Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox
March 31, 2011, 4:07 am
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By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

HOUSTON -- When the Red Sox take the field for their regular season opener Friday afternoon at The Ballpark in Arlington, a look around the diamond could fool you into thinking that you're watching an All-Star team.

Indeed, of the nine position players, six have made All-Star teams and four have won Gold Gloves. In fact, the Sox are so deep, two of their four extra players have been selected to All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves at their positions.

Everywhere you look, the Red Sox have experienced, established, and accomplished players.

Then there's Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

At one of the game's most critical positions, the Red Sox have entrusted a player with just 200 major league games to his credit, now playing for his third organization.

Jason Varitek, who has caught more games than anyone else in franchise history, has been made his backup. Victor Martinez, the No. 1 catcher for the last season and a third, was allowed to leave via free agency.

Some might see this as a huge gamble. The Sox, after all, have a mostly veteran pitcing staff, one of the better rotations in either league and the club is the heavy favorite to win the pennant and reach the World Series.

Some, but not the Red Sox.

In Salty, they trust. And Saltalamachia seems grateful for their confidence.

"I'm definitely ready to grab it and go,'' he said recently as the season opener drew closer. "I want to take this opportunity. I've said that in the past, but this is like the opportunity.''

Since being drafted in the sandwich round, 36th overall, in 2003 by the Atlanta Braves, Saltalamacchia has been ticketed for stardom. But he was then packaged (with Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus) to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira.

In an organization crowded with other young promising receivers (Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Saltalamacchia was to be the catcher of the future.

But then Saltalmacchia developed the "yips'' -- unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher on the mound, much less down to second base to nab would-be base stealers.

It's not an uncommon affliction that has changed some careers (two-time All-Star Dale Murphy converted to the outfield because of it) and ended others (including former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser).

Sent to the minor leagues last spring, Saltalamacchia worked to overcome the issue, which is often largely a mental block. By the time he had corrected the problem, the Rangers had moved on, trading for veteran Benji Molina and making Saltalamacchia available -- cheap -- to the Sox at the July 31 deadline.

When Saltalamacchia looks back on his career trajectory in the last year, he can hardly believe his good fortune. And he knows that, having survived the yips, he can now handle anything -- expectations, pressure -- that baseball can throw at him.

"It was rough,'' he said of the experience. "I had a rough time with that. But I've said it before, at the end, I'm mentally tougher than I've ever been. I hope nobody ever has to go through what I went through. There were nights when I went home and I was just exhausted. It drains you. You're head's spinning, spinning. It made me a better person.

"There were days when I honeslty thought I was going to retire. I thought I was done. I was at my all-time low as far as my baseball career was concerned. I was thinking about changing positions, all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, there are times you're never going to forget. But looking back, it was all about mental toughness.''

A year later, Saltalamacchia is with a new team, ready for a new start, with the full backing of the organization. Though the Red Sox expressed an interest in Russell Martin in December, they never wavered in their belief that Saltalamacchia could handle the No. 1 catching duties.

This spring, his career-threatening affliction conquered, Saltalamacchia feels reborn.

"Exactly,'' he said. "I've never had more fun playing baseball than I am right now. It's fun again. The guys on this team make it so much fun. We're all friends. We have each other's back. Nobody judges anybody. If someone falls, we pick each other up.''

Saltalamacchia hinted that wasn't always the case in the Texas organization.

"There, it was like, 'You might make the team if you don't lose your job.' It was always something negative. Here, it's so positive. It's 'Do what you have to do to get ready. We're behind you 100 percent.' That's something that every player needs. It's hard to explain, but it feels good to have people in your corner, especially with what's expected from this team.

"So for them to say, 'We know you're good. We see it.' . . . It's almost like the past few years, I forgot that at times that I am a good player. You forget that sometimes when you get put in certain situations. So I'm definitely happy and excited. It just feels good. Having the confidence of the team honestly helps us be better players. Nobody realizes that we're humans, that we go through the same stuff everyone else does in our daily lives. So it's nice to have someone in your corner who supports you.''

It's not just the front office, the manager and the coaching staff which trusts him. The veteran pitchers also have expressed support for him.

"As far as the tools go,'' said Josh Beckett, "he's got the tools. That's something the Red Sox have seen basically since I've been here. He's someone they've always wanted and you can't really question their scouting, whether it's amateur or pro, they've done a pretty damn good job."

Saltalamachia spent several weeks last winter working with catching instructor Gary Tuck, who coached him on his footwork, positioning, release and game-calling. It was like a post-graduate course in catching that sped up Saltalamacchia's development even before spring training began.

"I was a lot more prepared,'' Saltalamacchia said. "I hadn't worked with anybody before and to work with Tuck, the guru, it was great. It was something I needed to get where I am right now. Coming into spring training, if I had to do all that stuff, it would be a lot tougher. Coming in, I was above and beyond where I normally would be. I got to work with the best for two months.''

Beyond Tuck, Saltalamaachia has another catching resource in Varitek, who has unselfishly tutored him since last summer, knowing that he was grooming his successor.

Varitek's influence is unmistakable to some of the veterans.

"He's got the Captain to look at and think, 'That's how I want to be,' '' said Beckett. "Everyone is like, 'We want you to be exactly like him -- I don't care if you literally are exactly like him. If you like the same foods . . . everything.' We don't care because we know how that's worked for Tek.''

"I think he's going to be fine. He's got someone he can go to on a day-to-day basis and ask 'What do I do with this?' or 'How do I handle this?' He knows he's going to get a straight answer and know it's going to be a damn good one, too.''

Beckett has noticed Saltalamachia being more assertive, more confident in his dealings with pitchers this spring.

"He's always been kind of outgoing,'' said Clay Buchholz. "But knowing that he's going to be the guy, he's kind of coming into his own.''

"He doesn't fall into patterns,'' said Beckett, ''which is the one thing you want to avoid. Everybody here kind of calls their own game. He's just putting down suggestion fingers. A lot of times when a catcher overthinks things, you fall into patterns. He doesn't do that.''

Varitek, who was drafted in the first round twice and was named the best college catcher of the 20th century by Baseball America, insists that Saltalmacchia has "more talent than I had at that age,'' and has little doubt that his protege will succeed.

But most important, perhaps, is that a year after he bottomed out and fell into a baseball abyss, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with some help, believes it, too.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam