Jarrod Saltalamacchia can look at Ryan Lavarnway’s quest to become a fulltime catcher and say that not much time has elapsed since the former was in the latter’s shoes.
What separates the trial and error that Saltalamacchia went through as opposed to Lavarnway’s ongoing baptism by fire is that Saltalamacchia had the luxury of having a well-versed and seasoned presence in Jason Varitek. For a season and a half, Varitek – named Thursday as a special assistant to Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington – helped groom and nurture Saltalamacchia along so that – once the day arrived he would no longer be in a Red Sox uniform – the transition from someone who had 15 seasons of running Boston’s pitching staff under his belt to someone who had been versed in Varitek’s mannerisms would prove smooth.
As much as Varitek was there for Saltalamacchia, the 27-year-old is attempting to provide a sounding board for Lavarnway, 25. Perhaps such willingness stems from the comfort level Saltalamacchia has in knowing that, much like Varitek when he was an active player, this is his Red Sox staff to oversee until told otherwise.
Speaking earlier this week after being named the BoSox Club Man of the Year at the Sheraton Needham (Mass.) Hotel, Saltalamacchia compared and contrasted his journey to becoming an established major-league backstop with Lavarnway’s ongoing tutorial.
“Obviously spending six years (to learn and comprehend the position’s specific ins and outs) is a pretty good amount, but Ryan’s trying to get in and know the big leagues,” Saltalamacchia said. “I’m definitely trying to help him out with that.”
The moment that signified Saltalamacchia’s true arrival came prior to the 2011 season; that’s when Red Sox management informed him that the lion’s share of the catching duties would fall upon him. Considering that Varitek was still on the roster and commanded respect from the pitchers, such an announcement was a major weight off the 6-foot-4 Saltalamacchia’s shoulders.
Even though Saltalamacchia had bypassed Varitek on the depth chart, the working relationship between the catchers continued to hum along. In Saltalamacchia’s eyes, the changing of the guard had yet to commence as the Sox were still perceived as Varitek’s team. Therefore, the apprenticeship was still ongoing.
“To watch Tek and how he went about his business and did everything was invaluable,” Saltalamacchia noted. “This year, it was a little bit tougher because now I was on my own. It really sunk in that I had nobody to fall back on. (The Red Sox) were my team and I’ve got to lead them.”
Part of assuming the leadership mantle includes dispensing words of wisdom, even if the recipient is someone who is eager to show that he too is worthy of becoming the No. 1 catcher. Upon setting foot in the Red Sox clubhouse in early August, the former PawSox contributor was told by Saltalamacchia to follow Boston bullpen coach and catching guru Gary Tuck around like a shadow.
“Defensive-wise, Ryan has gotten a lot better. He’s been working with Tuck every day and he’s the best in the business,” said Saltalamacchia. “Gary was a big part in my development. He made a lot of promises to me when I first came over here [via trade from Texas in July 2010] and how he’s wanted to work with me. Every type of promise he makes comes true. Just seeing the game through his eyes is pretty special.”
Since his big-league promotion, Lavarnway has been behind the plate for 25 games, hitting .143 with a .196 on-base percentage. Certainly one can look at those numbers and debate whether Lavarnway is a viable option for the long term, yet Saltalamacchia believes it’s best not to look too deeply at the current results.
“He’s learning as much as he can, but the main thing is experience. He’s getting a lot of playing time, which is going to help him down the line,” noted Saltalamacchia.
At the BoSox Club luncheon, Saltalamacchia spoke about becoming a fixture in Boston and part of a team that is able to turn the current fortunes around. He also touched upon what a thrill it was to be partnered up with Carlton Fisk during Sunday’s public remembrance to Johnny Pesky at Fenway Park.
Linked by position, a player from the current Red Sox team was paired with a notable alum. It just so happened that Saltalamacchia’s standing partner has a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.
“I’ve gotten to meet (Fisk) a few times, but to actually walk on the field together was such a great moment for me,” said Saltalamacchia. “Whatever information I can gather from someone like that is going to help my career.”