Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who turns 38 one week into the 2010 season, struck a positive tone while discussing his transition from everyday starter to a backup player next season, saying he got used to the role in the two months after the trade for Victor Martinez and is fine with it.
Varitek acknowledged a couple of health issues he battled last season, including a bulging disk in his neck and a broken big toe he sustained while blocking a ball against the Anaheim Angels, on top of dealing with a partial labrum tear in his left shoulder he'd sustained previously. But in typical fashion, he refused to attribute his struggles at the plate last season -- in particular, a second half in which he batted just .157 with 1 home run and 13 RBIs -- to those injuries.
Varitek said he has been working out since the beginning of November and expects to be ready for the start of the season. He is in the last year of his contract with the Red Sox, having exercised a $3 million player option after the Sox declined to trigger the $5 million option they held on his deal, but said he did not know yet whether this would be his last season.
"I've got to listen to my body,'' Varitek said. "Now I feel strong and continuing to get stronger, so I feel really good. And if I'm able to maintain that, I don't know how long I'll play. But if my health is not there, that will be the determining point before anything.''
Here is a full transcript of his conversation with reporters Friday at Fenway Park, where he took a turn on the Winter Classic ice with Bruins legend Bobby Orr:
On coming to the ballpark and seeing the rink:
"I think it was awfully neat just walking down from the clubhouse and getting a view of this. To see it here, it's pretty awesome. It's a beautiful sunny day even though it's freezing and to get a chance to skate one time with Bobby Orr, I don't know if I can really replace that. I have a huge fan in me, too.''
How tough will it be to have a reduced role on the Red Sox, given the pride he takes in his work?
"I don't think I'll change my pride in my work. Maybe the playing time is going to change. There's also some dynamics and flexibility, we have a pretty dynamic lineup, a lot of moving parts. I don't know exactly how that's all going to play out. Knowing going into it, [Victor Martinez] is going to play the majority of time. For me, I kind of got in that role last year, so I had two months to get used to it. At that point in the season, it was good for our team, because it ended up David [Ortiz] hit well and we got the extra bat in the lineup, and that helped our team a lot."
Has he taken any time to step back and look at the career he's had?
"I think you can reflect back when you're done. I'm preparing to come out here and get to spring training to make sure I win myself a job and to make sure that I'm able to help this team win games. When I'm done and sitting on the couch, and doing that full-time, then I can probably reflect more. I'm happy, I'm happy that and always feel fortunate that I've been able to be here and have a career, period."
How does he feel physically, how much did shoulder issues impact his second half?
"I mean, I don't know. I'll know more if I'm able to be completely healthy. I'm going to kind of stick to what I always have. I'm not going to make an excuse, I'm not going to do that. Part of this winter for me is getting healthy, getting strong and addressing stuff physically to allow me to be ready. The good thing is, in a different role I have a better chance to keep maintenance, keep strength and do those things, health permitted."
On speculation that he might catch against lefties, with Martinez playing first base.
"I have an easier time repeating from that side [batting right-handed], no matter how long it's been. It could be. I believe I could do that. The other way I could be more of a help is maybe a force off the bench. But [catching against lefties] would increase my playing time, so I'm not going to argue against that.''
How much has he talked to manager Terry Francona about his role?
"We haven't really talked yet. But we've got time. We'll have our meetings in spring training and stuff. There's not much they can do right now. I have to make sure that I'm physically ready to go in spring training, and that's what I can control. I do that, it allows their job to be a lot easier to dictate what you do. He's our manager.''
Will he be 100 percent coming into spring training?
"I'm doing pretty good. I'm doing real well right now. Just keep gaining strength, and healing from joint stuff to everything else.''
When does he start swinging?
"I'll start swinging the beginning of next month. I've already started a throwing program I've been training since the beginning of November. Getting stronger, and it's nice to feel good again.''
When did he break the toe?
"Actually, believe it or not, it's when we played Anaheim at home. I blocked a ball, it came up and somehow I ended up falling all over the place. It was just an evulsion fracture. It is what it is.''
Any thought on whether this is his last contract?
"I think once you've gotten, where you've missed time with your elbow, missed time with your knee, it's kind of brought out a little different side of me of trying to enjoy things quite a bit more. I think that's what's important. I've got to listen to my body. Now I feel strong and continuing to get stronger, so I feel really good. And if I'm able to maintain that, I don't know how long I'll play. But if my health is not there, that will be the determining point before anything. I will prepare like I normally do, be ready, look forward to this team being another competitive force, and getting this team in the postseason again. Those are the opportunities you work for. As things go along, I'll be able to answer those questions more, but I'm not going into it in the fear of it being ... I'm not going to play that way, with the fear of this being my last time playing (because) I think it will pull away from what you can produce and bring to the table."
Last time he ended a season without something hurting in a significant way?
"I don't know. But one good thing, at the end of the season I didn't play as much, so my sea legs came back a lot quicker. Usually the determining point of ... when I can start training is if I can go down the stairs straight. I don't have to sidestep to get down the steps. Then my body is feeling pretty good. You can't play that position. Once you're down and the adrenaline leaves the system, something's going to hurt.''
When did the bulging disk become an issue?
"I don't honestly know how to address that. I don't want to get in the frame of making excuses. Something I had to deal with, it took quite a while for us to find out what it was, and during some part of it I did real well. So I don't know. I don't know. Maybe when it's all said and done, we can go through a checklist of different things. Accountability and dependability is a huge part of my position.''
On paper, is this as good a pitching staff as he has ever caught?
"It's a different role. I could be catching a different one every once in a while. I'm kind of excited to see where the final ... we've got a little time left before all moves are done and I want to see where things are. It's exciting to add stability in your rotation. I think it'll make the overall rotation much better. There's some exciting things about the youth in the rotation with Buch [Clay Buchholz] and obviously [Jon ] Lester. Makes it a bona fide [five-man rotation] rather than two or three, especially with Buch gaining more experience and stuff, that [John Lackey] is a huge cog to add to the rotation. It may not mean 20 (wins), but it will be a lot of consistency.''
It was reported he had a bulging disk in your neck. How much was that an issue?
"I don't know. Different things relate to different things, they're all interconnected. Like I said, I'm not going to make an excuse. Things that happened, I had a broken big toe. Things happen. There's nothing, I still don't believe, 'OK, that's why I struggled more in the second half' or anything. I had some good points, and I had some not-so-good points. Hopefully I can go into this next one and help this team on a consistent basis.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.