The Boston Red Sox signed Kelly Shoppach on Tuesday.
That's not especially exciting news. Team Signs Backup Catcher has never been a headline on the front page of the Boston Globe. It's never been a headline on the front page of Backup Catcher Quarterly -- no one cares about backup catchers.
In this case, though, it means something. It's the end of an era. Jason Varitek, a Red Sock for 15 seasons, almost certainly won't be back with the team.
Back in 1997, the Red Sox had a 31-year-old reliever with a 5.79 ERA. It was the trading deadline, and they wanted to get rid of the reliever, who had walked 34 batters in 46 innings. He had over $3 million left on his contract. So they did what any team in their situation would have done:
they released him acquired two prospects who would become All-Stars and win a World Series.
There's no way to do a clean alternate history. Maybe the Red Sox win two World Series without Jason Varitek -- maybe they win three or four with whatever catcher they would have had instead. But we know for sure that the Red Sox do have two World Series victories with Jason Varitek behind the plate, and that those wouldn't have been possible if Woody Woodward didn't look at Heathcliff Slocumb and think he was fixable.
The championships wouldn't have been possible if Woody Woodward didn't look at Heathcliff Slocumb and think he was worth a pretty good prospect.
The championships wouldn't have been possible if Woody Woodward didn't look at Heathcliff Slocumb and think he was worth two pretty good prospects. Derek Lowe went in the deal too, and he ended up as a pretty good closer and starting pitcher for the Red Sox.
Varitek came over and hit well, and he managed the pitching staffs well. His famous "You should pitch all good and stuff" advice to Pedro Martinez probably turned the pitcher's career around. There are plenty of reasons for Red Sox fans to love Varitek. But from an outsider's perspective, he represents the unlikeliness of it all. Not that the Red Sox were a flukey team in either 2004 or 2007, but it's impossible to look at Varitek's contributions to those two teams and think, "That guy wasn't even supposed to be here! How did he … wait, traded for whom? When?"
No, Red Sox fans will remember the ups and the downs, the 15 seasons of memories that an everyday catcher can leave. They'll remember him hitting 25 home runs for the first team to win it all since before Prohibition. They'll remember him hitting .209 in his last season as a full-time starter. They'll remember his personality, his leadership, and that big ol' "C" patch on his jersey. Pedro came and left. Manny came and left. But Varitek was always there -- and unlike quasi-lifers David Ortiz and Tim Wakefield, Varitek never played a major-league game in a different uniform.
Well, he changed his uniform after every game. He wasn't a filthy, sick freak. But you know what I mean.
But what I'll remember is a trade that sent one of the most heralded catching prospects of the draft era -- albeit one who followed up acrimonious contract negotiations with a lackluster pro debut -- away for a closer. Not just any closer, but a closer who was about to lose his job because he was awful. A closer who was never a full-time closer again, probably because he could never throw strikes.
And if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, Slocumb was only on the team because the Phillies really liked Lee Tinsley, who was on the Red Sox because the Mariners traded him away for a pitcher who never pitched another professional inning.
Varitek is a reminder that baseball is a tangled skein of goofy transactions that don't mean anything until they're absolutely meaningful. He shouldn't have been on the Red Sox at all. He ended up defining them for a decade-and-a-half. And it was all because on GM valued a reliever just a little bit more than everyone else fifteen years ago.
And by "a little bit more than everyone," I mean "way more than any right-thinking human being possibly could have, including Mrs. Slocumb." The plaudits and tributes will be deserved, but it's worth stopping every few minutes to think about how ridiculous it was that he was ever on the team in the first place.