FORT MYERS, Fla. — With so many new players on the Red Sox roster and a remade coaching staff, introductions around the clubhouse can be hurried in the early days of spring training.
Not for David Ross. When meeting somebody for the first time — whether it’s a new teammate or anybody else with business in the clubhouse — Ross gets out of his chair, extends his hand, and looks the person straight in the eye.
A few questions follow. Ross always takes the time to establish a personal connection.
“The first time I saw him do that, I was impressed. He does it with everybody,” said fellow catcher Dan Butler, who dresses in the locker next to Ross. “It’s not something we all do and we probably should.”
There were many reasons the Red Sox pursued Ross on the first day of unfettered free agency in November. The catcher, who turns 36 in March, has developed a reputation around the game for his skill in calling pitches, throwing out runners, and working smoothly with pitchers.
He also is productive offensively, especially when compared with other backups. Ross hit .269 with an .816 OPS in four seasons with the Braves. He drove in 94 runs in 663 plate appearances.
But the Sox also were attracted to his personality. Part of remaking a last-place club was adding players who felt the team concept was more than some esoteric idea.
“He has a presence around a team,” general manager Ben Cherington said Tuesday. “I think I shot him a text the first chance I could in free agency. We wanted to make it clear that we wanted him.”
Ross was given a two-year contract worth $6.2 million, along with assurances that he would get more playing time than a traditional backup. The Red Sox consider Jarrod Saltalamacchia their primary catcher but see Ross having a significant role.
“It wasn’t a hard decision when Ben started calling and the things he was saying,” Ross said. “I talked to John [Farrell] and a couple of the guys I knew from here. They made it easy with the things they said and what they wanted to do to win and the guys they were trying to put on this team.
“They really liked me as a complete player, which makes you feel good. My catching, my throwing, my calling the game along with my offense, everything I bring to a team. I appreciated that they saw that. There were a lot of teams involved, but I could tell that I was a priority here and that’s all you want as player.”
The Sox knew Ross from the few weeks he spent in the organization in 2008. But they dug deeper, talking to teammates and coaches about what kind of person he was.
“You make a lot of phone calls behind the scenes,” said assistant GM Mike Hazen. “Teammates, coaches, past organizations, people in the clubhouse. It’s not foolproof, but you get a lot of information making calls. We had some first-hand knowledge of him, too.”
After eight days of workouts, Sox pitchers have come to appreciate how Ross works.
“It’s all positive,” Clay Buchholz said. “He’s getting to know us and finding out what works. You heard a lot of good things because word gets around and it was all true.”
Said Farrell: “An encouraging catcher, and encouraging from the standpoint of encouraging the pitcher. Just talking to the guys that have thrown to him, there’s such positive feedback on the interactions they’ve had, either after a bullpen or while they’re actually throwing their pen, just on David’s comments in between pitches.
“He engages every guy he catches and I think that pitchers feel that connection and they feel the support from him, and that’s one of the things that makes him so valuable to get the most out of a given pitcher.”
Farrell hasn’t determined how much Ross will play, other than to say he will not work as a personal catcher for one of the starters. That the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia hits righthanders much better than lefthanders will come into play.
“David is more capable than a traditional backup catcher, 35 or 40 games,” Farrell said. “There’s no number of games earmarked, though.”
What could ease the situation is the relationship Saltalamacchia is building with Ross. He did not take the addition of a veteran catcher as a threat.
“If you want to win and get to the playoffs, you have to have that depth,” Saltalamacchia said. “David is not an ego guy; he’s a nice, bright person.
“To be able to work with him, I’m excited. I want to learn as much as I can. It’s still a learning process for me. He’s going to talk to me a lot. It’s a good atmosphere here. We have two guys who can help each other out.”
For the next 5½ weeks, Ross will focus on gathering his own information on the pitchers he will work with.
“That’s the most important part about spring training for me, the catching,” he said. “You need to learn what those guys like to do. Getting in games, I like pitchers to shake me off early on just so I can get in their brain and see what they like to throw and how they like to work a hitter when they’re on the mound.
“Those are the kind of things spring training is for. You learn the guys, what pitches they can throw for strikes and what they’re working on. You learn their keys and the words you can say to them. Because in June you can remember what you said in spring training and get them back on track.”