Varitek becomes new face of the BoSox
by Alan Schwarz
One decade ago, Jason Varitek was all but a baseball pariah, a player who turned down the Twins as a first-round pick, held out for another 10 months before signing with the Mariners, and began his professional career with most scouts and executives wondering whether he had the heart to be a pro. They're not wondering anymore.
Varitek has evolved into one of the most respected players in the game, the linchpin of the defending World Series champion Red Sox, and a player whose only questions surrounding him resemble, "How can he get even better at age 33?" Varitek sat down at Yankee Stadium to discuss his storied preparation, his evolving relationship with the Red Sox and if he's ever wanted to tell baseball, "I told you so!"
ALAN SCHWARZ: You have said that calling a game behind the plate is like putting together an investment portfolio. What do you mean by that?
JASON VARITEK: I think that you have to have an overall objective, but you have to be diverse enough to make on-field decisions. Sometimes your objective changes according to what exactly is going on in the marketplace. Guys change.
You have to have diversity with the pitches. You add and subtract what they do well, what the hitter does well, what the hitter doesn't do well, what the situation is, what the scoreboard is, who's up, and if the hitter changes, what his approach is with that guy.
AS: You spend a few hours a day studying your pitchers and other hitters, and so much of your success has to do with rapport with your staff. How do you get to know a new pitcher, when they can be as different as David Wells and Matt Clement?
JV: I try to first and foremost stay the hell out of their way. Whatever I can do to work fast and efficient with what they do best, I try and do. I think the one way to really get to know somebody is see them good and see them bad. Not necessarily just in spring training, because in spring training there is a whole different adrenaline push, a whole different mentality. When I really get to know the guy the most is when they have great times and bad times.
AS: What tells you more for developing strategy: What he does well or what he does poorly?
JV: It's really a mix of both. I think that sometimes if a guy's had nothing but success and you've never seen him do bad, you don't know what his bad looks like. And I think that the bad really tells you a lot, but if you never see him good you don't know what you're missing. So there's that patience period.
AS: When the Red Sox offered you the captaincy last winter, you talked about it with your teammates before accepting. Why?
JV: I don't want to appoint myself as being any different than anybody else. And I don't want it to be "me, me, me" so to speak. I wanted to see their reactions. Pretty much all of them were like, "Hey, dude, they asked you to wear it, wear it."
AS: I would imagine some of them were like, "Duh," because let's face it, you've been the de facto captain for several years. This is an organization that willingly lets players leave, but they've said they never considered not signing Jason Varitek last year.
JV: It's complimentary. We've really grown in our relationship. It wasn't always that way. It wasn't that way for the first years [new ownership] took over. They know that, I know that, and there's no hard feelings because of it, but it was that way.
AS: What specifically are you're referring to?
JV: It's more of an issue between me and them, and it really doesn't matter. We've developed, that's all. That's the way to explain it. We've developed in our relationship.
AS: Were you then surprised at their recent overwhelmingly positive comments?
JV: No. I think they felt that way because my teammates felt that way, more than anything. That's why you play this game, for the respect of your teammates and peers, period. And to win.
AS: Your reputation in baseball has gone 180 degrees in the past 10 years -- a decade ago, you had your long draft holdout with the Mariners, with people questioning your heart and desire to play. Is there any feeling of, "I told you so"?
JV: When it's all said and done, the Mariners were 100 percent professional with me and a huge part of why I'm at where I'm at right now. They spent the time and put the right people in there to develop me, and cared, and have been great to me ever since. It's all part of that business -- they're going to try to make you look bad, your side is going to try to make you look good, and you're going to go like that until both sides meet and get something done. There has never been a hard feeling.
AS: Was holding out from June until the next April the right thing to do?
JV: There is no question it was the right thing for me to do. I have my degree. [Varitek finished his B.A. in business-management at Georgia Tech during negotiations.] Right now, I'm sitting on my degree and if something happens in this sport, I have that to fall back on. And even though it doesn't matter right now, that had a huge part to do with my development mentally. I finished. I finished for a reason and I didn't always understand why, but I'm really glad now.
AS: What do you ascribe your great offensive start to?
JV: I'm constantly working on things, trying to become better. But over the last three years, I haven't changed much at the plate -- whereas in years past I could change in the middle of an at-bat what I'm doing. So not only would I physically get screwed up, but mentally, my body would forget what to do.
AS: Most catchers are slowing down in their early 30s, while you seem to be hitting your prime.
JV: I think that we've been privy to more information in my generation than generations 10 years before. We can evaluate what went on that season and make an adjustment in the offseason program. You spend such a major part of your time behind the plate not using your reactive muscles, so I spend a lot of time trying to make those muscles work quick again and allow me to be more flexible and durable.
AS: Last year, when Curt Schilling took the mound on that ankle for Game 6 of the ALCS, what were you thinking from behind the plate? How was your job that night different from any other night of your career?
JV: Well, evaluate what he had to offer. We came up with a game plan, the two of us. We talked about things. The biggest fact of the matter is that he executed what he wanted to do. It didn't matter if the velocity wasn't all the way up -- he executed what he wanted to do. Location over velocity, commanding of his pitches, elevation, keeping the ball down.
AS: How confident were you before the game started?
JV: I had no idea. You had no idea what to expect or exactly what would happen until you got out there. He could be lights out in the bullpen, he sits down, his body reacts, he shuts down when he gets out there and can't do it. It's a weird, weird, weird, weird thing.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.