Jason Varitek back as strong as ever

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On the final day of the 2010 season for the Boston Red Sox, manager Terry Francona decided to pinch hit for Jason Varitek so the veteran catcher could be recognized by his teammates and the fans.

The 37,453 in attendance at Fenway Park gave Varitek a standing ovation, and even some of the New York Yankees gave their acknowledgment. It seemed quite possible that Varitek's playing career was over.

"I know when we took him out of last year's game to get a little bit of an ovation, everybody made a big deal out of it. We were doing it because we do that with a lot of the veterans," Francona said. "It wasn't a goodbye, it was just a chance for everyone to show their appreciation."

After the game, Varitek never said he was done, saying he was hoping to come back but he didn't know what the future held.

"It was very uncertain," Varitek said. "My kids were upset for a good two hours after I got done with icing and talking to the media after the game, and I realized they grew up [in Boston]. It wasn't just me who grew up here. It was an emotional time, but at that point it was out of my control. I did things well enough and got better in enough areas where I knew there was a good chance I could help the team. Hopefully it was going to be here and it turned out to be."

On Dec. 10, 2010, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein re-signed the captain for another season.

This will be the 38-year-old's 14th full season in the big leagues, all with the Red Sox, and like former Sox catcher and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, Varitek envisions himself playing into his 40s.

"I think once you're done playing, you're done. There's no making a comeback if we stop playing this game at a point," Varitek said. "If my body holds up and I'm able to do the things I feel I can still do, then I'll play as long as I can. If I start compromising my livelihood for my kids later in life, then I've got to start questioning things. If I'm not putting myself in a competitive spot to help a team win, then I've got to question things again."

Fisk played 11 seasons for the Red Sox then, at age 33 in 1981, he signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent. He played another 13 seasons, until the age of 45, for the White Sox. He played a total of 2,499 games and posted a career .269 average with 1,330 RBIs and 376 home runs.

Varitek enters the season with a career .258 average, 721 RBIs and 182 homers in 1,478 games.

Their respective stats and careers are completely different, but both Varitek and Fisk love the game and each played with passion every single day.

"I love talking to Pudge whenever he comes. I could sit and talk to him all day long," Varitek said. "I wish he was around more often. Now, for me personally, the work I did 10 or 15 years ago, this is when it's starting to show and pay off. It's allowed my body to handle different things. If I hadn't done that work, it would be a lot different if all of a sudden now I started."

When all the catchers in camp start their daily work with bullpen coach Gary Tuck, the prospects are amazed at how prepared Varitek always is.

"He's a machine," Mark Wagner said. "Something's going on there. That's ungodly. He's goes out there and makes us young guys look bad. It's awesome to sit there and learn from him. You're in awe how he goes about his business every single day. His work ethic and professionalism is unmatched.

"He comes out every single day, and no matter how beat up we feel, he's got a smile on his face and he's ready to roll. He's uplifting and a driving force."

When the Red Sox acquired catcher Victor Martinez at the trade deadline in 2009, Varitek's role began to change. Suddenly he wasn't the everyday catcher. He prepared for and embraced the backup role in 2010. And with his body not taking a beating day after day, his offensive numbers started to improve.

But Varitek broke a bone in his foot in July and was limited to 39 games. Still, it was clear he could be productive as a backup.

"He took to it as well as you could," Francona said. "He was on pace offensively to have his best year in a long time. He was as productive as you can be. The broken bone derailed that season. He was terrific.

"I know it's hard to imagine, but he looks like he's in better shape now than he was. I don't know how he does it, but he continues to do it every year. He works so hard, and he's in great shape, I think he will excel in that role."

Epstein acquired 25-year-old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in a trade with the Texas Rangers at the deadline last July because the Red Sox were unclear whether they would be able to re-sign Martinez during the offseason.

Martinez signed with the Detroit Tigers this winter, and now Saltalamacchia will have a chance to take over on a full-time basis behind the plate.

Varitek is now the mentor, and the last thing he wants to see is his teammates, manager, fans or the media putting unnecessary pressure on Saltalamacchia.

"Salty is his own person and he's going to be his own player," Varitek said. "He's extremely talented. I don't know if I had those abilities he has when I was that young and broke in. His work ethic and the things he has displayed is why we've had an easy bond right away.

"He's not a rookie. He's not a first-year player. He's established and he needs to play. We've got to let him play just like we do with pitchers. We've got to see them good, bad and indifferent, and allow them to carry on from there. We may see him great early, we may see him not so good early, but he's going to be a good player. There's no doubt about it. He's too gifted and works too hard for it not to [happen]."

Francona meets with each player at the start of camp, and when Varitek arrived the two discussed his new role. The manager also wanted Varitek to work with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield this spring, so during Sunday's first live batting practice session, the two were batterymates.

Varitek has had difficulties in the past catching Wakefield's dancing dandy. In fact, Varitek made his major league debut behind the plate on April 2, 1998, at Oakland and caught Wakefield. The knuckler settled for a no-decision in Boston's 6-3 win after allowing three runs on six hits with one walk and three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.

"I don't know if [I've even been] any more nervous as I was then," Varitek admitted.

He'll have his chance to work with Wakefield plenty this season.

Despite the limited playing time, Varitek's role as captain has not changed. If anything, sitting in the dugout gives him a more hands-on approach as the team leader.

"I think it changes according to how much I play," he said. "Sometimes it allows me, like last year, to be a little more attentive to things that are going on by not playing. You see a little more rather than being caught up getting ready to play."

Varitek is at the point of his career where he's going to take it one season at a time. His health and production will dictate how long he continues to play. He says he hasn't made any decision whether he'd like to remain in the game as a coach or manager once he hangs up his spikes.

"I have to worry enough about playing right now," he said. "We'll talk about that later."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.