Still No Sign of Jason Varitek at Sox Camp

No sign of Jason Varitek at Red Sox camp

AP Baseball Writer
      FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – Kelly Shoppach's preparation for his
first season as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox includes more
than just getting to know the pitching staff. He practically has to
learn a different language.

      He has to learn how to speak Varitek.

      For 15 years, Jason Varitek was the voice in the Boston pitching
staff's ear, and the target behind the plate, giving the Red Sox
their hard-nosed, gritty identity that they used to win two World
Series titles.

      Now, it appears that era has come to an end.

      While other stars arrived early, addressed the media, and have
clearly bought into Boston's new regime – designated hitter David
Ortiz waltzed in on Wednesday – Varitek has not shown up for the
first two days of workouts for Red Sox pitchers and catchers.
General manager Ben Cherington offered the soon-to-be 40-year-old
captain a minor league deal months ago, but still, Varitek is
nowhere to be found.

      His absence is taking some getting used to around here, and no
one is ready to say for sure that they won't show up early one
morning at their shiny new facility and see Varitek with his crew
cut and goatee sitting in front of his locker with big bags of ice
on his shoulders and knees and a heavy wrap around his back.

      “If he doesn't come back, I'm going to miss him,” said catcher
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who started most of the games last season
behind the plate. “I loved having him. I wish he was still here.
If he does come back, it's going to be fun.”

      So far, there is no sign that will happen. For the first time
since 1996, the year before he was acquired from Seattle in a
trade, Varitek wasn't in the bullpen with the gear on. He wasn't
there to check on how committed the pitchers were through the
winter. He wasn't there to help them start ramping up for another
season with high expectations.

      His absence now makes Ortiz, 36, who accepted Cherington's
arbitration offer of a one-year, $14.5 million contract, the oldest
player on the team.

      Even though Varitek has played second fiddle to Victor Martinez
and Saltalamacchia over the last few seasons, he has still held
tremendous influence in the clubhouse. Now the pitchers who so
relied on his scouting reports and guidance have to establish new
lines of communication with Saltalamacchia and Shoppach.

      “That was something that 'Tek was so good at, reinforcing
something if I knew it. Or if I didn't know it he would come out
and tell me, `Hey this is what you're doing, you're getting around
the ball,' whatever,” Red Sox ace Josh Beckett said. “Just trying
to get those guys to see the same thing he saw.”

      Of course, regardless of the position on the field, without
Varitek, there will clearly be an opening for a leader, as well,
especially after Boston's September collapse last season. That
could fall to Ortiz, who held court on Wednesday with reporters,
and is coming off his first season .300-plus season since 2007.

      “You always have something to prove,” said Ortiz, who hit .309
with 29 home runs, 96 RBIs, and 84 runs scored last season. “It's
a new season, and I'm excited.”

      It appears that Varitek has three options. He can take the minor
league deal with the Red Sox, the only team he's ever played for in
the big leagues, try to convince another organization to give an
aging catcher with declining skills a chance as a backup, or
retire, like his friend and long-time Boston leader Tim Wakefield
did last week.

      He still has not made his intentions known, and the Sox aren't
rushing him. They're set at catcher with the two veterans and
prospect Ryan Lavarnway being groomed for the future anyway.

      “I would be surprised if he did (come back),” new manager
Bobby Valentine said earlier this week. “I don't have any
expectations because I haven't heard that we should get his uniform

      If Varitek is grappling with the decision to retire, it's
understandable. He is an icon in Boston, where his blue-collar work
ethic endeared him to die-hard Sox fans, and has caught more games
than any player in the team's storied history.

      He is only the third Red Sox captain since 1923, joining Hall of
Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice. And despite his declining
production in recent seasons, Varitek will be sorely missed in the
clubhouse. Beckett said he would be missed “severely.”

      “I don't think you're going to find anybody in there who has
played with him who says they're not going to miss him,” Beckett

      It wasn't just the way he called a game behind the plate, or the
pop he provided at it. There was just something about seeing No. 33
sitting in front of his locker draped in ice bags and ace bandages
that got this team going.

      “If you ever really watch 'Tek, he doesn't say much,” starter
Jon Lester said. “But just his presence is enough.”

      Shoppach broke into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 2005
before moving on to build a solid career with the Indians and Rays.
He only played nine games in that first season, but Varitek's
influence on him continues to this day.

      “He was one of the greatest players in this organization, in my
opinion,” Shoppach said. “I think that everybody learned from
him. The brief time that I was with him years ago, there are still
some things that I do in my everyday routine and my preparation
that you know can't help but rub off from him.”

      (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)