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Ball is rolling

Varitek glad to be back

By Nick Cafardo
February 15, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Welcome to the rest of your career, Jason Varitek.

Your tenure has been long and distinguished. You have acquitted yourself well with your professionalism and team-first attitude. Your work ethic is unmatched in the game.

But after you hit .220 last season and showed signs of decline, the Red Sox brought you back - for one year at $5 million, with team and player options for 2010. You'll earn $5 million in 2010 if the team picks up the option, $3 million if you do, with $2 million of incentives in that case.

Here's your chance to prove you can be the catcher and hitter you once were. If things should continue on the path they did a year ago, then the likelihood of you finishing your career with the Red Sox - which you referenced three times yesterday - might not take place. But one thing we know is that you're a proud man who doesn't want to leave on the downslide.

So the time has come. It's hard to say you have to prove yourself again, but really, this is no different than when you took that step from being a young catcher with potential to becoming a starter.

This could be a bigger challenge.

The Red Sox aren't going to backtrack to the offseason, when things got sticky. They are not going to admit they were willing to part ways and start anew with Josh Bard or one of the Texas catchers they still covet. But they were ready to move on. All the intangible things - the handling of pitchers, the meticulous preparation - they were willing to trust to another, unproven catcher.

But yesterday, when Varitek sat on a bench near the minor league clubhouse and addressed his situation on the record for the first time, it was the same confident, driven player we've known - one who seemed grateful to be back in a Sox uniform and to still be wearing the captain's "C."

He already has been mentoring Bard and young catchers George Kottaras, Dusty Brown, and Mark Wagner. He was already talking about the new starters, the professionalism of John Smoltz and the upside of Brad Penny, and it looked as if Varitek was back in his role as leader.

That seemed as important to him as the contract. Oh, he surely wanted something comparable to Jorge Posada's four-year, $52.4 million deal, but he never came close. Yet he dwelled on the fact that the Sox were at least committing to him for this year "and left the door open for next season."

"I'd like a commitment here for 20 years, but I don't think I'm going to play that long," he said. "It was important for me to go beyond one year."

He said that would be the case even if his role changes and he becomes more of a mentor only.

Varitek would not throw his agent, Scott Boras, under the bus for not accepting arbitration, which would have netted Varitek about the same $10 million he made in 2008.

"Ultimately I got what was important to me - to be able to maintain [a] legacy and the opportunity to be here and know there's a commitment back from this organization that I'm going to be here," he said. "And that was the most important thing to me from the get-go.

"I'm just happy. I'm happy that I'm here. I'm a part of this organization still. Happy to have the opportunity with what this team has coming into camp. To get back and win another championship."

Varitek refused to talk about his health, which was an issue at times last season. He started the season with a virus that sapped his strength and caused him to lose weight, and he never seemed to recover.

Maybe that's the remedy for everything - good health - and making a few adjustments with his lefthanded swing. In fact, perhaps the whole issue of Varitek's future might be moot if he shows he can still hit lefthanded and shows he hasn't lost much behind the plate.

One can't help but think, however, that the Red Sox are going to use Bard more than they've used any backup catcher since Varitek came here in that famous 1997 deal from Seattle along with Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb.

With San Diego last season, Bard was hitting .308 before catching the entire 22-inning 2-1 Padres loss to Colorado April 17. After that game, Bard struggled, hurt his elbow, and ended up hitting .202 for the season. But if healthy, Bard, also a switch-hitter, is an effective lefthanded hitter.

Will the Sox use Bard more in lefthanded-hitting situations? All that manager Terry Francona would hint at was that Varitek may get more rest in day games after night games.

The fact is, in the American League a catcher has to hit for a respectable average. It's a hitter's league, one in which a contribution is needed from all nine hitters. Yet Varitek isn't worrying about getting hit for, as he was during the postseason last year, or whether he might get diminished playing time.

"I can't play that way," Varitek said. "But I also have to play with the ability to give the manager his respect. He's our manager and he's going to make his decisions.

"I'm a player and they're management. So either way, I can't walk away from this and not be the same person and not go out there and work my tail off with other catchers or with other position players. That doesn't change what I do.

"Now the important thing is that it's over with. I'm happy. I have the ability to be here this year and know the door is open for me to be here next year."

Varitek has spent a lot of time working on his lefthanded swing even though he pointed out there have been times when teams turn him around to hit righthanded, and there could be more this season. He sees a trend toward lefty starters in the AL East - New York's CC Sabathia and Tampa Bay's David Price to name two.

"I've taken a lot of steps," he said about his hitting. "There's different parts. The fact of the matter is I struggled lefthanded with different parts of it. I worked on things this winter. I make my job harder offensively at times."

He spoke about his righthanded side, his natural side, and his lefthanded side having separate issues.

"It's always been two different personalities and two different people," he said. "Two different strengths. Two different weaknesses. They're alter egos. Literally. They're both a pain in my rear sometimes."

Asked twice about his meeting with owner John Henry over the winter, Varitek finally conceded that maybe the meeting got things going in negotiations.

"The situation may have accelerated some things," Varitek said. "I have an agent that talks for me. And in that situation, I felt I needed to get involved. Maybe it did help, but I can't say for sure. I just know that finally it gets me back in this uniform. It gives me the opportunity to retire in this uniform."

His performance likely will dictate that. For these, Jason Varitek, are the first days of the rest of your career.

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