Jason Varitek Leaf 05

No longer the starter, Jason Varitek has settled into a mentor's role.

There’s plenty to love about Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. The celebration of baseball’s return being obvious, there are rituals like player introductions, early start times and extended anthems that all come on a day that, after more than 140 years, should really just be a national holiday.

I have my own rituals. I park myself in front of the TV with a notebook to record the festivities, primarily the Opening Day roster of the Red Sox and whoever their opponent might be (this year, the Texas Rangers). I’ll jot out the lineup and starting pitcher, the rest of the rotation, bullpen and bench, manager, coaches, and anything else of note.

I also keep a binder of my Red Sox baseball cards close by, which would include this 2005 card of their captain and current backup catcher, Jason Varitek.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been given the keys to the Red Sox’ battery. He is the heir apparent, the next hope behind the plate. And behind him is his past, Varitek, no longer looming, his days as a prime-time starter left in the wake of a body battered by 1,478 games, all but a small handful spent behind the plate. Varitek, a member of the team since earning a call-up from Pawtucket late in 1997, will be watching the 25-year-old from the bench, ready to offer guidance or enter the game if needed.

Varitek was an All-Star three times in his career, twice a starter for a World Series winner, the first Boston captain since Jim Rice retired following the 1989 season and, for the second season, the understood second catcher on the roster. He’s handled the switch with dignity, embracing his role as teacher and mentor to the younger Saltalamacchia.

It’s a very old-school move for a very old-school player. Back when the reserve clause reigned supreme, one team made the playoffs in each league, the idea that football would be competition was a laughable premise, and players spent entire careers with one team, and not just the Derek Jeter-level superstars. Players like Rico Petrocelli enjoyed All-Star seasons before settling into productive roles out of the spotlight, reminders of one legacy before passing the baton to the next generation.

Interestingly enough, he’s joined in reduced role dignity by Tim Wakefield. Once part of a core starting rotation, he’s seen the likes of Roger Clemens, Erik Hanson, Aaron Sele, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Curt Schilling pass through. This year, he’s 44 years old, waiting in the bullpen, ready to be called upon to twirl his knuckle ball in long relief or in an emergency start.

Coming into 2011, the Red Sox are expected to be more than good. Greatness is expected. On this Opening Day, there is nothing but glorious hopes and dreams. Dreams of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford terrorizing opposing pitchers on the basepaths, dreams of Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez burning holes in the Green Monster, dreams of Dustin Pedroia snaring screaming line drives and smacking doubles at the top of the order.

The opening day roster is filled with these carriers of hope, from the newcomers to the veterans, from icons like David Ortiz to young players like Jed Lowrie trying to make a name for themselves. There are new arms in the bullpen, there are new signature pieces in the roster, there are returning All-Stars hoping for a better year than the one that just passed.

And there are two veteran players more than happy to ply their trade quietly and out of the spotlight. They’ve brought an attitude of opportunity to the reduced playing time that comes with age.

I believe I’ve kept up my couch-notebook-baseball cards ritual every opening day since 1993. For the 14th consecutive season, Jason Varitek will be on the opening day roster of the Boston Red Sox. For the 16th straight season, Wakefield finds himself on the roster, too. In an age with so much turmoil and turnover, the small bits of constancy can be incredibly reassuring.

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