, excellent defense and the leadership skills that made him the captain of his major league team down the road.
Varitek’s retirement prompted me to think about the talent Tech has had in Hall’s 18 seasons, and it’s immense. In fact, you can make a pretty solid big league lineup just from Hall’s alumni; if you want any pitching (mostly Tech alum Kevin Brown) you have to count Yellow Jackets whom Hall didn’t coach.
But other college coaches of recent vintage would have a hard time filling out a better alumni lineup card:
C—Jason Varitek. 1B—Mark Teixeira. 2B—Eric Patterson. 3B—Tyler Greene. SS—Nomar Garciaparra. LF—Matt Murton. CF—Jay Payton. RF—Brandon Boggs. DH—Matt Wieters. SP—Micah Owings. RP—Blake Wood.
For comparison’s sake, here’s my stab at a Jim Morris alumni team at the U. The Morris lineup has more depth but strangely even less pitching.
C—Yasmani Grandal (yet to reach the majors). 1B—Gaby Sanchez. 2B—Jemile Weeks. SS—Alex Cora 3B—Aubrey Huff. LF—Ryan Braun. CF—Jon Jay. RF—Jason Michaels. DH—Pat Burrell. SP—Danny Graves. RP—Chris Perez.
There are about 20 coaches who have been at their present school for longer—from Stanford’s Mark Marquess and Lamar’s Jim Gilligan, to the likes of Nevada’s Gary Powers, and Rice’s Wayne Graham. Aside from Marquess, who’s been at Stanford twice as long as Hall, none of them can put together a big league alumni team as good as Hall’s.
Of course Marquess, Graham, Wichita State’s Gene Stephenson and Morris have national championships. Hall has yet to bring one back to Atlanta, though he came close with Varitek behind the plate.
It’s always gnawed at me that the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission started an award to honor college catchers and named it after Johnny Bench. To many, Bench was the best major league catcher ever (though Yogi Berra may have another opinion). But an award for a college catcher should be named for, you know, a catcher who played in college.
The award should be named for Varitek.
P.S. Best alumni team by coach: For me, among active coaches, it goes to Mike Gillespie from his Southern California days. It’s got much better pitching than the Tech team but no true shortstop. It would be a fun series to watch; USC did beat Tech in a super regional in Atlanta in 2000.
C—Chad Moeller. 1B—Morgan Ensberg. 2B—Bret Boone. 3B—Aaron Boone. SS—None (Jeff Cirillo, Aaron Boone and Bret Barberie all played there minimally in the majors). LF—Geoff Jenkins. CF—Jacque Jones. RF—Jason Lane. DH—Cirillo. SP—Barry Zito, Mark Prior, Ian Kennedy. RP—Randy Flores.
Runner up: my Marquess alumni team, with similar starting pitching, an ace closer but less offense.
C—Jason Castro or Brian Johnson. 1B—Ryan Garko. 2B—Jed Lowrie. 3B—Steve Buechele or Ed Sprague. SS—Eric Bruntlett. LF—Carlos Quentin. CF—Sam Fuld. RF—Jeffrey Hammonds. DH—John Mayberry Jr. SP—Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell, Rick Helling. RP—Drew Storen.