FORT MYERS, Fla. — Kelly Shoppach’s preparation for his first season as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox includes more than just getting to know the pitching staff. He practically has to learn a different language.
He has to learn how to speak Varitek.
For 15 years, Jason Varitek was the voice in the Boston pitching staff’s ear, and the target behind the plate, giving the Red Sox their hard-nosed, gritty identity that they used to win two World Series titles.
Now, it appears that era has come to an end.
While other stars arrived early, addressed the media, and have clearly bought into Boston’s new regime — designated hitter David Ortiz waltzed in on Wednesday — Varitek has not shown up for the first two days of workouts for Red Sox pitchers and catchers. General manager Ben Cherington offered the soon-to-be 40-year-old captain a minor league deal months ago, but still, Varitek is nowhere to be found.
His absence is taking some getting used to around here, and no one is ready to say for sure that they won’t show up early one morning at their shiny new facility and see Varitek with his crew cut and goatee sitting in front of his locker with big bags of ice on his shoulders and knees and a heavy wrap around his back.
“If he doesn’t come back, I’m going to miss him,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who started most of the games last season behind the plate. “I loved having him. I wish he was still here. If he does come back, it’s going to be fun.”
So far, there is no sign that will happen. For the first time since 1996, the year before he was acquired from Seattle in a trade, Varitek wasn’t in the bullpen with the gear on. He wasn’t there to check on how committed the pitchers were through the winter. He wasn’t there to help them start ramping up for another season with high expectations.
His absence now makes Ortiz, 36, who accepted Cherington’s arbitration offer of a one-year, $14.5 million contract, the oldest player on the team.
Even though Varitek has played second fiddle to Victor Martinez and Saltalamacchia over the last few seasons, he has still held tremendous influence in the clubhouse. Now the pitchers who so relied on his scouting reports and guidance have to establish new lines of communication with Saltalamacchia and Shoppach.
“That was something that ‘Tek was so good at, reinforcing something if I knew it. Or if I didn’t know it he would come out and tell me, ‘Hey this is what you’re doing, you’re getting around the ball,’ whatever,” Red Sox ace Josh Beckett said. “Just trying to get those guys to see the same thing he saw.”
Of course, regardless of the position on the field, without Varitek, there will clearly be an opening for a leader, as well, especially after Boston’s September collapse last season. That could fall to Ortiz, who held court on Wednesday with reporters, and is coming off his first .300-plus season since 2007.
This will be Ortiz’s 10th year in Boston.
“You always have something to prove,” said Ortiz, who hit .309 with 29 home runs, 96 RBIs, and 84 runs scored last season. “It’s a new season, and I’m excited.”
It appears that Varitek has three options. He can take the minor league deal with the Red Sox, the only team he’s ever played for in the big leagues, try to convince another organization to give an aging catcher with declining skills a chance as a backup, or retire, like his friend and long-time Boston leader Tim Wakefield did last week.
He still has not made his intentions known, and the Sox aren’t rushing him. They’re set at catcher with the two veterans and prospect Ryan Lavarnway being groomed for the future anyway.
“I would be surprised if he did (come back),” new manager Bobby Valentine said earlier this week. “I don’t have any expectations because I haven’t heard that we should get his uniform ready.”
If Varitek is grappling with the decision to retire, it’s understandable. He is an icon in Boston, where his blue-collar work ethic endeared him to die-hard Sox fans, and has caught more games than any player in the team’s storied history.
He is only the third Red Sox captain since 1923, joining Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice. And despite his declining production in recent seasons, Varitek will be sorely missed in the clubhouse. Beckett said he would be missed “severely.”
“I don’t think you’re going to find anybody in there who has played with him who says they’re not going to miss him,” Beckett said.
It wasn’t just the way he called a game behind the plate, or the pop he provided at it. There was just something about seeing No. 33 sitting in front of his locker draped in ice bags and ace bandages that got this team going.
“If you ever really watch ‘Tek, he doesn’t say much,” starter Jon Lester said. “But just his presence is enough.”
Shoppach broke into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 2005 before moving on to build a solid career with the Indians and Rays. He only played nine games in that first season, but Varitek’s influence on him continues to this day.
“He was one of the greatest players in this organization, in my opinion,” Shoppach said. “I think that everybody learned from him. The brief time that I was with him years ago, there are still some things that I do in my everyday routine and my preparation that you know can’t help but rub off from him.”