FORT MYERS, Fla. – Catching is not so much a profession as a vocation or a calling. Perhaps more than any other responsibility in baseball, it is one defined by selflessness.
A catcher’s satisfaction more often derives from the accomplishments of a teammate (specifically, a pitcher) or the team than it does from personal statistical measures. The work to become a top catcher is punishing and often career-shortening, the reward primarily the opportunity to facilitate the measurable excellence of others. Meanwhile, the work of a catcher goes unnoticed by all but the extremely small population of people who truly understand the craft, most of whom are also catchers.
It is this life that Jarrod Saltalamacchia embraced. And it makes sense that he did so.
His father is a firefighter and paramedic, his mother a nurse, and so perhaps it was natural that he would apply his considerable baseball talents to a job that comes with a mandate of selflessness and a relentlessness. Ultimately, those traits either are or have become staples of Saltalamacchia, parts of who he is, parts of his identity.
“I don’t think I’d be the person I am or the player I am if I wasn’t a catcher,” said Saltalamacchia. “That’s my mentality. I love it. I love it.”
And he loves to work at it.
On a normal mid-spring training morning, at a time when players were still drifting in and out of the Red Sox clubhouse, one catcher was beaming with a sense of accomplishment.
“I beat Salty here this morning!” he pronounced to another catcher.
Not easily done. Saltalamacchia is almost invariably the first Sox player to show up for work on a daily basis, typically pulling into the parking lot at JetBlue Park at 5:30 or 6, before the sun comes up and prior to the arrival of any other teammate. It is usually not for another 30 minutes or so that teammate Dustin Pedroia enters the clubhouse and begins the process of crowing in the dawn of a new day.
It is with good reason that Saltalamacchia punches in for work long before most will wake up. There is always something to be done.
He is a catcher who must prepare for the physical rigors of his craft on a daily basis through stretching and work in the trainer’s room as well as the weight room as he tries to build up for a long and exhausting season. He is a switch-hitter who must work to hone his swing from both sides of the plate.
There are catching drills in which to take part and there is time to be spent working with the pitchers on his staff, fostering relationships that are essential to creating the trust that will be needed to work through a game plan. There is a great deal to be done, and little room for waste.
“I feel like I’m late if there’s daylight out. I don’t do it as a competition. I do it because I’ve always been a guy who gets there early, gets all my stuff done. I don’t like to rush. I hate feeling like I’m rushing through different stuff,” said Saltalamacchia. “That’s just always in my nature. I’ve always had to work for everything. I’ve never been given anything. I’ve always gotten there early, wanted to get things done and have everything in a routine.
“Everybody’s different,” he added. “I don’t care [when people get in], as long as a guy gets his work in and is ready to go. That’s what I think, you’ve got to respect yourself, respect your teammates, respect the game.”
Invariably, Saltalamacchia does just that. He leaves nothing to chance in his preparation, something that other players on the team notice. The other catchers in Sox camp, in particular, take note of how Saltalamacchia goes about his business.
“I tried to be one of the first ones there in the morning, coming in before the sun came up,” Ryan Lavarnway once noted of his first big league camp in 2011. “I was the second one there. Who was the one who beat me there? Saltalamacchia. He’s already around, getting his body ready, preparing.”
Saltalamacchia’s commitment does not wane during the season. On days when the Sox have their typical 7 p.m. starting time, Saltalamacchia will usually arrive around or slightly after noon to go through his entire pregame routine.
Everything he does appears purposeful, focused. And that, in turn, makes it all the more interesting to realize what a challenge it was at one point for Saltalamacchia to achieve that state to function in his chosen line of work.
“I always had ADD, that’s another reason why I woke up early. I was never able to sit still,” said Saltalamacchia. “I never really noticed it until my parents had me tested in, like, third grade. My grades shot up. I got, like, straight A’s. But I was on Ritalin, and in baseball I was so laid back and relaxed that I didn’t play well. My parents made the executive decision to take me off of it.
“My grades suffered again but I did well in baseball,” he added, before noting coyly, “It’s worked out.”
School was a challenge, but eventually, so, too, was catching. The sundry responsibilities that Saltalamacchia embraced proved difficult to juggle as his attention drifted from task to task.
And so, in 2008, Saltalamacchia began taking Adderall. The prescription drug is a banned stimulant under the MLB drug policy, but players are permitted to apply for therapeutic-use exemptions (TUEs) if they can prove a need for the drug.
Saltalamacchia has applied successfully for the exemption each year since 2008. While there have been suggestions in some corners that TUEs are abused by baseball players as a backdoor means of access to amphetamines, Saltalamacchia insists that, for someone who has spent his life dealing with ADHD, the exemption is a game-changer.
“It’s been a significant difference in being able to focus, calling pitches behind the plate, scouting reports, doing my routine,” said Saltalamacchia. “It’s been a world of difference. … There’s guys who are way worse off than I am. [The exemption is] needed. It’s not a drug people are using to get bigger and stronger. Mentally, we have to use medicine to compete and level the playing field.”
On the field, Saltalamacchia did just that in many respects in 2011. He set a career-high by playing in 103 games (catching 101 of those), and while he bookended his season with immense struggles in April (hitting .138 .with a .391 OPS and playing poor defense in his first 10 games of the year) and September (hitting .140 with a .437 OPS in his final 14 games), he hit .262 with a .317 OBP, .509 slugging mark, .826 OPS and 15 homers in 79 games in the middle of the year.
During that stretch over the course of almost five months of the season, Saltalamacchia ranked among the top hitting catchers in the American League, and his defense also played up during that time, particularly in controlling the opposing running game.
That said, his offensive struggles at either end of the season led Saltalamacchia to finish the year with respectable but unspectacular offensive marks of a .235 average, .288 OBP, .450 slugging mark and .737 OPS, along with 16 homers. His numbers were roughly in line with those of the average American League catcher (.238/.305/.391/.696) in 2011.
Now, Saltalamacchia wants to use last year as a platform for even bigger contributions, and there’s reason to think he can do just that. He is still just 26, an age at which there remains plenty of offensive and defensive upside for a catcher.
After all, Saltalamacchia’s Red Sox predecessor and then colleague, Jason Varitek, spent his first year in the majors at age 26 in 1998. His numbers? A .253 average, .309 OBP, .407 slugging mark and .716 OPS, along with seven homers, at a time when offensive standards were much higher than they were in 2011.
Varitek often talked about the time and work it took to improve, to understand the speed of the game and the demands of the job that confronted him at the major league level. Saltalamacchia, now given the luxury of a comfortable entry into the 2012 season as the Red Sox’ primary catcher, would appear to have come through a similar apprenticeship.
He is hopeful that he is in position to take the proverbial step forward, to continue to elevate his game. It is something that may or may not be reflected in the year-end statistics that he produces. But Saltalamacchia is confident that, at the least, his teammates will appreciate that he has left nothing to chance in an effort to improve the performance of both himself and, more importantly, his team.
That lesson was instilled by Varitek to Saltalamacchia when, as a rookie in 2007, the latter sent a jersey to the Sox captain for a signature.
“He signed a jersey for me and on it, it said, ‘Catch with pride.’ You take that and that’s just kind of what he’s done his whole career. I’m going to do the same,” said Saltalamacchia. “People are going to respect you for what you do, how you go about your business.”
On that front, it would appear, Saltalamacchia has left nothing to chance.