By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Catchers have a unique view of a baseball game. They’re the only player facing the field and thus the only one that can see everything that’s happening and what everyone’s doing.
Few that have gotten behind the plate have understood what they’re seeing and how the game of baseball unfolds as well as Jason Varitek, be it at Georgia Tech, on the Division I or even the Major League level.
Turns out he saw and understood how the game of life unfolded as well.
On Saturday night, he was recognized with an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award at the Honors Celebration during the 2019 NCAA Convention in Orlando, Fla. He was part of an esteemed group of six that included Tim Cullen (Air Force Academy, fencing), Mia Hamm (North Carolina, soccer), David Hirsch (Cornell, wrestling), Lisa Leslie (Southern California, basketball), and Heath Shuler (Tennessee, football).
The NCAA Silver Anniversary Award recognizes outstanding athletes for their collegiate and personal achievements on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their college athletic careers. They’re chosen by NCAA member schools, conferences and past recipients of the award.
“To basically present the award to Jason was awesome,” said head baseball coach Danny Hall, who sat at a table with Varitek, Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson and NCAA President Mark Emmert and their spouses. “Mia Hamm is married to Nomar Garciaparra, so it was kind of a reuniting of me and Jason and Nomar. It’s rare that you can ever make it happen to just kind of catch up with them and not only what’s going on in their lives but what’s going on in their family’s lives, it was an awesome event.”
— Georgia Tech Baseball (@GTBaseball) January 24, 2019
Family has always been big to Varitek. He admits that his ability to see life’s big picture didn’t fully become evident until he recognized the need to see things from a different perspective, regarding the choice of college or pro baseball.
“I don’t know if it was more important to me than it was for my father at the time,” said Varitek, with a laugh during the ceremony. “We fought over and over. I wanted to go play pro ball, he wanted me to get an education. Nobody in my family had a college degree at that point. His push and his drive to make me see the light worked and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience and a better opportunity and a better chance to make my dad proud as to graduate.
“The biggest opportunity that college sports gives you is an education,” he added. “It is a huge accomplishment for me, personally, being the first one in my family to graduate from college. The value of what a degree, especially from an institution like Georgia Tech, can provide is irreplaceable in life and it’s irreplaceable to me.”
Varitek was irreplaceable to the Yellow Jackets from 1991-94.
As he blazed the trail to becoming his family’s first college graduate, earning a degree in Management, he led the Jackets. He was a three-time consensus All-American (‘92-94) after earning ACC Rookie of the Year in 1991.
As a senior, he earned the Dick Howser Trophy and Rotary Smith Award, given to the best college player in the nation, and the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best amateur baseball player. He’s the only Yellow Jacket ever to win the award. Behind Varitek, the Jackets earned the second 50-win season in school history — the first of four for Hall — and the program’s first ever visit to Omaha and the College World Series. They’d get to the final game
before falling to Oklahoma. He’d hit .333 in the series (5-for-15), with two homers, five runs driven in, five more scored, drawing five walks while striking out but once.
“It made my job very easy because he was one of the best leaders we’ve ever had,” recalled Hall, in his first season on The Flats. “He was like basically having another coach on the field. He and really that entire team was very accepting of me. I got on the job in January so the first time I ever laid eyes on that team was at the first practice. I think we opened up that first week in February so it was a crash course. But to have a leader like Jason was just invaluable.”
From Jim Morris → Danny Hall, NCAA Silver Anniversary award winner Jason Varitek is thankful for the camaraderie that @GTBaseball facilitates throughout the years. #NCAAConv pic.twitter.com/rZMEotscoq
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) January 23, 2019
He was so invaluable to the program that the school retired his No. 33 – it’s still the only retired player number – and he’d be inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 – his first year of eligibility. It would be part of what would become a grandiose 2004 for Varitek.
“The best thing about being a catcher at Georgia Tech, for me, was just playing and your teammates,” said Varitek, who teamed with Garciaparra, a future Red Sox teammate, and longtime pro Jay Payton on the ‘94 squad. “My senior year we went to the College World Series for the first time and being a part of those moments, being on those teams, was a huge part.”
Varitek showed his dedication to Georgia Tech and the dream of graduating by passing on the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him 21st in the 1993 Draft. The following year he’d be selected by Seattle with the 14th pick.
He’d never play with the big league Mariners, as in 1997 the team traded him to Boston with pitcher Derek Lowe for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb, in what is still considered one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history.
To say he was eager to get to the bigs was an understatement. Hall recalled a story told to him years ago by then-Manager Jimy Williams about that Sept. 24, 1997 day.
“Jimy Williams was always the first guy in the clubhouse, usually, every day but for sure on the road,” Hall recalled. “So he gets into the clubhouse in Detroit, and he walks in and kind of hears somebody scuffling around. He’s like, ‘Man, that’s odd that there’s somebody in here.’ He was a little nervous about who was in there. So he walks kind of around a corner and he can see a guy. The guy was already in a sweat. It was Jason Varitek. He had gotten in early, had gotten some work done and then was kind of waiting on everybody else to give him direction. Varitek was the first guy in there on his first day in the big leagues.”
For the next 16 years, Varitek, who singled that day on an 0-1 pitch from righty reliever Kevin Jarvis as a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth of the Sox’ 9-2 win, would be in the clubhouse early, setting an example.
He was in there early on Oct. 27, 2004, as part of one of the most exciting days in the city of Boston’s history. That day they beat St. Louis, 3-0, in Game Four of the World Series to complete a sweep of the Cardinals and sweep away one of sports’ longest-running hexes. Coincidentally, Lowe, the winning pitcher, threw to Varitek for seven innings.
“It meant the world to us as players,” said Varitek, who went 1-for-5 with a run scored in the final game and while batting only .154 for the series, still scored the winning run in Game One and put the Sox ahead for good in Game Two, with a first-inning, two-run triple. “The wait of 86 years and the constant agony of the fans, something bad always happened and you felt that. It took all that away once we got that last out.”
Varitek, who was named the fourth captain in Sox history from 2004, an honor he held until he retired in 2012, has stayed in the organization and is currently one of two special assistants to the president of baseball operations, with former team- and battery mate Pedro Martinez.
“I wanted to start and finish my career in the same place,” said Varitek, who was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2016. “Those things were important to me. When you get that honor back after you’re done playing and a few championships later was a big honor for me.”
He’s only swung a golf club since 2012 but has still made every swing count, staying active in the community, volunteering with “Pitching in for Kids,” a non-profit organization that uses sports and sports-related events to help kids throughout New England.
“Baseball provided us with a stage to help give back to the community,” he said. “I had a putt-putt golf tournament for about four or five years then ‘Pitching in for Kids’ needed a hand, with a teammate of mine, Tim Wakefield. So I became part of that with Tim.
His latest project as part of “Pitching in for Kids” is an anti-bullying campaign.
“I didn’t get the opportunities that I had in life without support of other people,” he said. “I think it’s important that you give back not only to communities but it’s a good example to your own family and children.”
Hall is not surprised Varitek is still setting a good example.
“That’s just who he is,” he said. “He makes everybody else around him better. He’s selfless. He will always put the team ahead of himself even though he was a great player here, a three-time All-American, and first-round draft choice twice. His makeup, his DNA was all about the team and winning and he made everybody that he came in contact with better. He’s continuing to do that. The Red Sox have him as an adviser to the baseball staff for a reason.”
“The biggest opportunity that college sports gives is an education…
The value of a degree from Georgia Tech can provide is irreplaceable in life and it’s irreplaceable to me."
— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) January 24, 2019
Varitek cites Georgia Tech as a reason for his success.
“We, unfortunately, play a sport that less than two percent actually have a big-league career more than two years,” he said. “You have to have something to fall back on. Well, I didn’t fall back on just an education. It’s an education from the Georgia Institute of Technology and THAT has carried with me forever.
“My dad was right,” he added with a smile. “He’d be proud right now, no doubt.”