The folks over at the finely tuned machine that is Fangraphs had a great article several days ago on the “forced retirement team,” that is, players who seemed to have gas left in the tank, couldn’t find work, and were forced to ride off to the sunset. I’m not sure where, if at all, Jason Varitek falls on that team. His place on a realteam is a much more relevant for now. Admittedly, his skills have diminished. Yes, he can still run into a fastball. Yes, he is still notorious for working tirelessly on game planning, something even the dumbest of pitchers appreciate (cough, John Lackey). But his defensive skills have deteriorated and he’s almost 40 years old. Those two pieces of information alone usually signify the end for a catcher, especially one with weakening offensive skills and no opening at DH to slide into. The final, industrial-sized nail in Jason Varitek’s Red Sox coffin may be the 2011 team’s collapse.
Red Sox fans have loyally stuck by Tek as his production has decreased, citing all sorts of justifications. He’s a top-notch game caller. He’s a gamer. He hit A-Rod. Varitek undeniably gave his heart to the organization. If you question his passion for his team, go back and watch that clip of Varitek shattering his elbow as he desperately goes after a foul ball, or watch him shove Alex Rodriguez’s centaur-face. I watch that video when I’m having a bad day. Red Sox Nation knows what Varitek has meant to this franchise, and no one questioned for a second that he deserved to be the captain.
But there’s the rub — he earned that right to be captain. He therefore must shoulder the considerable responsibility that comes with the now-infamous collapse of the Red Sox in 2011. Pitchers slacking off, giving up, players appearing to lose interest- these are not on Terry Francona entirely. Part of the concept behind naming a captain is to help a manager facilitate the clubhouse.
Francona was notoriously a “players’ manager” yet still faced the type of behavior in 2011 that has come to light. What’s the point of having a captain if they cannot reel in a team losing respect for a manager? A captain should be the last line of defense against that kind of insubordination. Either Varitek stopped trying to be a leader (in which case it’s time for him to take a break) or he was complacent in the disaster that was the epic turmoil that was the end of 2011 for Boston (in that case, good riddance to him, in my book).
Regardless of whether Varitek had an active or role in the 2011 Red Sox demise, his situation and Tim Wakefield’s retirement bring to light an interesting conundrum in all of sports. What do you do with an aging cornerstone of the team?
The city of Boston has two teams dealing with this type of situation as the aging Celtics are facing a critical juncture with its ‘Big Three.’ Like Varitek, Paul Pierce has been a hardworking and loyal teammate. The difference between the Big Three and Varitek is value. Teams would still like to have any one of the Big Three on their team for a playoff push. Varitek will either be brought back to the Sox or likely retire. So the question really is- what, if anything, does a team owe a player beyond a contract? What is loyalty in sports?
When people look back on ‘the good old days,’ they lament today’s sports contracts, attitudes, and a (perceived) lack of loyalty. Players leave the team they came up with every year for the highest dollar (Ahem, Mr. Pujols.), abandoning fans and cities, taking their ‘talents’ elsewhere. Those quotation marks may seem unnecessary, but Lebron James effectively ruined that term for athletes forever. So what has changed? Why are there not more players like Stan Musinal? Ted Williams? Bill Russell? John Stockton? These guys who were not only pillars of the team, but pillars of the community.
Money, as usual, lies at the root. Players make a lot of money nowadays, if you didn’t know. The staggering dollars even marginal players make compared to eras past cannot be discounted. Sure, maybe guys felt stronger ties to cities and programs back then, but our concept of loyalty then is just as tied to money as it is now.
Players in all sports stayed in one place because it made sense financially. It’s a heck of a lot easier to transition into some sort of business after your playing days are over if you have a base in the area. In the ‘modern era’ we see players hanging on to their playing days, leaving their teams for another city, another paycheck, because they have nowhere else to go. Players across the sports world often have no clue what to do after the game.
There are only so many seats at a pregame show and only so many color commentating spots. Many players do not plan for being retired, and see no need to. There is so much money nowadays (comparatively) that a smart player does not have the need to have a ‘real job’s’ skill set, as he may have had to in the past. Superstars or even guys with ‘personality,’ such as Kevin Millar can easily find endorsement deals or talking head spots. But some are in the in-between, like Varitek.
Varitek was never a superstar, nor was he a yapper like Kevin Millar or Tony Siragusa. He possesses a determination and work ethic that his peers respect which, in turn, makes us the fan respect him. He seems destined, as the newly retired Tim Wakefield does, for a place in the Red Sox organization. Call it a loyalty program. However there’s no one, fan or ownership alike, can pretend 2011 did not happen. So what was Varitek’s role or lack thereof in the team’s follies?
Wakefield was a less instrumental part of the 2011 team. He will remain a huge influence in Boston as he has been heavily involved in the Jimmy Fund and other charities for his entire career. A job at NESN is not out of the question. But what of Varitek? Does he still have the gravitas to be a bullpen coach? A pitching coach? A bench coach? A minor league instructor? We may never know the inner workings of the 2011 collapse in terms of who stood out and who stood idly by. But as Varitek’s lack of place on the team and likely retirement looms, we’re going to need to talk about Jason.