By Bill Chuck
Special to CSNNE.com
Call me a softy, but next Opening Day, I would love to see Tim Wakefield on the mound and Jason Varitek behind the plate.
And once that ceremonial first pitch is over, let the ballgame to begin.
I remember when I was researching my book, Walkoffs, Last Licks and Final Outs, a collection of stories about baseball endings, I asked an American League manager about approaching a player with the notion that it may be time to retire. I would never do that, he told me. This is his career. He needs to decide for himself.
Ive thought about that many times as Ive seen too many players hang on too long. I decided if a manager wont tell a player that the milk carton of his career is past the expiration date, then it's up to those of us who watch these guys play to write about how their careers are turning sour.
With that as a prelude, its time to say goodbye to two veterans who have worn the Red Sox logo through the rooting life of many of Red Sox Nations younger fans: Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek.
If there is anything for which I could consistently find fault with Terry Francona in this tumultuous season, its how long he stayed with Wakefield as he sought his 200th victory. It wasnt that he kept starting him in the nine games it took to reach the milestone victory, as Theo had given him no alternative. Its simply that, in too many games, it seemed that Wake was kept in there just a little longer in the hope that he would qualify for the win.
From July 25 to the end of the season, Wakefield appeared in 11 games, starting 10, threw just 62 innings, and had a 1-5 record (the Sox had a 3-8 record in the 11 games) with a 5.08 ERA. But in reality, it was even worse than that in terms of runs allowed. Wakefields knuckleball puts a lot of strain on his catcher and his team defensively. While Wake allowed 35 earned runs in 62 innings, he allowed a total of 49 runs overall. This means that Wakefields Earned and Unearned Runs Average was a brutal 7.11.
Its acknowledged that the knuckleballer's pitching arm will last longer than other moving parts of the body. Like some of the Sox' other pitchers, Wakefield seemed a little chunkier and less mobile as the season progressed. We remember that he has a history of back trouble, and I always felt that the stiffer his delivery, the less effective the knuckleball. In the second half of the season, Wakefield allowed 84 hits in 73 innings as batters hit .282 against him. He also allowed 14 homers and batters had a large .843 OPS against him. Need a frame of reference? In the first half of the season John Lackey had an .841 OPS against.
This performance isnt new for Tim; he hasnt had an ERA of under 4.09 since 2002, and its just gotten worse. In the last two seasons, he is 11-18 with a 5.22 ERA. Lackey has had a 5.26 ERA over the last two seasons and A.J. Burnett has had a 5.20.
Tim recently spoke with Fox Sports regarding his future in the game. Ive definitely made up my mind that I definitely want to come back next year, he said. I have another goal in front of me that Id like to accomplish, and thats the all-time record for the Red Sox in wins. Im only seven away. I think the fans deserve an opportunity to watch me chase that record. Well see what happens.
Tim, you deserve our respect, but the milk has started to turn.
O CAPTAIN! my captain! our fearful trip is done; The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
You folks have heard of Walt Whitman, right? No, he wasnt one of Theos many shortstops; he was a poet. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Whitman, a great admirer of the president, grieved for him and wrote the memorable poem, O Captain! My Captain!, published in November, 1865. Having now added some class to this column, I quote the opening words of the poem because that is the message we must deliver to Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek.
Over the last three seasons, Teks role has been reduced by a combination of injuries and the desire to get the most productivity out of him by resting him. Three years of 216 games has not produced much success. Over that time he has hit .216, with 32 homers and 103 RBI. Think about it, 216 games and a .216 batting average. I know we keep hearing about his role defensively, but the Sox' pitchers are not so effective that the team can afford Teks bat.
Saving his legs by keeping his play to a minimum hasnt proven to be a panacea. When we look at Jasons numbers as the season progressed, we see a very ugly ending. In the last three months of this season, Varitek had averages of .205, .250, and Septembers .077. His 10 RBI in August represented the only month of the season in which he had more than nine. In July and September combined, he had nine RBI.
This season, he was a rally killer. He hit .239 with runners in scoring position and .154 RISP with 2 outs.
Defensively, he has now become a liability. Rtot reflects the runs above or below average a player is worth, with 0 being average. In 2007, Tek was 6. This season, he was -8. On top of that, baserunners ran at will. He caught only 12 of 73 attempted stealers. Over the last three seasons, Tek has thrown out 37-of-215 attempted stealers, a very sad 17.
I also fear that the less Varitek has played, the less influence he has had on the team that, as Captain, he should be leading. Terry would never ask the question, but shouldnt we all be wondering where Jason was when Francona lost control of the tenor of this team? Where was he in September? Where was he when the starters were in the clubhouse during the games?
My Captain, the fearful trip is done. Tek and Wake were both part of 2004 and 2007, when the prize we sought was won. But as he nears 40, Tek is at the age when he needs to make the decision. He needs to spend time with his family and fiance. He needs to acknowledge the expiration date.
I take no pleasure in writing a column like this, but I cant create the stats. I just share them with you. Its time to make room for future Red Sox players. Few will miss D.L. Drew, but so many members of Red Sox Nation will feel sad about Wake and Tek. I just want to see them on Opening Day 2012 throwing and catching that ceremonial first pitch.