- Associated Press - Thursday, March 1, 2012

FORT MYERS, FLA. (AP) - Jason Varitek spent 15 seasons as the stoic center of the Boston Red Sox, with an icy stare that never blinked and an iron jaw that never quivered.

The toughness and tenacity that defined his career and galvanized the Red Sox back to the top of the baseball world finally gave way on Thursday night, when the Captain bid farewell.

With his wife and three daughters by his side, and his parents and dozens of teammates watching from just a few feet away, an emotional Varitek officially announced his retirement.

“My teammates,” Varitek said, his voice shaking and his eyes welling, are “what I’m going to miss most. The hardest thing to do is to walk away from your teammates and what they’ve meant to you over the years.”

If Dustin Pedroia is the heart of the Red Sox and David Ortiz is the soul, Varitek was the steel spine that held everything together.

He caught four no-hitters, played in three All-Star games, won two championship rings and had one memorable run-in with Yankees star Alex Rodriguez that will endear him to Boston sports fans forever.

“You have not only been our captain, you have been our rock,” Red Sox chairman Tom Werner said. “You have personified the rugged, aggressive, fiercely competitive style of play that has characterized our club during your tenure.”

The Red Sox acquired Varitek and Derek Lowe in a lopsided trade with Seattle for Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997. The catcher spent the next 14 seasons helping turn the Sox from a seemingly cursed franchise that tortured its fans by choking in big moments to one of the dominant teams of this century.

“I’m probably a little biased,” ace pitcher Josh Beckett said. “I’m sure there’s guys on other teams who have guys on their teams who they say the same thing about. Even watching him from afar, you could see other guys on other teams have that respect for Jason and he deserved it.”

And his fingerprints were everywhere.

He was the welcoming confidante when a teammate needed advice, the stern voice of reason when a pitcher wanted to shake him off in a big spot and the aggressive bodyguard when an opponent dared challenge them.

The moment everyone will remember came in 2004 against the hated Yankees, when Alex Rodriguez chafed after being hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo. As Rodriguez cursed at Arroyo, Varitek shoved his mitt into A-Rod’s face, sparking a bench-clearing brawl.

“I was just being a teammate,” he said.

During his speech, Varitek thanked a long list of people who helped him along the way, from his Little League coaches to the baby sitters who watched his three daughters, his family, the clubhouse staff and of course, bullpen coach Gary Tuck.

The Red Sox offered the 39-year-old a chance to come to camp on a minor league deal, and Varitek briefly looked at other teams as well. But in the end, the chance to play his entire career with one team won out.

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