Red Sox catchers praise Varitek

BOSTON -- There was a lasting image during the ninth inning of the Red Sox's season finale on Oct. 3, 2010.

The Red Sox were hosting the New York Yankees at Fenway Park and held a 8-3 lead going into the top of the ninth inning. Veteran catcher Jason Varitek was in his crouch and warming up closer Jonathan Papelbon when manager Terry Francona made a lineup change.

Francona sent backup catcher Kevin Cash to replace Varitek, so the fans, his teammates and even the Yankees could recognize the captain. It was an emotional moment for Varitek as he walked off the field, waving to his family in the stands. At that moment, Varitek, the Red Sox and the fans thought it would be his last time in a Red Sox uniform.

It wasn't.

Varitek returned for the 2011 season. It's unlikely, however, he will be back for 2012.

During the winter meetings in Dallas this week, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said he spoke with Varitek about the upcoming season and would not commit to anything, saying the organization will make a decision and the GM will speak to Varitek again soon.

"I have a great deal of respect for both [Varitek and Tim Wakefield] and feel like the best thing for the team and the best thing for them is, if there's not a real role on the team, I'm not sure it's fair, I'm not sure it's the right thing for them or for the team, but we haven't gotten to that point yet," Cherington said.

With Varitek's Red Sox career likely over, a new generation of catchers in the organization could be around for a long time.

When the ball popped out of the glove of Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 28 at Baltimore, which ultimately ended the Sox's season, Ryan Lavarnway was the catcher who walked off the field.

The 24-year-old backstop had made his second consecutive start behind the plate during that final series against the Orioles since both Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were injured. As spring training approaches, it will likely be Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway who will be the top two catchers in camp.

If Varitek does not return, both of his successors are thankful for the guidance they've received during their time as teammates with the veteran catcher.

"I had a blast last year," Saltalamacchia said of his first full season with the Red Sox. "I knew last year it could be my last time with him, just like the year before when I got traded over here. I tried to gain as much as I could from him, and we still have communication. That line is always going to be open, regardless if he's with me or not. I took advantage of every opportunity I had with him. To be able to play a full year and watch him really helped me grow as a player, and that's really going to help me succeed."

While Saltalamacchia finally came into his own in 2011, becoming Boston's starting catcher, Lavarnway enjoyed a tremendous season at the Double-A, Triple-A and major-league levels. It started with his first invitation to big league camp and ended with him behind the plate in the final game of the season. During the entire stretch, he watched and learned from Varitek.

"Jason Varitek has been an absolute icon, not only in the Boston community but in my heart for a very long time," Lavarnway said. "He's been my favorite catcher that I watched growing up, and if he doesn't come back next year and I have the opportunity to get some more innings and try to make a bigger impact on this team, the biggest thing I know is that I'm not going to try to be Jason Varitek. I'm going to be Ryan Lavarnway, and I'm going to do the things that I do well to help the team win."

Even before Lavarnway caught a game in the big leagues, he recalled many hypothetical conversations he had with Varitek last season, when the two would talk about different Red Sox pitchers and what they would like to do in certain situations. The veteran backstop told the rookie not to be afraid to speak up if he notices something during a game.

"He said, 'If you're in the bullpen and you see something that you think is important, tell me because I'm always trying to learn, too,'" Lavarnway said. "He was always trying to learn and always trying to get better, so that's something I want to try to implement in myself going forward."

Lavarnway played in 17 games for the Red Sox in 2011, including eight games behind the plate. The final two games in Baltimore were his only starts of the season. In his first start as catcher, he went 2-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs to help the Sox to an important 8-7 victory over the Orioles.

That performance earned Lavarnway another start in the season finale, but he went 0-for-5 as Boston lost to the Orioles 4-3.

"I'm happy with the way I performed [the final two games]," he said. "Obviously, I wish we had won the [final] game, but I think I'm ready to play here."

He hasn't had a chance to talk with Cherington or new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine about his role in 2012, but if Lavarnway is the No. 2 masked man on the team, he'll be ready.

Lavarnway is scheduled to join teammates Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix to continue his offseason workouts. He will spend about a month at AP before joining Saltalamacchia at the team's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., along with catching instructor Gary Tuck.

Varitek didn't have a chance to walk off the field and wave to the fans in 2011. If he doesn't return, he will be recognized at some point at Fenway Park, whether with another team or through a much-deserved Jason Varitek Day.

There will never be another Varitek, but Lavarnway is ready for whatever the Red Sox need him to do.

"I'm happy where I am, but I'm never content," he said.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.