CLEARWATER, Fla. – More than 3,000 times this season, their eyes will lock. Josh Beckett, up 10 inches on the pitching mound, will peer down at Jason Varitek, and they will have an unspoken conversation.
The most important relationship in baseball isn't between a hitter and his bat or a fielder and his glove or a player's needle and his butt cheek. It's the pitcher-catcher dynamic, one that demands rapport, respect and, most of all, results.
"You don't want to hate the guy," Beckett said. "It would be like trying to do a kissing scene in a movie with a girl you used to date."
If Varitek is Brad Pitt in Boston, he can only hope Beckett isn't Jennifer Aniston. Beckett is the new ace in town, 25 years old, a Texan blessed with a powerful arm, a proven playoff winner and poised to take over as the Red Sox's No. 1 starter when Curt Schilling leaves, or possibly sooner. Varitek is the veteran catcher, 34 in April, a two-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, such a presence that the Red Sox gave him $40 million over four years to keep him from going elsewhere.
They are both hardheaded alpha males, and that's what makes them good. It also meant that, with Varitek stolen away for two weeks by the World Baseball Classic, their time to feel one another out was shortened to a cram session.
That session took place here last week against the Phillies. Beckett was throwing to Varitek for the first time against big-league hitters, and while it was only a spring-training game, it portended more: The Red Sox think Varitek can bring a Cy Young out of Beckett, who to this point has shown lots of potential but only so-so production.
"You observe a lot," Varitek said. "Communicate a lot. Hopefully get in a lot of situations. Runners on base. Runners in scoring position. As much as you need to know how the pitcher reacts to them, you've got to see how hitters react to the pitcher."
In turn, the catcher learns how to react to the pitcher. The best pairs are so in tune they could moonlight as soothsayers. Catcher Tony Peña developed such a bond with Roger Clemens, he never flashed hand signals. Charlie O'Brien, he of the lifetime .221 average, stayed employed for 15 years because pitchers loved him.
"Our guys throw their pitches with conviction because they know Jason has done his preparation," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He's not going to put his finger down for no reason."
Remember, Varitek has built this reputation in only seven full seasons. He's good for about 20 home runs and 75 RBIs a season, and he strikes out twice as much as he walks. By numbers alone, he is not a $10 million-a-season player.
More than any position, though, catcher requires a disciplinarian and a nurturer, a therapist and an enforcer. He is the good cop and bad cop in one. All the while, he must decipher the umpire's strike zone, remember the count, keep an eye on baserunners and ensure the pitcher doesn't follow any patterns.
Oh, and then he actually needs to catch Beckett's 97-mph fastball.
"He makes you comfortable with what he's putting down," Beckett said. "There's an ease there.
"I've been through so many catchers, it's kind of getting old."
Four seasons and five catchers lead to one uncertain pitcher.
Which is why Varitek's first job is to put Beckett at ease. He might have the best stuff in the American League next to Johan Santana and Roy Halladay. His right shoulder, always a cause for concern, hasn't acted up. No blisters on his fingers, either – a constant cause of concern as they've sent him to the disabled list six times.
The situation is ripe for Beckett to succeed, to start 30 games and pitch 200 innings for the first time in his career. With a good season, the Red Sox will try to lock him up long-term, probably for more than the $11 million per season of his old friend, A.J. Burnett.
"It's all about trust," Varitek said.
In himself first.
And in his catcher foremost.