LONGSHOTS: Nation’s angst ends as V-Tek says what the heck and rejoins flock
by Dave Long
Well, the Jason Varitek saga finally ended on Friday. And it seems the majority were glad it came to a peaceful ending with the captain coming back into the fold. But in the days leading up to the final act, the opposition party was gaining momentum and I suspect would have typically lashed out hard if he had foolishly elected to pass on the Red Sox’ $5 million offer where each side has a mutual option that could keep him a member of the Red Sox for a second year.
I’m happy it finally ended for another reason. God, you’ve got to love Red Sox Nation — at least in the way you love an off-kilter uncle who makes life interesting with entertainingly eccentric behavior. Thanks to the usual hand-wringing that accompanies anything Red Sox, the nine-week standoff had taken on a life of its own, providing yet another illustration of how delightfully nuts the Nation is.
I mean only in New England could the plight of a 37-year-old catcher who hit .221 and his greedy agent deliver the kind of angst the rest of the nation might feel if a not-quite-used-to-the-job-yet Barack Obama had misplaced the nuclear launch codes at one of those parties during the inauguration festivities. Testimony to that is the 233 divided replies in the blog under the Boston Globe’s “It’s D-Day for V and his dastardly agent Scott [don’t] Boras to finally make a decision” story that were already there by 10 a.m. Here’s how the sides came down on the issue:
The Hand-Wringers: Yes, he did hit .221, but he brings the greatest set of intangibles in handling the pitching staff and calling games in the history of the universe. These people make him out to be the Tiger Woods of game-calling and staff management and have visions of the pitching corps going into a collective fetal position as the ERA balloons out of control almost as badly as the federal deficit if he isn’t behind the plate for the Sox. To those folks I’ll ask just for kicks: who’s the second-best game-caller in the AL? I’m betting most have no idea. I know I don’t.
The Opposition: It says, “Holy cow, the guy doesn’t throw out many runners, hit .221 with a Damon Berryhill-like 43 runs batted in, and makes Mario Mendozza seem like Yogi Berra when hitting lefty. It was also unsympathetically vocal about the straits he was in since he turned down arbitration that would most likely have won him a one-year deal worth $10 million. Time to move on, bro.
But I suspect even those guys are happy he’s back. But even with that, expectations need to be tempered. Especially among those who think last year was an aberration and he’ll come back closer to his lifetime .265, 15 and 70 ways. That flies in the face of 110 years of baseball history for catchers past age 34. Only Carlton Fisk and maybe Mike (pepperoni) Piazza can make the claim of holding their own at the plate at Varitek’s age while still catching full-time. At 37 Fisk caught 130 games and hit a remarkable 37 homers. Piazza hit .283 with 22 homers and 68 RBI while catching a semi-full-time 99 games. As for the others, even greats like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochran and others were toast by the time they reached 37 (see the glossary for their stats) or were playing other positions.
Now he has one edge over that below-the-Tarrier-line crew. It’s the conditioning and medical care of today — which extended the baseball lives of guys like Piazza and Terry Steinbach, who was playing decently for Minnesota at 37. But once the offensive slide starts, regardless of age, it hasn’t been reversed. So if you think he’s going back to being a productive hitter, history is not on his side.
So what can you expect? There’s his vaunted staff management and game-calling skills the hand-wringers completely blew out of proportion. It doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable but if they got a less experienced catcher who could hit as V once did and was decent defensively, why couldn’t pitching coach John Farrell call the game as Mike Scioscia does for L.A.?
So while he may hit a little better than a year ago, I see him more in the way the Sox saw Elston Howard in the mystical 1967 season after he was acquired from the Yanks during the season. At 38, despite being just three years removed from the AL MVP, he was done offensively. But he was still valuable for his guile, championship experience and defensive skills even while hitting .142 with 1 homer and 11 RBI in 42 games.
I don’t expect Varitek to be that bad, but it does point to the fact that signing him should not end the catching search. The most important reason for bringing him back is that it didn’t look like there was a Plan B in place to replace him. Or at least they’re not willing to pull the trigger on what it would take to get the catcher of the future just yet. But they should. The real value of having Tek back is to mentor the new guy, whoever it is, so he can ease into the role without the unreal expectations to be faced if he steps in cold turkey. It would mean Varitek could ideally catch 100 games in 2009, with as many as possible coming against left-handed pitching, and then 60 or so as the back-up in 2010.
While that’s not always how it happens, it’s the way you want to do it in ideal conditions. It’s how the Yankees did it with Howard, who spent the early part of this career playing in the outfield and first base to get his bat in the line-up while Berra was still arguably the game’s top backstop. Then in 1960 he caught 91 as Berra caught 63, 111 the next year when he hit .348, and the job was his full-time after that until he got shipped to the Sox in 1967.
Given their payroll and productive farm system, the Sox’ situation is as close to ideal as one can get. So it seems like the time to get the guy for the future — now. That’s a better scenario than going into the year with a catcher coming off a down year at an age where injuries start to become a factor for anyone, let alone at the position that absorbs the most pounding in baseball and Josh Bard behind him.
That doesn’t make sense to me and it will have the Nation howling again en masse if that situation does come to pass.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.