Marlon Byrd was with the Texas Rangers in 2007 when they dealt Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves for a package of prospects that included Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Saltalamacchia, then 22, joined the Rangers right away and drove in two runs in his first game.
“What wasn’t to like? That was my first impression,’’ Byrd said. “Big catcher, a switch-hitter, good arm. He had everything you wanted.
“He was there because he belonged there. Salty looked like a special player, somebody who was going to be an All-Star.’’
It never happened. Saltalamacchia was a disappointment to the Rangers, his promising career sidetracked by injuries and inconsistency. For his part, Saltalamacchia felt misled and the relationship between player and team grew toxic.
Byrd and Saltalamacchia were teammates for parts of three seasons. They joined up again in April when the Red Sox traded for Byrd.
Now, nearly five years later, Byrd knew he was right all along.
Saltalamacchia has become a key figure in the revival of the Red Sox, a presence behind the plate and in the middle of the lineup. After a slow start, the Sox have won 24 of their last 40 games with Saltalamacchia hitting .284 with nine homers and 23 RBIs in that stretch.
“I’m glad I’ve got him,’’ manager Bobby Valentine said. “Look around the league and there aren’t too many better than he is.’’
Among American League catchers with at least 125 plate appearances, Saltalamacchia has the highest OPS (.867), the most home runs (10), and the second most doubles (10).
He’s in the top five in batting average (.265) and RBIs (25).
Saltalamacchia has established himself with a pitching staff full of strong personalities, ranging from ornery Texan Josh Beckett to wild cards such as Alfredo Aceves.
On a team with a constantly changing roster, a new manager, and a new general manager, Saltalamacchia is one of the cornerstones.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, I learned that,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “But it has finally started to happen. I remember when Atlanta drafted me, I thought I would be there forever and build a house. But this is where I’m supposed to be.’’
Until this season, Saltalamacchia was most noted for having the longest name in baseball history. Now he could become the 10th Red Sox catcher to become an All-Star, joining such notable players as Birdie Tebbetts, Carlton Fisk, Rich Gedman, Victor Martinez, and his mentor, Jason Varitek.
Varitek, who retired in March, still speaks with Saltalamacchia once or twice a week, although a little less lately since the birth of Varitek’s fourth daughter.
Their conversations were frequent early in the season when the team was struggling.
The rotation included two new starters, Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront. The bullpen was loaded with veterans trying to settle into roles after the loss of closer Andrew Bailey to thumb surgery a day before the season started. Saltalamacchia faced a new challenge every day.
The second day of the season was the most painful. Beckett, who worked so well with Varitek over the years, allowed five home runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Tigers with Saltalamacchia behind the plate.
Kelly Shoppach, the backup, caught Beckett’s next five starts.
“It was tough. Whenever Shoppach caught him I thought it was because Josh wanted him or didn’t want me,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “That was one of the things I did talk to Tek about. I didn’t know what else to do. Eventually I knew I had to catch him.
“He told me, ‘I know Josh, I’ve known him a long time and he’s one of my close friends. This has nothing to do with you. He doesn’t care who is behind the plate. He does his thing.’ ’’
Beckett said he didn’t request Shoppach. But when he clicked with the veteran, it made sense to stick with it.
“I’ve never asked a manager to have anybody catch me,’’ Beckett said. “But they’re not stupid. They see what works.’’
When Beckett got roughed up by the Indians May 10, giving up seven runs over 2 1/3 innings, Saltalamacchia caught his next start and Beckett went seven shutout innings against the Mariners. A dominant start against the Phillies followed. Shoppach has caught Beckett one time since.
For Saltalamacchia, those games represented much more than nine good innings and a victory.
“From the mental aspect of it, it was good for me. Josh has great stuff, there is no reason I couldn’t catch him,’’ he said. “The fact we had some good games together, that built my confidence and we’ve moved forward from that.’’
Said Beckett: “The conviction is there when he calls something. It helps you as a pitcher when somebody has that much conviction in you. He is confident now. He knows he belongs here.
“I’m fine with Salty, I think we all are. He has earned that.’’
Varitek’s retirement robbed Saltalamacchia of daily contact with a player he has long tried to emulate and ultimately became close to. But it also created space for him to blossom as a leader.
“Obviously a lot of people leaned on him, me especially. Now we don’t have that pacifier to grab. It’s a good thing in a way because we’re getting to know each other a lot more. They can see what I can do and we’re all trusting each other a lot more,’’ Saltalamacchia said.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t call one good game and expect them to trust you every time. It’s still their game, but they’re starting to see I know what I’m talking about.’’
Valentine came to spring training with an open mind, determined not to let Saltalamacchia’s history influence his decisions. After the tumult in Texas, Saltalamacchia was traded to the Red Sox in 2010. He became an everyday player in 2011 but hit .235, a late-season slump coinciding with the collapse of the team.
“His past was so tainted that I didn’t even want to get into it. I didn’t want to hear the negative stories,’’ Valentine said. “There were some impressions of him that I inherited, but I’m a Salty guy. He’s not only earned my trust but he’s earned the trust of the pitching staff and his teammates. He’s taken a leadership role on this team.’’
According to Saltalamacchia, he and Valentine don’t talk more often than he does with any of the other players. As a catcher, Saltalamacchia works more closely with pitching coach Bob McClure. But he feels the faith of his manager every time he walks in the clubhouse and looks at the lineup card.
“I’ve caught day games after night games, a bunch of games in a row and everything in between,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “That’s what I want. I want the manager to feel like he wants me in there.’’
Byrd smiled when asked what he sees in Saltalamacchia now.
“He’s the best catcher in our division. He’s one of the best catchers in the league,’’ Byrd said. “He’s always had it, it just took a little while for him to get there. But he’s there and the Red Sox are better for it.’’