Jason Varitek tearfully retired Thursday as Boston Red Sox catcher. (STEVE NESIUS / Reuters)

Whether it’s a football player, like Kris Dielman in San Diego, or a baseball player at spring training, it’s never easy for an athlete to say goodbye to his career.

Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek retired Thursday, tearing up as he looked at his teammates in a press conference on the JetBlue Park diamond in Fort Myers, Fla.

“Guys, you have no idea what this means,’’ Varitek said, then wiped his tears and talked about moving on.

Jason Varitek shoved Alex Rodriguez after he was hit by a pitch from Bronson Arroyo in 2004. (BARRY CHIN / AP)

“After months of deliberating what to do, I decided it’s best for me and my family that I retire a Red Sox,’’ Varitek said. “This has probably been the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my career. The opportunity to start and finish my major league career in one place meant more to me. That’s why I’m standing here.’’

He leaves as a part of New England lore. Not only was he a tough, gruff catcher on a team that reversed the curse of the Bambino, he also created, as Dan Shaughnessy points out, an indelible in-your-face image in a 2004 dustup with Alex Rodriguez of the hated New York Yankees.

We have the iconic photo of Jason Varitek smashing his catcher’s mitt into the face of Alex Rodriguez. Try to find a saloon in Greater Boston that does not have this photo somewhere behind the bar.

It is the image of defiance. It’s a memory of stepping up for yourself and for your team. It’s a Red Sox captain saying “no more’’ to the bully of eight-plus decades.

It makes Jason Varitek immortal.

Bobby Valentine, just settling into the job of Red Sox manager, brought up the play, saying that Varitek had “beat up” A-Rod.

“From afar, he was everything that you want in a guy who wore a ‘C’ to be,” Valentine said of Varitek. “He was a man’s man. He was a big hitter when needed. He was the leader of the pitching staff. He was able to beat up Alex. All that stuff is good stuff.”

A-Rod said “I don’t even remember” whether Varitek took off his mask before the scrap and chose to focus on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.

“The reason that everyone cares so much about this rivalry is because, for a long time, both teams have contended for a championship,” Rodriguez told Michael Kay on ESPN 1050. “If both teams were losing 100 games, nobody would really care. It’s because they have great players, great managers, great management. That’s why they care. It’s not for anything that anybody says off the field.”

Derek Jeter was more interested in the big picture with Varitek. “Talking about Varitek, you point out the good things,” Jeter said. “Varitek had an unbelievable career. I’m happy for him. I enjoyed competing against him all these years. That’s what we should be talking about, as opposed to what Bobby said.”

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