FORT MYERS, Fla. — Each day at Red Sox spring training the workouts have begun with a familiar sound. It is the crunch of the cleats of seven catchers, loaded to the hilt with their gear, walking out for another day in "Camp Tuck."
The backstops move in almost military precision to their drills under the watchful eye of bullpen coach Gary Tuck, whose unique regimen has drawn rave reviews from players and coaches alike.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the team's starting catcher this year, was put through the course during the offseason. In his first full spring training with the Red Sox, he has emerged as an example for the others under the tutelage of Tuck.
"It was just what I needed because I was kind of behind the eight-ball, playing catch-up," he said of his Camp Tuck experience this winter. "I felt like I did [catch up]."
Among the improvements Saltalamacchia has made through the program is his quickness to second base, he said. The 25-year-old said that before Tuck got a hold of him he was often "too jumpy" when throwing down to second, but now he is able to stay lower and utilize his powerful right arm in a more effective manner.
That is no small development, considering some of the issues the Red Sox have had in throwing out runners in the last two years.
On the first day of formal workouts Tuesday, Saltalamacchia, Jason Varitek and the rest of the bunch began the drills that will become their livelihood this week and next, before games begin in Florida. One had them perched on a tiny chair more fit for a toddler and catching five balls thrust out of a pitching machine in rapid succession.
The catchers then paired off and got on their knees, just a few feet from one another, before bouncing baseballs into each other's chest. In a similar position Wednesday morning they threw the ball back and forth in the air and practiced pulling the ball out of the mitt as fast as possible.
All the while, Tuck stands overhead, offering instruction. "Keep your elbows in," he says during one drill. "Good job," he says when another goes off without a hitch. Then, when it's time to finish up, he gives the signal for the group to run off in unison, shoulder to shoulder and with their equipment bags draped on their backs. Close your eyes and you could be at West Point.
If they are wise, each participant still has his facemask on.
"Even if we're standing up and talking to him he'll always tell us, 'Hey, you have a mask on when you play, have one on now,'" said Tim Federowicz, a 23-year-old catcher who is noted for his strong defensive game. "That's the main thing. Make sure your mask is on. If not, he’ll correct us."
This is Federowicz's first year in the big league camp, and thus his first full go-round with Tuck. He has been a quick study in the ways of "Tuckster," as manager Terry Francona calls him.
"He has it so planned out," Federowicz said of Tuck. "He tells us all before we start, then we start and he expects us to know it. That's one of the complicated things, just being able to know all the drills so you don't ask questions. That's the biggest thing I've learned in the past. Just make sure you don't ask questions and do everything the right way."
The rest of the group consists of Ryan Lavarnway, the organization's Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2010, as well as Luis Exposito, Mark Wagner and Paul Hoover.
And everybody takes part in every portion of every drill, whether you're Federowicz, who has yet to play above high Single-A ball, or Varitek, a 14-year major league veteran.
Despite the departure of Victor Martinez, the Red Sox have some pretty good depth at the catcher position. Beyond the platoon of Saltalamacchia and Varitek lies Wagner, a solid defender, and Exposito, still considered one of the organization's top prospects. Lavarnway and Federowicz are progressing very well, one with a dynamite bat and the other with a standout defensive game. Hoover provides a veteran presence in camp.
And with Tuck running the group through his unique style, each is learning to pay attention to every last detail.
Early Wednesday, some reporters surrounded Saltalamacchia in the clubhouse at the player development complex. As the questions dragged on, a very courteous Saltalamacchia stole a glance at a clock on the wall. It was five minutes before the next day of Camp Tuck began, not something you want to be late to.
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