February 5, 2009

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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 dlong@hippopress.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.


1/29/2009 Super Bowl Sunday brings to mind past and present

1/22/2009 The elusive quality of greatness is the topic of the day
1/15/2009 Spring cleaning of the sports mind a little early
1/8/2009 Will hall have Rice on the menu come July
1/1/2009 Predictions and wants for the year ahead
12/25/2008 A look in the rear view mirror at 2008
12/18/2008 The Pats' playoff run and new Yankees contracts make big news
12/11/2008 Random thoughts and associations
12/4/2008 Pats should consider options when it comes to Cassel and Brady
11/27/2008 Putting the thanks in Thanksgiving
11/20/2008 News of the week has people talking
11/13/2008 Cassel's in the clouds compared to early expectations11/6/2008 Mail bag delivers some interesting questiont10/30/2008"Yankees Suck" - like mentality fuels political discontent10/23/2008 No ray of hope as season closes in Tampa Bay
10/16/2008 Going to the nines a thing of the past
10/9/2008 C-eeing some interesting stories unfold this week
10/2/2008 "How come?" is the main question of the day
9/25/2008 Observations on baseball in 2008
9/18/2008 If I were a QB, a DB, a stat geek or a soccer mom ...
9/11/2008 After disaster Brady's bunch won't pass on season
9/4/2008 Pats start off with high expectation and some concerns
8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long
8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial — stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 — Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat