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This part of battery recharged

Varitek feels quite healthy

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — We know he’s the Red Sox’ captain, backup catcher, and a great teammate. That’s all Jason Varitek will grant you.

But he’s more than that.

“He’s like another coach on the field and on the bench,’’ said one Red Sox regular. “He’s the most respected person on this team. Don’t let anyone kid you, he’s the go-to guy for everyone. I don’t care how many games he plays. He could play one game and he’d still be the most respected guy on this team.’’

Varitek downplays any other titles thrown at him, such as mentor, and coach on the field, and catching instructor, and secondary pitching coach. But he seems to be all of those things.

The Red Sox brought him back for another season because they needed a mentor for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. As they looked around for a possible replacement for Varitek, once even kicking the tires on Russell Martin, they realized who better to continue to be the backup than Varitek.

Varitek broke his right foot last season, which derailed his excellent start as a backup and forced him into rehabilitation for much of the second half. But that rehab did a couple of things — it allowed him to heal the rest of his body, which had been battered in the many years he was Boston’s starting catcher, and it allowed him to soak in the game from the bench and offer his wisdom to anyone who wanted it.

It’s hard to believe some of the ailments Varitek played through as he squatted behind the plate for more than 110 games a season and never complained, when less tough players would have been on the disabled list. There are guys who can play with pain and guys who can’t, with obvious examples on Varitek’s own team of those who can’t. But day in and day out, year in and year out, Varitek showed his toughness.

The price for that was a lot of wear and tear. So when he broke his foot, suddenly he was able to rest his neck, his back, his knees, his shoulder. He started feeling like a new man.

When his foot finally healed late last season, Varitek couldn’t wait to start his offseason workout routine. When he showed up at camp a few days ago, it looked as if he’d turned the clock back five years.

Varitek said he hasn’t felt this good physically in years, and for a 38-year-old catcher to say that is pretty impressive.

Varitek surely will get into managing or coaching when his playing days are over if he wants to. Modern-day players who have been as successful as Varitek have made so much money that they don’t really need to stay around the game. But Varitek loves the baseball life. It seems he’s been rejuvenated by being around catching coach Gary Tuck, who has challenged him more than anyone in his career. Varitek says he’s learned more from Tuck in the last couple of seasons than anyone he’s ever been around.

Tuck pushes catchers physically and mentally with intense drills to improve their agility and throwing mechanics. The fact that Varitek is healthy enough to take part in those grueling drills tells you how in shape he is.

Asked whether he can envision being another Carlton Fisk or Bob Boone and playing into his 40s, Varitek said, “Absolutely. If my body holds up and I’m able to do the things I feel I can still do, then I’ll play as long as I can. If I start compromising my livelihood for my kids later in life, then I’ve got to start questioning things. If I’m not putting myself in a competitive spot to help a team win, then I have to question things again.

“But . . . is that what I envision? Yes, that’s what I envision.’’

Fisk will always be the greatest catcher in Red Sox history, but Varitek has enjoyed the interaction with the Hall of Famer over the years.

“I love talking to Pudge,’’ said Varitek. “I could sit and talk to him all day long. I wish he was around a lot more often. I think for me personally, the work I’ve done 10-15 years ago, this is when it’s starting to show and pay off. It’s put my body in position to handle different things. If I hadn’t done that work, it would be a lot different.’’

Varitek’s time still largely will be spent in preparing pitchers for the next opponent, which he has done better over the years than any modern-day catcher. He’s hoping to share the method to that madness with Saltalamacchia. Varitek also will spend the next few weeks getting to know new pitching coach Curt Young, who likely will have a different way of doing things from John Farrell, now the manager of the Blue Jays.

Varitek knows from his experience last season, when Victor Martinez went down with a broken thumb and Varitek was thrust into starting duty, that roles can change quickly. The Red Sox don’t have a major league-ready catcher in their system, so if Saltalamacchia and/or Varitek go down they may have to make a trade.

Varitek seems physically ready to assume the starting job if Saltalamacchia either gets hurt or struggles.

While pitchers in camp have said that Saltalamacchia reminds them of a younger version of Varitek, Varitek only buys it because “we’re switch hitters, big catchers, and strong-armed.’’ Otherwise Varitek thinks Saltalamacchia is more talented at age 25 than he was, “and he’s not a rookie or a first-year player. He needs to play. You’ve got to let him play — good, bad, or indifferent. He’s going to be a good player, no two ways about it. He works too hard not to be a good player.’’

Varitek said the starting rotation needs to be “a lot better than last year,’’ and believes the bullpen can only be effective if the starters do their jobs. He expects even bigger things from Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester and mentioned how nasty new reliever Bobby Jenks has been already with plenty of deception in his delivery and the ability to throw in the high 90s. Varitek’s also back to catching Tim Wakefield.

Varitek, who turns 39 April 11, was courted by teams such as the Dodgers and Phillies in the offseason, but he always wanted to come back. He wasn’t sure when he received a standing ovation/curtain call in the final game of 2010. That moment choked him up, and, “It was very uncertain. My kids were upset for a good two hours after I got done with icing and talking to the media. I realized they grew up here. It wasn’t just me who grew up here.’’

And now it looks like he will grow old here.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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