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RED SOX SPRING TRAINING

They've found quite a catch

Shoppach appears to be a keeper

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Imagine taking turns in batting practice with Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar. Kelly Shoppach yesterday lived your dream.

Or picture yourself sharing a row of lockers, long after practice in an otherwise empty clubhouse, with Pedro Martinez.

Shoppach lived that one, too.

You dream it, Shoppach is doing it this spring as the Red Sox catcher of the future: receiving a private tutorial from Jason Varitek, catching Curt Schilling's first bullpen session since he returned to the Sox, watching Tim Wakefield show his professionalism by running through his 16th year of practice drills as if it were his first.

The kid is on the move. Boston's top pick in the 2001 draft, Shoppach (pronounced SHOP-ek) has risen so far so fast that he could crack the big league roster by September and begin a long-term run in the Hub by the next Opening Day. He's no Varitek. Not yet anyway. But the Sox are banking on him filling the All-Star's spikes.

"Am I ready to play in the big leagues? I don't know," said Shoppach, 23, the former collegiate catcher of the year at Baylor who Baseball America ranks among the top five catching prospects in the game. "Do I feel like I can? Absolutely. I don't make those decisions, but I don't lack the confidence."

If Shoppach's first two pro seasons are any indication, the Sox one day might consider him a steal for the $737,000 signing bonus they handed him. And lest anyone question his character, consider how the youngest son of Ken and Gail Shoppach spent the money back home in Fort Worth. He paid his parents' debts, plus his and his brother Kyle's school loans. He bought a house for Kyle. He brought home new cars for each of his parents and gave Kyle's wife a car.

Then, to the shock of his fellow Sox prospects, Shoppach arrived for his first instructional league camp driving a 1998 Dodge pickup he drove in high school.

"I got there and saw all these fancy cars and thought, `Whew, this isn't looking very good,' " Shoppach recalled. "I better get myself something."

He upgraded, of course, as part of his assimilation into the culture of pro athletes. The journey officially began when Shoppach signed with the Sox Aug. 17, 2001. It was a gloomy Friday at Fenway Park, two days after Jimy Williams was axed, and Shoppach watched the Sox drop a game delayed 108 minutes by rain under newly appointed Joe Kerrigan. Varitek had been sidelined for more than two months with a fractured elbow.

"It really wasn't a great experience for me," Shoppach said of his first visit to the Fens.

But Shoppach vividly remembers the crowd erupting in cheers when Doug Mirabelli erased the second of two Baltimore runners he caught stealing.

"They gave him a great ovation," Shoppach recalled, "and I said, `I can't wait to get started here.' "

The Sox also are eager to welcome him back to Yawkey Way, but only when he's ready. After hitting .276 with 22 homers and 126 RBIs in 208 games over his first two pro seasons at Single A Sarasota and Double A (earning the organization's player of the year award at each level), Shoppach was promoted to Triple A Pawtucket last year for the International League playoffs and went 2 for 7 in three games. He will start this season in Pawtucket.

"It's a big year for him," general manager Theo Epstein said. "He's met every challenge so far, and this will be a very important new one for him. The first full Triple A season is always a big development year."

Will it be enough? Or will he even need the entire year?

"You never write things in stone, but he's got a chance with the right kind of development to come up in September and play his way into real consideration for some role moving forward," Epstein said. "But he has to earn that consideration."

Shoppach, who knew little more about Boston when the Sox signed him than that Babe Ruth once played there, has come to understand how central the team is to the region's psyche. In his view, the phenomenon rivals the role of high school football in Texas, where he made his mark for Fort Worth's Brewer High by running in one game for five touchdowns. He said he felt New England's passion for the Sox in Portland and Pawtucket, and understands the enormity of the challenge he faces.

"I like having pressure on me," he said. "I like to play that way. It's a great experience."

At 5 feet 11 inches and 210 pounds, Shoppach appears a smaller version of Varitek. Though Shoppach is a solid righthanded hitter to the gaps, he lacks Varitek's power, though Varitek has offered him advice in camp, particularly in using his back hip to provide pop.

"Tek is a wonderful, wonderful guy," Shoppach said. "People ask me all the time, `Do you have any ill feelings toward him because he's catching in Boston and you're not?' Absolutely not. He's one of the best in the game."

Shoppach learned at a young age not to look back. It's a family tradition. His parents waited until he was 18 before they told him they were engaged only a month after they met. And to this day he is uncertain what job his father held for 25 years with the Ben Hogan Co.

"We're not a big live-in-the-past family," he said. "We don't talk about what we've done. We talk about what we're doing today and what we're doing tomorrow."

Shoppach learned yesterday he may have a bunch more tomorrows before reaching the bigs. Taking batting practice with Ramirez, Ortiz, and Millar, a few days after hitting with Varitek and Mirabelli, was instructional.

"It was like, man, you realize you have some more work to do," he said. "You have to keep plugging away because you're not there yet. On the one hand, it's an eye-opener. On the other hand, it's something you keep striving for. You just keep looking forward."

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