Red Sox have new leader of pack
After learning from Jason Varitek, Jarrod Saltalamacchia takes helm of catching corps
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Each day of every spring training for more than a decade, Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek would exit the clubhouse with his equipment bag over his shoulder, and one after the other, all the other catchers in the organization would follow.
They called themselves the Wolf Pack.
Red Sox catchers are a close-knit group and always have been under Varitek's watch. Now that No. 33, the captain, will announce his retirement after 15 seasons with the Red Sox, the Wolf Pack is ready to move on.
Varitek led by example. He was always prepared. That legacy will live on even though he's not walking through that clubhouse door, at least as a player, ever again. The mitt has been passed, and now it's up to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Lavarnway and Luis Exposito to keep the pack together.
Even before the Red Sox traded for Saltalamacchia on July 31, 2010, the one-time catching prospect for the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers would look across the field and observe how well prepared Varitek was and how much he respected the game.
When Saltalamacchia was playing for the Rangers, the Red Sox were in Arlington when the young catching prospect sent a clubhouse attendant to the visiting clubhouse down the hall at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington with a No. 33 Red Sox jersey and asked the veteran catcher to sign it for Salty.
Most players sign: "Best of luck" or "Best wishes." Varitek signed the jersey: "Catch with pride."
"That says it all," Saltalamacchia said. "Catch with pride is what we do. So if a fellow catcher works hard and wants it, I'm all for that guy and I'm with him until the end."
Saltalamacchia quickly learned the ways of the Wolf Pack under Varitek's tutelage and now is the leader. It's a role he has embraced.
"It's all about togetherness," Saltalamacchia said. "I've been through what Expo's been through. I've been through what Lavarnway has been through, being a top prospect, going through it and given the opportunity.
"I was told I was a good offensive catcher and not a good defensive catcher, so I completely understand what those guys are going through. I want to be there for them and basically helping them out with what I went through."
As soon as Saltalamacchia arrived in Boston, he became a virtual sponge while working with Varitek. Salty knew there was a possibility, if he was successful, for him to become Varitek's successor. That transition began at the tail end of the 2010 season, and it was clear in 2011 that Saltalamacchia was the No. 1 masked man in Boston.
"What I learned from Tek is we're all people and we're all here together," Saltalamacchia said. "You've got to get to know each other. I think too many times we get caught up in the, 'Hey, it's a game and it's a business.' It is, but at the same time we're brothers and we've all got to stick together."
Just because Varitek's stall now belongs to veteran Kelly Shoppach, whom the Red Sox signed this offseason, Saltalamacchia intends to keep his working relationship with the former captain in tact.
"It's still going to be good," Saltalamacchia said. "I learned a lot from him. He gave me that confidence back that I needed to be a player. He's such a special guy, such a special player, that we're going to continue to have that relationship open where I can go to him at anytime."
Bobby Valentine never managed Varitek, but he watched his career with the Red Sox. Valentine called him a "man's man" but said he believes that Saltalamacchia is ready to take the lead role from Varitek.
Saltalamacchia also says he's ready.
"Personality-wise, I think I'm the same as him as far as leading by example," he said. "I'm not a guy who is going to jump down your throat. If something needs to be said, it's behind closed doors. But I'm still learning this game too. There are a lot of guys who have been in this clubhouse a lot longer than I have and I'll continue to look at them. I've got to play my game and know what I can do and if I can help anybody out, I'm going to."
When the Red Sox signed Shoppach, 31, as a free agent to a one-year deal, it was a sure sign Varitek would not be back for the 2012 season. The Red Sox originally drafted Shoppach in the second round of the 2001 amateur draft, and he spent four seasons in the organization before he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Coco Crisp as part of a six-player deal.
Shoppach will serve as Saltalamacchia's backup, which will allow Lavarnway and Exposito to continue to hone their skills in the minors.
"He's different in the aspect of when you're around [bullpen coach Gary] Tuck and Tek, it's serious. It's work. It's business. You're a machine," Saltalamacchia said. "To have Shop here, who likes to have fun, smile and has that laidback attitude, in all honesty, it's probably something we could have used last year at the end of the year."
Lavarnway made major contributions at Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues in 2011. He combined to hit .290 with 32 homers, 93 RBIs, 75 runs and 57 walks in 116 games between Portland and Pawtucket.
"I lived in eight different cities last year and it's really all about taking care of business," Lavarnway said. "I have a singular focus and that's to help this team win a World Series this year. I'll be hungry every day to work toward that."
Lavarnway played a total of 17 games in Boston, most as DH, and made two starts behind the plate at a crucial time of the season. While both Varitek and Saltalamacchia were injured in the final series in Baltimore, then-manager Terry Francona gave the nod to Lavarnway.
In the second-to-last game of the season against the Orioles, the 24-year-old catcher went 2-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs to help the Red Sox to an 8-7 win. Because of his success, he was given the start again in the season finale, but Boston lost and missed the postseason for the second consecutive year.
That experience was unforgettable for Lavarnway.
"It gave me a real expectation of what to expect because looking at these guys on TV from the time you're 5 years old, and even coming into big-league camp last year, it's not the same in spring training or watching on TV as experiencing it firsthand," he said. "It was a small taste of what I hope to be a part of on a regular basis."
Similar to the way Varitek felt about Saltalamacchia in taking him under his wing, Salty has been just as impressed with Lavarnway.
"He's a great kid, first and foremost," Saltalamacchia said. "He works hard. He wants it and he's smart. He's always trying to learn. He's at where I was when I was first coming up. I wanted to impress everybody, I wanted to go do all the extra things, which is great, but that's the one thing Tek taught me a lot last year, to take care of yourself and take care of your body because it's a long season. What helped me last season was trying to slow down, work smart rather than doing a bunch of stuff."
Varitek also watched from the dugout last season as Lavarnway took advantage of his opportunity. Although the captain is not in camp, Lavarnway continues to act and work as if Varitek were here.
"Tek did a lot of silent leadership," Lavarnway said. "He wasn't the rah-rah guy. If something needed to be said, he would pull a guy aside and say it to him one-on-one. It's not like we're missing that loud, constant presence, it was more of when you see him around you knew you had to take care of your business."
Exposito also said Varitek had a major impact on him, but that he knows who the leader is now.
"It's a big difference, as far as presence felt," Exposito said. "With Tek, you know he's in the building, you just feel his presence. Now Salty's taking it from him because he spent two years with him and learning from him and learning how to be a leader.
"It trickles down the ladder. You're either on board or you're not. I'm on board and I know Salty's the guy right now and I'm just going to follow what he's doing so I can come out and be the guy some day.
"I think everybody is doing a good job as a whole, like the Wolf Pack that we are, and Salty is leading by example. Guys behind him are doing the same thing because we want to be where he's at, so in order to get where he's at, we have to show the same leadership. It's a competition and I respect all the guys that I'm competing against, but we're all going to go out there and give 100 percent and give everybody a run for their money."
Exposito, 25, got called up to the Red Sox for that final series against the Orioles too. He did not play, but the experience was well worth it for him. He spent the entire 2011 season with Pawtucket and hit .242 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs in 89 games.
"He looks good and he's in great shape," Saltalamacchia said. "He's a strong guy. I think his receiving will be a lot better. It's a long season and I think getting that call-up last season made him feel good about himself and he deserved it, so I think he's made a lot of strides."
When Varitek arrives here to announce his retirement on Thursday, he'll be glad to see his Wolf Pack is as tight as ever. Saltalamacchia, Shoppach, Lavarnway, Exposito, along with non-roster invitees Daniel Butler and Max St. Pierre, are doing well.
"Work hard and go after it," Exposito said.
That's exactly what Varitek did his entire career with the Red Sox and he will be forever celebrated for it. But the current catching staff is proof that there will be life after Tek.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.