Here's the Catch: Jorge Posada & Jason Varitek
Throughout baseball history, there have been a number of memorable positional rivalries that have unfolded within broader team battles. The 1950's in New York come to mind, when Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were all playing center field for their respective clubs. The Yankees also featured Phil Rizzutto while Brooklyn had Pee Wee Reese at shortstop. Bar room arguments raged.
Since the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees could both reasonably lay claim to team of the decade thus far in the 21st century, positional battles within this rivalry have garnered attention. Nine or ten years ago, it looked like Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra would battle head to head throughout their careers, but the Red Sox would trade Nomar away while Jeter remained and continues to perform at a remarkably high level. Nomar faded, but another positional dual emerged.
Jorge Posada has won 4 World Series rings and Jason Varitek 2. While nobody would dispute that Posada has had the better career, both are two of the finest catchers in the last 25 years or so, and with Posada coming off his latest title and Varitek looking like his time as a starter is coming to an end, a retrospective seems in order.
I want to be clear about one thing as it relates to Varitek and Posada. They are not comparable players. That statement takes nothing away from Varitek's terrific playing record and has everything to do with my belief that Posada is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Posada's career OPS+ of 124 bests Varitek's season high of 123. Yes, they've both been very good players. But more than how they have performed on the field, it's their longevity, the number of times they've faced one another and the fact that each has toiled their entire MLB careers for the Yankees and Red Sox respectively that will forever link the two players.
Varitek has caught 1,381 games in his career, again, all as a Red Sox. Posada has caught 1,490 games, all as a Yankee. Varitek has played in 163 regular season games against the Yankees, Posada 184 against the Red Sox, They competed against one another in the 1999, 2003 and 2004 ALCS. They both won World Series championships with Johnny Damon.
The Red Sox and Yankee rivalry has had three separate "golden ages", if you will. There was the David Halberstam Summer of '49 era, when the Ted Williams Red Sox tried time and again to take down the Bronx Bombers. They managed to in 1946, but lost the World Series in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Yankees won the 1947 championship, their first of 6 titles in 7 years.
In the 1970's, the Red Sox once again boasted some great teams, except that their 1975 World Series appearance, which seemed at the time to portend great things for a young Red Sox club, turned out to be their only showing that decade in the Fall Classic. The Yankees won the AL pennant in 1976 and then took home the 1977 and 1978 titles. Like this most recent era, the Sox and Yanks each featured terrific catchers in Carlton Fisk and Thurmon Munson.
It's been better during the time of Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek that the rivalry has flourished more than any other period. For one, post-season expansion now allows for the Yanks and Sox to compete against one another in the LCS. Say what you will about the Wild Card, say what you will about how tired you are of the Red Sox and Yankees, but when these two clubs hook up in the post-season, it's just terrific theatre. Even the least dramatic of their three LCS tilts, the 1999 ALCS, was unbelievable. Like Posada and Varitek, I was at Fenway for Game 3 when Pedro Martinez faced Roger Clemens and I will never forget it. I haven't heard Fenway like it since. Not in 2003, 2004 or 2007. Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS was as loud and batsh*t insane as Fenway Park has ever been. So there's that - they now play each other sometimes in the playoffs. Also, the Red Sox now win World Series titles. The hammer and nail thing no longer applies. That makes the "rivalry" more of a rivalry.
Tim Wakefield played with Varitek on the 1999 Red Sox. Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera were Posada's teammates on the '99 Yanks. These have been the mainstays (Pettite's Houston stint notwithstanding). But Varitek and Posada play the same position, and it's not just any position. It's catcher. They're field generals. They both switch hit. Varitek wears a big stupid "C" on his jersey. Their teammates gush over how important each player is, an attribute I typically don't care too much about but after 10+ years of it, you have to defer to the guys hanging around them everyday at some point, no? When Bill Simmons writes his Yankees/Red Sox book in 2034 looking back at this era of the rivalry, he had better devote a full chapter to the two backstops.
If you're a Yankees fan, how much do you love Posada for his ownership of Curt Schilling alone? Posada has tuned the loudmouth up for a .326/.383/.558 line in 47 plate appearances. Heck he has hit .274/.380/.493 against the Red Sox for his career. And these weren't the Aaron Sele and John Wasdin Red Sox. These were the Pedro, Derek Lowe, Schilling, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester Red Sox. Posada can go cold, he can be quiet for periods of time, but it's always his own doing. He is never, ever over-matched.
One cannot say the same of Varitek. In his career, he hit .171/.227/.214 against Mike Mussina. Against the Yankees, he managed just a .225/.305/.388 line. But on those big, bad, slugging 2003 Red Sox, how great was it when 'Tek would come to the plate right-handed against Pettitte or David Wells? Varitek slugged .630 for his career off of Wells and hit Pettitte at a .310/.388/.466 clip. Perhaps an indicator of his toughness, he has managed a .742 OPS against the immortal Mariano Rivera.
Over the last 30 years, of catchers with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Posada ranks 2nd with a .859 OPS and Varitek 5th with a .779 mark. Jorge is well on his way to Cooperstown, but Varitek might as well be joining him. That's because when fans look at Posada's plaque, they will always associate Varitek with him.