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For Varitek, the C is now a scarlet letter

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 11, 2008 11:29 AM

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LAS VEGAS -- For the moment, at least, the captaincy of the Red Sox is a four-year term. The chair is now vacant and Jason Varitek is currently unemployed. It remains difficult to discern whether Varitek will be back or not.

We may found out soon how much the Red Sox value that letter C.
We may find out soon how much the Red Sox value that letter C.
This is the problem with titles. In sports, especially, they suggest that some players are more important to the team than others. Then it comes time to negotiate a contract and the title means nothing at all, and there is every chance that the relationship between Varitek and the Red Sox will crumble as rapidly as it was built four years ago at roughly this time.

The Red Sox need to be careful here. They have negotiated bigger deals and much more significant ones since the John Henry group took control of the team in the spring of 2002, but they might never have negotiated a more symbolic one. Varitek is the captain of the team, the man they elevated with a title, and the Sox need to be very careful here that they do not send the wrong message to Varitek or anyone else.

Today, you're our captain.

Tomorrow, you're out on the street.

Of course, baseball is business and business is baseball, and we all have been given great perspective on how the new Sox operate. Emotion truly does not enter into the equation. Part of the reason the Sox and Patriots have had continued success over the years is because they have operated with bloodless efficiency, making decisions based on logic and probability. When you get right down to it, Varitek might be the only holdover from the Yawkey/Harrington Era who had his place in the clubhouse elevated after the change in ownership.

Nomar Garciaparra was traded. Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, and Derek Lowe were all but ushered out the door. Manny Ramirez departed in an ironical blaze of glory. Of all Sox players who wore the uniform before Henry, Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein took over the Red Sox six-and-a-half years ago, essentially two remain: Varitek and Tim Wakefield, the latter of whom made the unique decision to fully empower the team by giving the Sox a bottomless $4 million option that allows the club to decide his fate each November.

If that sounds like a criticism of Wakefield, it isn't. At this stage of his life, Wakefield is wise enough to know what he does and does not need. Wakefield knew he was taking a below-market deal when he signed it, but the prospect of free agency has never really sat well with him. His wife is from the Boston area. He never was comfortable with the thought of having to go anywhere else, and he was willing to sacrifice potentially silly money while nonetheless making enough real-world dollars to acquire long-term financial security for him and his entire family.

In the end, Wakefield put aside his ego and did what was best for him, and no man ever should be blamed for making that kind of decision.

But Varitek? Go back and look. When Billy Beane nearly became general manager of the Red Sox, it was learned that one of Beane's first maneuvers might have been to subtract Varitek and add someone like Mark Johnson. Even Epstein had his doubts about Varitek at the beginning. Early on his career as Sox GM, Epstein was asked which player had changed his preconceptions the most during his brief tenure as the head of baseball operations, and Epstein hesitated not one bit.

''Varitek,'' he said.

What Varitek did behind the scenes was impossible to appreciate without intimate knowledge of the Boston operation. He committed himself to the team fully. He embraced his responsibilities with both arms -- first as a catcher, then as a hitter -- and he was meticulous in his preparation for every contest. Varitek paid attention to the subtle adjustments made by opposing hitters, counteracted accordingly, always stayed one step ahead.

In the spring of 2004, when Varitek, Lowe, Martinez and Garciaparra all were entering the final year of their respective contracts, most everyone knew the Red Sox were on the verge of a massive overhaul, one way or the other.

''They've made it pretty apparent this is probably the last time the four of us will be together,'' Varitek said at the time. ''We've got to hold onto that and win.''

And so they did. Immediately after, they were all shown the door.

Except Varitek, who accepted a four-year, $40 million contract during a press conference in which the C was also placed on his chest.

Now here we are, four years later, and the letters all mean something different in this age of rapid technological advancement and trendy text messaging. That's C as in C U later. If you are someone like Dustin Pedroia, the heir apparent to the Red Sox captaincy who just signed a six-year contract during a press conference in which the team celebrated his leadership skills -- coincidence? -- you had better take note now. In six or seven years, depending on whether the Sox pick up your contract option, club officials might deem your salary demands to be greater than your skill set. If and when that happens, the C will change meaning again and the Sox will place it on someone else's chest.

Again, let's reiterate that business is business and that we all like to believe we are needed. In the end, the truth is that we are all replaceable. Jason Varitek will be 37 next spring and he is coming off a year in which he batted .220 with an OPS of .672, and the Red Sox have all the leverage because they continue to build winning teams. In Boston now, more than ever before, players come and players go, and Sox followers are fully content to support ownership and management so long as the team continues to win.

As things stand, it is unclear what market, if any, exists for Varitek beyond the walls of Fenway Park. This week, representatives of the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers, both perceived suitors of Varitek, said they lost interest based on agent Scott Boras's demands (a multiyear deal) and the compensatory first-round pick tied to Varitek for any team that signs him. When the Sox offered Varitek arbitration -- and when Varitek declined -- it certainly seemed as if the Sox further robbed him of leverage.

At the moment, what we know for certain is that the Sox have offered Varitek something, be it in the form of a one-year deal or two-year deal. Either way, the specifics really do not matter. At the end of the day, the captain of the Red Sox is just another guy who wore the uniform, who might still again. There is also the chance that Varitek never will play another home game at Fenway Park despite having caught more games than any catcher in the history of the franchise, despite being the first man ever to have a C emblazoned on his chest.

If you are Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester or Justin Masterson, you should make a mental note of this now because, years from now, you will be in the same position.

At the end of the day, major league baseball is nothing more than a cold business in disguise.

Even the distinguished C on the Boston uniform is really nothing more than a scarlet letter.

(Editor's note: After reading your reactions to this column and realizing he had misconveyed some sentiments, Tony wrote a clarification on Friday. You can read it here.)

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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