September 26, 2009

The End Of The Line

It's sad watching an aging athlete lose the skills that once drew cheers.

It happens, to one degree or another, to every baseball player. A few hang their spikes up early, but most players -- who have needed rock-solid confidence to get where they are -- believe they can still compete.

Imagine someone who has been in professional baseball since he left high school. How hard must it be to admit to himself that he no longer possess the talents he once had? That what he does on the field is more than likely to hurt his team? If a lot of his identity has been tied in with his abilities and accomplishments (maybe as an All-Star, one of the game's best) then how does he see himself when he can no longer play the game?

Last night in Yankee Stadium was one of more embarrassing games of Jason Varitek's career. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, a foul pop-up and a GIDP. Varitek's hitting skills have been going steadily downhill since August 2005. After a ugly 2008 season, this year has been just as bad, if not worse. His 2009 OPS by month:
April      .881
May .824
June .750
July .736
August .483
September .310
In his last 28 games, he's batting .120 and slugging .196.

The Yankees easily stole seven bases last night in seven attempts. Throughout MLB this season, a team has stolen at least six bases in a game eight times. Varitek has been the catcher in four of those eight games. Since July 1, Varitek has thrown out only three of 59 runners, and none of the last 24. He has also shown an increasing inability to block pitches in the dirt.

If he cannot field and cannot throw and cannot hit, how does he help the team?

But will the Red Sox bench their captain? Will Theo Epstein show the same cut-throat attitude he did in 2004 when he traded Nomar Garciaparra? At that time, Nomar was still an icon in Boston, but his performance in the field was absolutely hurting the team. Varitek's performance has slipped so far, and become so blindingly obvious, that most fans would agree that the next step is to nail his ass to the bench.

The front office is partially to blame for this situation. They named Varitek as captain right when when it was highly probable he would be declining as a player, they signed him to a four-year deal that would begin when was 33 years old, and they failed to go out and get a suitable replacement before trading for Victor Martinez eight weeks ago.

If Red Sox management wants to put the best team on the field for every post-season game, it should regard Varitek as nothing more than the emergency back-up catcher. He could start if Mike Lowell's hip really needed a day off, but at this point, Jed Lowrie or Chris Woodward would inspire more optimism at the plate.


laura k said...

This is true. For some it's sad but true. For me it's just true, and sad that the team won't act on it.

johngoldfine said...

I can attest to the psychological difficulty of coping with declining physical skills--not that I was ever quite all-star material even in the prime of my pride. But in decline one does rationalize, doubt what is clearly there, conveniently forget, ignore the mirror, take a trend to be a mere outlier, take one good day to be a new trend, and so on.

How does Jason Varitek feel about having to pretty soon say to himself, "I used to be Jason Varitek!"

Not so good.

But RS's point is that it's about the team, not the Captain and if he can't do It gracefully, It will be done (or ought to be done) to him or for him the only other way.

laura k said...

(or ought to be done)

That's the main point. Ought to be done, but will it be?

Amy said...

Sadly, I have to agree. Part of aging gracefully is accepting your limits. Although 37 is hardly old in any world but sports, Varitek should accept his limits and move on. I hope he has the sense to do so at the end of the season.

I will be sad to see him go, but also relieved.

laura k said...

Although 37 is hardly old in any world but sports,

Yes. Sport, dance... that's about it.

And maybe competitive drinking.

sparky said...

I've always thought 'Tek would make a good bench coach, pitching coach, player-coach...Whatever. That way he'd still contribute to the team. As a player-coach (do they even do that in baseball?), he could even play 1st or catch if he had to. Right now, it's just hard to watch.


laura k said...

player-coach (do they even do that in baseball?)

They used to. I wonder when the last time was. Anybody know or can venture a guess?