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Fit for the role

Red Sox captaincy is in strong hands with Varitek, their backstop and backbone

DULUTH, Ga. -- The catcher, wrote incomparable New Yorker essayist Roger Angell, ``has more equipment and more attributes than players at the other positions. He must be large, brave, intelligent, alert, stolid, foresighted, resilient, fatherly, quick, efficient, intuitive, and impregnable.''

For Jason Varitek, the catcher and newly ordained captain of the Red Sox, it begins here in the Hardball Warehouse, a baseball training facility tucked away in an office park about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. Varitek, who lives in nearby Suwanee with his wife, Karen, and preschool-age daughters Alexandra Rose and Kendall Anne, splits his afternoons between this facility, owned in part by former big leaguer Terry Pendleton, and BodyFlex, the gym where he is put through his paces by his personal trainer, Leslie Eddins, who gets a workout of his own just pushing back Varitek's massive thighs as far as they will go with the catcher lying on his back.

Varitek's duffel bag is stuffed with the devices he employs in the course of his workout: the big catcher's mitt, of course; the bat he uses to hit off the machine or the soft tosses of Don Friend, the longtime high school and college coach with whom he works regularly; the jump rope; and the train track-like rope ladder through which he twists and turns and high-steps, before dashing across the exercise room, over and over. The workouts begin around Thanksgiving, after he gives his body about a month to recover from the stresses of a baseball season, and continue five days a week. Weight training and agility drills, barbells and exercise balls command his attention. "I move better at 30, 31 than I did at 21," Varitek said, explaining how he is able to endure all the squatting and kneeling that has been a part of his professional work regimen for nearly a decade, since breaking in with Port City, the Southern League affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, in 1995.

"I think I was lucky and taught at a young enough age about working on elastic movement and flexibility, and now my work is starting to show. My flexibility is better now than it was when I was young. I'm bigger and heavier, but my speed and quickness are better and I move better. That's a good combination to have. I continue to try and gain an extra step from the year before."

It is an article of faith that a catcher plays with pain. Fingers are broken or dislocated by foul tips. Ribs are crunched and knees twisted in collisions at the plate. Collarbones are cracked by balls caroming out of the dirt, and sensitive regions are offered only so much sanctuary by protective cups.

Varitek fractured his elbow and missed much of the 2001 season when he landed hard on the rubber cover atop the on-deck circle. A year later, he played with a broken left hand sustained in a home-plate collision with Detroit catcher Brandon Inge, one in which Varitek was the baserunner. He has played with torn muscles. Often, nobody outside the trainer's room hears of these injuries.

"I'd say a majority of the guys who strap on the gear are willing to play with pain," said Varitek, "or else you're going to lose your job. Bob Boone used to say, `The longer I'm out there, the less somebody else is.' If you're able to do that, it allows you to create accountability. People can count on me being out there. The more durable I can make myself, the more I've improved my worth to my teammates."

At the nexus
While the physical demands on a catcher are often self-evident, even if the masked man hides many of his aches and pains, a catcher's value to his team is measured most by the degree to which he masters the cerebral challenges of his position. During the season, Varitek is an island of coiled concentration in a clubhouse in which hilarity and hijinks are not unwelcome guests.

But here, still a couple of weeks from Thursday's reporting date for pitchers and catchers to Red Sox training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., Varitek is open and engaging, and not at all averse to offering insights into the mental game of baseball that a catcher plays, day in and day out, from March until October.

There isn't anyone, on the field or in the dugout, who will not engage all of Varitek's wits and memory, his grasp of history and ability to make split-second decisions based on what he observes in the moment. His pitcher, who is depending on him for guidance about what pitch to throw and where. His manager, counting on his command of the situation. The rival manager and base coaches, trying to steal his signs. The plate umpire, whose judgments are subject to human frailty. His fielders, looking for the flash of fingers that will help them anticipate a play. The opposing hitters, who are on the other side of the chessboard.

"Maybe it's pride, maybe it's caring," Varitek said of the value he places on calling a game, "but a catcher has to have the ability to separate themselves from what would appear to be good and glorious to themselves, separate that from helping out other people. If I took my at-bats behind the plate, I would not be able to get the respect of my pitcher. That's where you develop trust."

Calling a game, Varitek said, can be likened to an investment portfolio.

"The more diverse you can be, the better," he said. "The more diverse that pitcher on the mound can be, the better. But that isn't always the case. They can't all be diverse. They can't all do the same things. That's why it's so interesting. That's why I love my job. You have so many resources with this guy, so many with that guy, so many things that make up the quality of this guy, and this guy's different.

"They're all different. It's fun to help them. Normally, I'm just another coach to help them. I'm not a rocket scientist, but you've got to care about what you're doing."

The thought process
The Red Sox and Yankees are locked in another tight game in Fenway Park, 3-3, one out, top of the seventh. Derek Jeter takes his lead off first. Curt Schilling stares down from the mound at Gary Sheffield, the Yankees' cleanup hitter. Behind the plate, Jason Varitek is in his crouch, his expression hidden by his iron mask, his mind racing."The first thing, I always expect Jeter to run," said Varitek. "But that's not going to change what I call, just because Jeter might run. I'm getting outs. If there are two outs and Jeter's on second, they still need another hit to get him in, so I'm getting outs. "I've got to process all we've done against Sheffield, and what he's done against us -- historically to start with, what he's done against Curt, but more importantly, how that game's going, what he's done in those first two at-bats, what we're able to go with in this third at-bat.

"Let's say Sheffield's 2 for 2 with a single and a home run. That's how we're tied. He drove in a run with a single, and hit a two-run home run. We tried to get inside on him in both at-bats, but we never were able to. Both were down the middle, down the middle. I don't subtract that, that pitch I don't take away. Now is the time to make sure Curt executes that pitch. The key is to differentiate between the execution of the plan and the failure of the plan.

"But let's say he was 0 for 2. We popped him up, jammed him inside, then got him with a curveball in the dirt for strike three, and threw him out at first. Now he's up there looking to get a two-pop [a two-run home run], looking for extra bases. Maybe we go away this time, we throw the breaking ball, we throw a fastball in, we do different stuff if we have the upper hand. You think of the scouting reports, the history, his tendencies, Schilling's strength.

"If we get to 2-and-0, a man on first, and with Curt, we don't give in. We think about what's the best pitch he can execute that day. Let's say it's a fastball away to a righty. We're going down and away on 2-and-0. Let's say it's his slider that day, we might give him a slider. We're not all of a sudden going to make him do something he can't execute. Maybe he gets a base hit to right field, but that still gives us a chance to hold the score."

Masterful Martinez
How does a catcher develop a rapport with a pitcher?

"I wish I had a formula," Varitek said. "Everybody is different. I get to know them as pitchers, get to know what they can and can't do. That's my first job. Sometimes you don't know until they get out on the mound. Then you have to figure out how they're wired in that same process. Then you get them back out there again, and you want to see them be successful. You also want to see them fail. Then you know what you have."

Varitek came to camp with the Red Sox in 1998 with one big-league hit, a pinch single off Kevin Jarvis of the Tigers. "I still have the ball they gave me," he said. "It's a mess. [Bret] Saberhagen covered it with ketchup, mustard, all kinds of stuff. It was a joke ball. I've got the real one, too."

When he came to camp the following spring, the Sox had a new ace, Pedro Martinez, winner of the National League Cy Young Award the previous year. Varitek, who played only against lefthanders in a platoon with Scott Hatteberg, caught Martinez very little in his first season in Boston. But when Hatteberg got hurt early in 1999, Varitek became Martinez's catcher. He was behind the plate for the most dominating performance of Martinez's career, a one-hit, 17-strikeout deconstruction of the Yankees in Yankee Stadium that season.

"He developed a breaking ball he'd never had before, which is what made him so dominating," said Varitek. "All the guys were looking fastball, changeup, and he had a snafu curveball he'd never used."

Varitek was also catching for the signature success of Martinez's career, when the sore-shouldered ace came out of the bullpen in Cleveland and held the Indians hitless over the last six innings of the deciding game of their 1999 Division Series.

"He pitched in a totally different way than he'd ever pitched before, in the middle of what was then the most important game of his career," Varitek said. "He was a power pitcher, and that game he pitched backwards. He had to finesse people. He used his curveball, he used a cutter, which he'd never used before, and all of a sudden he's in a different realm.

"Pedro struggles, too. He makes mistakes, or all he would ever put up was zeroes. It's a feel you have. You have to read the hitter. You can have all the information you want going into a game, but that information means absolutely nothing if you can't apply it to on-field adjustments.

"Some pitchers can't read the hitters, can't see them shuffling their feet or opening their shoulders and hips early. Some pitchers have to concentrate so much just on making their pitch. Where Petey was exceptional was he could do both. He taught me so much.

"When Petey and I were on the same page, we knew we got it. Much of the time I was just trying to stay up with him. I'd try not to get caught in patterns, try to do something different, try to create something, but all because he had the ability to do something, not because of me.

"The only times I really helped him were the days he didn't feel like being there. He was just like anybody else; he might have family issues on the day he happened to be pitching. That made it more difficult, and that's when he might have needed me."

A matter of trust
This should not come as a shock, but when catchers go to the mound, it isn't for a social visit. Catchers and pitchers sometimes disagree. Vehemently. Most of the time Varitek goes to the hill, it's to sell a pitch he wants his pitcher to throw ("He may not want to throw that pitch, but he has to commit to whatever he throws."). Sometimes it's to change signs, or give the pitcher a breather if he's working too fast or looks tired.

During the World Series, Varitek went to the mound with Derek Lowe pitching to give himself a chance to calm down. Varitek was convinced that Chuck Meriwether, the plate umpire, had blown an obvious strike three on Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. "I told Derek, `I need a minute here,' " Varitek said.

And sometimes pitcher and catcher are out on the mound hashing out their differences.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," Varitek said. "And I'm not always the one leading the horse. Sometimes I'm the horse and they're leading me to water. I learn as much from pitchers as they do from me. That's how I can continue to try and grow at what I do.

"I learn something different from Petey every time he pitches. I learn from Curt [Schilling] or [John] Burkett. It's unbelievable how much I learned from Burkett. Taking that risk when you need to. Going that extra little step beyond thinking. Just how devastating a located fastball down and away can be, when it's located right and properly. Different things."

Schilling came to the Sox with the reputation for not needing much help with his preparation. No catcher could study hitters the way Schilling did, with his video library and meticulous notes. But Schilling was changing leagues, which meant a whole new set of hitters. Varitek helped fill the void.

"I was there not to be a dictator to him," Varitek said, "but to try and help him. He didn't ever want to have help. I think he probably got burned as a rookie, with [Darren] Daulton. I just basically had to prove to him, and he had to prove to himself, that I was prepared when he needed me.

"All of a sudden, 10 minutes before the last spring training game, he said to me, `This is all you.'

" `Fine, I'm used to it.'

" `You know the guys.'

" `Yeah, I know the guys.'

"He pitched well, and gained a little trust. The real trust comes in the game in which they run into a situation where they're not sure what they want to do here. They say, `I'm not doing that,' and they fail. Or they succeed, and I learn something. But even if they don't want to do it, they have to commit to it, and when they're successful, now we have something to build on."

His policy is honesty
And then there are the umpires. "Before Questec," Varitek said, referring to the computerized ball/strike accounting system used to judge umpires, "the plate was a lot wider. It puts a lot of stress on them. We talk to them about it all the time.

"You have to read umpires like human beings. Some umpires ask about a pitch often. Some umpires are too prideful and never ask. I know we're in for a long day with that guy. I just try to be as honest as I can. An umpire will ask, `What did you think about that pitch?' And I'll say, `It was a ball,' even if he had just called it a strike. I'm honest. I think it works in relationships. Then they know if I'm really arguing a pitch, that I really believe they missed it.

"I tell umpires, `I'm going to call time out a lot today because Curt's ankle is really killing him. I'm going to go out to the mound a lot. I'll run back and forth, but don't come out there and yell at me.'

"They're human. Communicate."

He tries to be the same way with his manager. "Sometimes I tend to be quiet, and just sit there on the bench," he said. "But it got so much better with Tito by the end of the year."

It is not by accident that Red Sox pitchers -- and Lowe, who is going to the Dodgers after being with Varitek for almost 10 years in the minors and majors -- have come to place their faith in the Sox catcher. They know to what lengths he goes to make them all better.

"It'll be weird working without him," Lowe said.

He listens to them, prods them, encourages them, comforts them, and celebrates with them. He is their database, their muse, their rock, their captain.

He is Jason Varitek.

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