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Praise piled on Varitek's plate

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 29, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - It took Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz a few years to muster up the courage to approach team captain Jason Varitek and ask a few questions.

Varitek’s intensity was such that Buchholz was worried he’d say the wrong thing and get a smack in the head.

“Seriously,’’ Buchholz said yesterday, laughing at the memory. “I thought he might. Whenever I shook him off, he would give me this stare.’’

Over time, Buchholz discovered the side of Varitek so many of his teammates knew, the man who cared more about them than he did himself.

“He was just involved with everybody,’’ Buchholz said. “If you ever needed advice about anything - hitting, pitching, catching, whatever - he was the guy. If he didn’t know the answer, he would find out for you then sit down with you and let you know.’’

From every corner of the clubhouse yesterday, players praised Varitek after hearing that the 15-year veteran would announce his retirement tomorrow at JetBlue Park. They knew it was coming, Varitek having turned down the Sox’ offer to come to camp on a minor league contract. But that didn’t lessen the impact of the news.

“I loved working with him,’’ said Josh Beckett. “I never had a catcher before that I felt like cared more about wanting me to be successful even before he wanted to be successful.

“He’s going to be missed a lot, in the clubhouse and on the field.’’

Varitek was behind the plate for 139 of the 173 games Beckett has started for the Red Sox. But the righthander’s concern yesterday was more for his friend.

“I hope he’s happy with the decision,’’ Beckett said. “It’s unfortunate. I think he wanted to play another year but I don’t think he wants to go anywhere else. I can see why.’’

For Beckett, there was no player he respected more.

“I’m probably a little biased,’’ he said. “I’m sure there are guys on other teams that have guys on their teams that they say the same thing about. But even watching him from afar, you could see other guys from other teams, they have that respect for Jason. He deserved it.’’

David Ortiz, who played with Varitek for nine seasons, marveled at the catcher’s ability to play through pain. There were times after games when Varitek was almost covered with ice packs, but he would be in the lineup less than 24 hours later.

“He was a monster, man. He was a monster,’’ Ortiz said. “You can tell sometime when he was hurting and he would still go out there and try and change things around. That’s a true teammate right there.’’

Ortiz and Varitek were part of World Series champions in 2004 and 2007. That is what he remembers when he thinks of Varitek.

“It was fun,’’ Ortiz said. “It was a good ride being Tek’s teammate.’’

The most emotion came from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who idolized Varitek even before they became teammates in 2010.

A high-profile amateur prospect, Saltalamacchia was a disappointing major leaguer until last season. He credits Varitek with the transformation.

“He meant a lot. He helped me out a lot last year,’’ said Saltalamacchia, who had Varitek autograph a jersey for him several years ago. “Last year was a huge, huge help for getting my career back on track. Just the person he is, you can’t find a better person.’’

Saltalamacchia said Varitek never showed any resentment about becoming a backup late in his career. He instead helped the younger catcher establish himself with the pitching staff.

“He always wanted to make me feel comfortable,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “He always wanted to help you out. He stuck up for me a lot of times. I can’t thank him enough for jump-starting my career again.

“I learned a lot from him. He gave me the confidence back that I needed to be a player.’’

By telephone, former Sox manager Terry Francona said he hoped Varitek was comfortable with his decision.

“He deserves to go out the way he wants to go out,’’ said Francona. “He’s earned that. I know what he meant to our team. He’s one of the best players to ever put on a Red Sox uniform, and I wish him the best in whatever he decided to do with the rest of his life.’’

New manager Bobby Valentine expressed similar sentiments.

“From afar, he was everything that you want in a guy who wore a ‘C’ to be,’’ said Valentine. “He was a man’s man.

“He was a big hitter when needed. He was the leader of the pitching staff. He was able to beat up Alex [Rodriguez in a famous 2004 brawl].

“All that stuff is good stuff. He was exactly what he was supposed to be.’’

There will be more emotions tomorrow when Varitek arrives at camp to retire. He is expected to take a position with the team.

“What do you say to him?’’ Beckett said. “A few of us were talking about that. Do you say, ‘Congratulations?’ I think you do. He had a great career.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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