Jason Varitek

August 15, 2008

Here is a fighter. The captain of my team. Lately he’s been going through some tough times on and off the field. I imagine he’s not crumpling in the face of his challenges but trying to battle through them.

But me? I’m not a fighter. Here’s my annotated lifetime record of confrontational fiascoes:

1972: A fellow four-year-old shot me with a suction cup dart gun. I wanted to kill him. My mom intervened. I have never gotten over this injustice.

1977: A fellow nine-year-old from my rural town came over to play one day. He was the coolest kid in my class, a rider of minibikes and snow machines, a beebee gun murderer of birds. At my nonviolent back-to-the-land house, boredom quickly set in for him. To break it up he started calling me dufus.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

So he said it again and again. I started chasing him around the yard, sobbing with anger. He was a much tougher kid than I was and could have beaten me to a pulp if he’d wanted to, but he preferred to just keep calling me dufus and easily eluding me. (It’s hard to run fast when you’re weeping and screaming.) He was laughing so hard that soon enough he, too, was crying. It must have looked curious, two lunatics playing tag. I don’t remember how it ended. I know it didn’t end satisfactorily. In a way it never ended.

1978: My first and only actual fight, sort of. I was with some other ten-year-olds out beyond the chain link center field fence during the town’s July 4th Little League All-Star Game. One of them, Jimmy, was hanging on the fence and sort of blocking my view. Jimmy had been my first friend in Vermont when we’d moved there four years earlier, but after that first year we moved one town over and I only ever saw him when my Little League team played his. The most memorable moment of our brief friendship had been when he and I decided to fend off the encroaching boredom of a rural summer day by trying to play tennis with two baseball bats and a rock. I think this was my bright idea. I hit the rock to him and he swung and missed. Then he hit the rock to me and I swung and missed. I began to think it was a stupid idea and was on the brink of giving up on it when I gave it one last distracted try, hitting the rock to him. He swung and connected and smacked the rock into my mouth. Blood gushed out, tears, screams. Anyway, four years later Jimmy had become a big, thick-armed kid blocking my view of the game. So I asked him if he could move. He turned and glared at me. Maybe he was mad that I wasn’t really friends with him anymore, I don’t know.

“Why don’t you make me,” he said.

I’m sure if it was just the two of us there I would have shrunk from his challenge. Unfortunately, there were a bunch of other kids around. So I got up, a stupid grin frozen on my face. I am going to be in a fistfight. I don’t know why I had a long sleeve T-shirt on in the middle of summer, but I distinctly remember rolling up the sleeves of it, and remember even more distinctly that I was doing it ironically. I am rolling up my sleeves for a fight, just like in the movies. Ten years old and already crippled by unshakeable self-awareness. We squared off, I guess, and he threw two roundhouse rights. I ducked both of them and then I lunged at him and tried to grab him. I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing. I think I wanted to grab his arms because they were the things that kept coming at my skull. My hygiene, it should be pointed out, was somewhat lackluster. I was something of a hippie kid. More to the point, my fingernails during my first and only sort-of fight were longer than they should have been. Anyway what happened was that I ended up scratching him. This brought the fight to a screeching halt.

“You scratched me like a girl,” Jimmy declared, his face twisting sour on the last word. Disgusted, he now wanted no part of me. I was glad to no longer be in danger of being punched in the face, but it was brief, superficial relief, and the monstrous humiliation of a coward revealed swelled up in its wake. What worse term could a boy be called in front of a pack of other boys on a sunny July day?

1979: I started annoying my older brother while the two of us were playing an old boardgame called Dogfight. I don’t remember what I was doing, only that he told me to stop doing it and I kept doing it. Finally he went to punch me in the shoulder but missed and hit me in the face, his knuckles scraping off some of the thin skin on the side of my forehead. I started bleeding a little and went crying and screaming to my mommy.

1995 (approximately): I’m skipping some shouting matches during basketball games throughout my teen and college years and cutting to a night at my 1990s hangout, The International. I don’t know how it started, just that the narrow bar was crowded and my brother took extreme umbrage at what he perceived as the arrogant attitude of some random skinny hipster and his crowd of random skinny hipster friends, which unlike our own lonely gathering of mutterers included some girls. What I discovered is that while I generally go to great lengths to avoid confrontations I apparently won’t hesitate to jump into the middle of things to defend my brother. To use the old phrase, I see red. There was no ironic internal monologue reciting things like “I am rolling up the sleeves of my shirt now.” Shit started happening and I was in the middle of it. I am making this sound more like a brawl than what it actually was—a crowded harmless shoving match centering around my brother attempting to strangle an arrogantly grinning skinny hipster (who might as well have been mouthing the word dufus again and again)—but I think it still deserves to be noted because it was the only time in my life that I can remember jumping into action without first thinking about it. The whole thing was defused by Rose, heroic bartender of the International, who despite her slender, diminutive frame broke up the scrum with a few expert commands. Words continued to be exchanged as the Wilker Brothers/skinny hipsters game of drunken Twister untangled. I happened to be wearing the sweatshirt of an establishment in Staten Island that we’d visited not long before. One of the hipster women referred to it with scorn during the still-heated exchange of unpleasantries.

“Calm down, Hooters,” she said.

1997 (approximately): I went with a friend to the International, but because of electrical difficulties the bar was shut down. As my friend wrote a note to stick in the locked gate of the bar for another friend we’d planned to meet there, I wandered over to the big bag of stale baguettes that always seemed to materialize outside the bar at night. Many was the time that I’d drunkenly stumbled out of the bar to grab a stale bat of bread and gnaw on it for a while. But since I hadn’t gotten drunk yet I wasn’t interested in eating the discarded bread. Still, I grabbed a baguette and made like I was stalking over to my friend to cartoonishly bash him in the head. I abandoned the bit before he turned to see and put the bread back in the bag. Or maybe I was still holding the bread. I don’t remember. Anyway, some guy punched me in the face. Suddenly he was there in front of me and wham. There was another guy with him. The puncher shouted something at my friend, then he and his companion walked north on First Avenue, moving fast. Later my friend said that what he’d heard was “I’ve got a gun.”

I stood there holding my glasses, which I’d caught in my hands as they’d fled, crippled, from my face. I’d staggered back a step with the punch. I stood there for quite a while, blinking.

“What just happened?” my friend said.

2005: I haven’t had any altercations since getting punched in the face outside the International. But I did see red once. A year or so after moving here to Chicago I was in a bar, watching a Red Sox game. For some reason they started replaying some moments from late in Game 5 of the previous year’s American League Championship series. In that game, Tim Wakefield came on in relief late, forcing Jason Varitek into the unusual position of trying to catch the knuckleball. In the midst of such an important game—a loss would have eliminated the Red Sox—Boston could not afford to take their hot-hitting team leader out for Wakefield’s usual personal catcher, Doug Mirabelli. Unfortunately for Varitek, Wakefield’s knuckler was even more lively than usual that night. No one could touch it: not the Yankee batters, not Varitek. The potential pennant-winning run advanced to first on a third-strike passed ball, then by the time two outs had been recorded had advanced all the way to third on two more passed balls. After the third of these passed balls, a brief, unsung moment occurred that ranks for me as one of my favorite of the 2004 playoffs. As the shellshocked catcher was walking back to his position Wakefield caught his eye and looked at him calmly and steadily while making a gentle down-patting motion with his arms.

“Don’t worry, old pal,” Wake seemed to be saying. “We’ve got this.”  

I didn’t realize how protective I was of that moment until, a year later, with replays of the passed balls showing on the screen, a guy near me at the bar started mocking Varitek’s abilities.

“Ha! Some captain! He can’t even catch the ball!” the guy said.

He might as well have insulted my brother. Without thinking about what I was doing I started yelling at him. Fortunately for the health of my face and glasses he was a happy-go-lucky sort who had only been trying to get a rise out of a Red Sox fan he was sitting with, so no blows or scratches or sobbing ensued.

But after the brief altercation I sat there trembling. It was the first time I realized how much my captain meant to me. Yesterday was the second time. I’ve long-since been dispossessed of my childhood idea that baseball players exist in some realm above earthly suffering, so it shocked me to feel the earth twitching a little below my feet when I learned that Jason Varitek had filed for divorce. Later that day, as his teammates pounded the ball all over the yard, Varitek continued a long, awful slump, and I realized that the shock of the news of his divorce came from me putting him up on a pedestal as someone who, unlike me, has it all figured out. I guess no one has it all figured out. Sooner or later, the pitches will start coming too fast and breaking too hard. Maybe the best we can do is go down swinging.


  1. 1.  Excellent, Josh.

    Change a few years and you described my fight career as well.

  2. 2.  If they make the playoffs, maybe Tek will be the ’08 version of Drew, who suffered a slumped ’07 in part due to off field issues with his kid and then rose to bang out a great postseason.

  3. 3.  2 : I hope you’re right. He’s scuffling even worse than Drew was last year, though, plus he’s older.

  4. 4.  http://tinyurl.com/5ntdma

    It has been painful to watch the Captain struggle. He looks fine, to all appearances, he’s just mired in a slump beyond comprehension.

    Maybe it’s the divorce? I just heard about this via a Google ad right here. That may explain a lot.

  5. 5.  4 : “He looks fine, to all appearances . . .”

    I was thinking the same thing, comparing his still-decent swing to the deteriorating swing of the catcher who preceded him as a pennant-winner on the Sox, Rich Gedman, who near the end took his cuts like a cross between Charlie Lau’s worst nightmare and an axe murderer with Parkinson’s.

  6. 6.  Sorry y’all. He’s just not that good anymore. Going thru a divorce can’t help – and don’t forget … when he had that run-in with AROD, he kept his mask on like a pu$$y

  7. 7.  How about that time you spit on a barkeep during the wee-hours fracas that got us eighty-sixed, en masse, from the East Village watering hole ‘Nightbirds?’

    I believe you also knocked the levers for all the taps to “On” so that our exodus was accompanied by the whoosh of free-pouring beer.

    I still don’t know what happened with that guy punching you in the face outside the International, but it still seems quite shocking. If I recall, that was very short night.

    Anyway I’m glad you’re in my corner.

  8. 8.  7 : A painful memory. I rationalized its absence from the list because it repeated the “seeing red when my brother is involved” element of the “Calm down, Hooters” incident. But more honestly I just didn’t want to think about it. But now that you mention it, I think the incident you mention occurred after we’d already been officially tossed from the bar, and the only people left inside were my brother and me, and the two of us were in a screaming match with the bartender. I don’t remember how the whole thing started, but as with the other incident it was rapidly escalated by the chip-on-shoulder feeling that we were being treated like dirt by an arrogant person. Good times!

  9. 9.  I’ve been waiting for more than a year to hear the randomly-punched-in-the-face story referred to in your profile. That’s it, huh?

    I’m also a terrible fighter moved to acts of foolish bravery when it comes to my brother. I once destroyed a bullying classmate of his who’d stolen his hat. My brother came over to thank me and I was trembling, “Stop getting your hat stolen, you wuss! Get the F out of my face!”

    My last fight was extremely one sided — guy started wailing on me while I was seated and not even looking — but I suffered more injuries running away than I did getting hit.

  10. 10.  (ramblin’ pete, don’t read the second paragraph below)

    In some versions of the Nightbirds story, I get mentioned as an instigator, although I don’t remember that specifically. But I did go through my time as a tough drunk, despite my diminutive size.

    When I was in college, I got into a fight with a dude who went on to play for the scab Giants as an offensive lineman. He said something to me I didn’t like, and I was really wasted, so I slugged him, knocking him down. A friend of mine from the football team lifted me up and carried me away — to save my life. For weeks I was told to mix up my routes to classes so the guy wouldn’t be able to find me and get even.

    Freakin’ scab.

  11. 11.  10 : Yes, in my memory at least, if the night we got banned from Nightbirds were a hockey game (and in fact it was the first ever drinking of the Ray Ferraro Pitcher, that yearly tradition based around the Rangers’ first goal scored of each season), you would have been the fiesty Tikkannen guy fanning the flames, specifically by chattering inflammatory rhetoric into the ears of our team’s 6’4″ Joey Kocur (my brother).

  12. 12.  Josh,
    The last time I got tossed from a bar (Old Town Bar on 18th Street) was the last time I was with your brother. He had nothing to do with it and didn’t get tossed. It was before a Gang of Four reunion show at Irving Plaza a couple of years ago. I was with a few people and we had been waiting quite a while for a table. One of the guys made the mistake of asking one of the patrons if they were going to be leaving soon. The waitress absolutely FREAKED and the bartender, who I don’t think even knew what was going on came to her defense and threw us out. The bartender was right to defend the waitress, but she totally overreacted.

  13. 13.  I corroborate both the Nightbirds story and the Old Town pre-Gang of Four narrative; I was there for both. It was mdr1994’s Rangers-related taunts that lit the fuse, but that’s for hockey blog.

    My fight career began and ended on the diamond. In first grade, during a softball game. A larger, meaner girl, a real bully who had been torturing my bookish self for months, was pitching during recess, and when I came to bat, she began throwing the ball directly at my head.

    I couldn’t see very well, and couldn’t wear glasses at bat anyway. In a literally blind rage, I charged the mound, head down, delivering a solid punch to her stomach that knocked her on her ass. She immediately started crying profusely.

    In the principal’s office, the nuns, oddly enough, told her she got what she deserved and I was never punished for my all-out aggro fit.

    Which I never repeated. Career record, 1-0.

  14. 14.  Anytime baguettes and guns mix, the ending result can never be good.

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