FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jason Varitek focused on his spring training drills. He caught pitches as the sun beat down. He signed autographs for excited fans.
Saturday seemed like just another opening day of camp for Boston’s catcher, a Red Sox fixture for more than a decade and their captain the past five years.
There was one big difference.
For the first time since 1999, the cerebral handler of pitchers whose offense has declined is starting spring training as a backup. Barring an injury to Victor Martinez, Varitek almost certainly will start the regular season that way.
The transition began after the Red Sox acquired Martinez at last year’s trade deadline on July 31. Before then, Varitek had played in 79 of Boston’s 102 games. Afterward, he appeared in just 30 of 60.
“This isn’t necessarily new for me,” Varitek said after the first official workout for pitchers and catchers. “Is it different? Of course, it’s different. But I think that in that role that it was last year toward the end that probably got me prepared for this.
“For the most part, I’m here to support Vic as much as possible and take the load off him when he needs it.”
Martinez, 31, is a much better hitter. He batted .303 last year but .336 in 56 games with Boston. Varitek, 37, established career-low averages the past two seasons, .220 and .209, but did make the AL All-Star team in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Martinez also is a three-time All-Star.
Varitek has been praised widely by pitchers he handles. Martinez is a decent fielder and did a very good job of catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball last season, a difficult chore .
“Either one of them will be fine with me,” Wakefield said.
But Varitek is likely to be watching most pitchers from the bench and not from behind home plate. That might even help him become a better leader as he continues to wear the “C” on his uniform as captain with a seat not far from manager Terry Francona.
“Sometimes I get caught up in the grind” when he’s playing, he said. “I can tend to be a little quieter, just trying to conserve energy and stuff and do different things. Maybe (not playing) will open up more communication with (Francona) and my teammates.”
Varitek’s playing time may decrease, but the manager expects his leadership to be just as strong.
“That would never change,” Francona said. “Tek’s a kind of a special guy. He’s certainly earned the right to wear that “C,” and if his playing time changes a little bit, I don’t see his role diminishing ever — what he can bring to a team even when he’s not in the lineup. He’s a very strong influence on our team and he always will be.”
Varitek has caught four no-hitters — by Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester.
He leaped into the arms of closer Keith Foulke after the St. Louis Cardinals made the final out of Boston’s 2004 World Series sweep, the Red Sox first championship since 1918. And he put the ball in his back pocket after Jonathan Papelbon’s strikeout ended another World Series sweep, in 2007 against the Colorado Rockies.
But Varitek didn’t play a single inning in last year’s AL division series in which the Red Sox were swept by the Los Angeles Angels.
So does he consider himself a backup or a starter?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just look at myself as a catcher.”
NOTES: Wakefield feels “100 percent” after surgery on Oct. 21 for a herniated disk. He made the All-Star team for the first time at age 42 but was winless in limited action afterward. … Jacoby Ellsbury said he’s fine with switching to left field to make room for newcomer Mike Cameron in center. Jason Bay, now with the New York Mets, was Boston’s left fielder last year. “The biggest thing, I think, is I’m going to have to have my ears open for Cam calling for the ball,” Ellsbury said. “When he calls for it, it’s his ball.”