CLEVELAND -- The image is ingrained in the minds of Red Sox fans everywhere. Seconds before disappearing into a mob of his teammates on the field in St. Louis, Boston catcher Jason Varitek leaped into the arms of a grinning Keith Foulke.

Their embrace set off the celebration after clinching the 2004 World Series crown, ending a drought that dated back to 1918 for Boston. As central as Varitek was to that eternal snapshot, the veteran backstop has also been an integral part of arguably the greatest period in Red Sox history.

Through the ups and downs, Varitek has remained the constant over the past decade for Boston. He's gone from rookie to captain along the way, serving as a field general for the veterans and a mentor to the youth. With Varitek behind the dish, the Sox have continually boasted elite pitching staffs and have finally made October baseball a norm again in Beantown.

"No question -- 100 percent -- I'm very fortunate to be a part of this," said Varitek, unwilling to turn any part of the spotlight upon himself. "I just try to be consistent with what I do, day in and day out."

That's precisely what Varitek has done over the years, providing a reliable spot on Boston's roster. As much as sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez have become the faces of the Red Sox franchise, Varitek has played a crucial role in the club's recent string of success. While the offense pounds out runs, he guides the pitching staff.

This season, the Red Sox turned in a 3.80 ERA with Varitek behind the plate, giving him the best mark among qualified American League catchers. Boston also led the league with a 3.87 staff ERA and a 3.10 bullpen ERA, and finished second in the AL with a 4.21 ERA by its starters. The Red Sox have talented arms, but the man wearing the mask is the common thread.

"To me, he's the most important link to our pitching staff and the success that we've had this season," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "Whether the pitcher on the mound at a given time is a 15-year veteran or a guy in his first year, Jason commands the respect and trust of each one of our pitchers."

That aspect of Varitek's game was especially evident on Sept. 1, when the 35-year-old catcher flashed the signs during rookie Clay Buchholz's no-hitter against the Orioles. That marked the third no-hitter under Varitek's watch, making him one of 12 catchers to work three such outings in a career since 1900.

Varitek also caught Hideo Nomo's no-hitter for the Red Sox in 2001 and the captain helped seal Derek Lowe's no-hit gem a season later. Each time, the pitchers trusted Varitek's knowledge, which comes through in-depth preparation and in-game adjustments.

"He's probably the most prepared catcher I've been around," said Boston pitcher Tim Wakefield, who has been teammates with Varitek for the past 11 seasons. "Obviously the three no-hitters is not a fluke. I think that's a tribute to how he prepares."

Varitek once again steered any attention away from himself.

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"That's my job. That's the way I look at it," Varitek said. "It all goes to the pitchers. I'm just a helper."

Farrell said that Varitek is more than that. The catcher is Boston's captain by title, being recognized as such prior to the 2005 season, but he's also a director on the field. The Red Sox pitching coach said Varitek can help pitchers adjust during the heat of battle in ways that the coaches can't.

"We're able to talk about game situations in the bullpen," Farrell said. "But when it can be done in between the lines within a game, 'Tek, in many ways, is a pitching coach out on the field."

"'Tek, I give him a lot of credit," Red Sox reliever Javier Lopez said. "He does a great job of handling the bullpen and slowing us all down. I think we're all so antsy just to get out there and we want to contribute the best we can and he does a great job of slowing us down."

Since Varitek began catching regularly for the Red Sox in 1998, the club has advanced to the postseason six times. That's the best stretch for Boston since a seven-year span from 1912-18, when the Sox captured the World Series on four occasions.

With five playoff games in the books this October, Varitek has upped his team-record total to 44 postseason games played in his career. He also owns the club mark with 1,142 career games behind the plate, and Varitek is 11 home runs shy of equaling Carlton Fisk's all-time Red Sox record of 157 home runs by a catcher.

This past season, Varitek saw his batting average dip to .255 -- the third season in a row that it decreased for the switch-hitter. Still, he launched 17 home runs, which was the fourth-highest total among AL catchers, and he drove in 68 runs in 131 games. Varitek's offense may have tapered off slightly, but his skill behind the plate has remained strong.

Varitek also adds an important element off the field.

"He brings a lot of leadership, professionalism and presence," Wakefield said. "He's an all-around perfect teammate, as far as being the captain and being the leader. And he not only leads by example, he leads with his opinion. He's very well respected in this clubhouse."

That respect has undoubtedly expanded to the outer reaches of Red Sox Nation, which will forever remember Varitek's part in the World Series victory three years ago. Perhaps another lasting image is only weeks away.