Earlier this season, when Fenway Park was limited to 12 percent capacity, Christian Vázquez had an audience when he went out to the bullpen to warm up the starting pitcher.
His wife, Gabriela, would bring 18-month-old Diego out to the bleachers to watch his father get ready for work.
“That’s my whole world,” Vázquez said last week during a conversation before a game in Florida. “To look up and see them there meant everything for me.”
At 30, Vázquez has found a perfect balance in his personal and professional lives.
He has overcome injuries and setbacks to become one of the best catchers in baseball, carving out a place in the long line of respected catchers from Puerto Rico.
But when Vázquez returns home after a game, baseball vanishes from his mind when he sees Gaby and Diego.
“Sometimes, especially if he has a bad game, he’ll ask me to keep Diego up until he gets home,” Gabriela said. “They’ll play together and then he forgets he went 0 for 4.”
In what is now his 14th season in the Red Sox organization, Vázquez is checking off his goals. He has won a World Series, become an impactful everyday player, and gained the respect of his teammates as a leader.
“You can see the difference in him,” Sox manager Alex Cora said. “And the numbers are there, too.”
It starts with reliability. Vázquez has started 180 games behind the plate since the start of the 2019 season.
Only three other catchers have hit that mark, All-Stars J.T. Realmuto (194), Yasmani Grandal (186), and Yadier Molina (180).
Vázquez has produced offensively, too. His .776 OPS since 2019 ranks behind only Realmuto, Grandal, and Willson Contreras among players who are primarily catchers.
“He’s an extremely talented player,” said Red Sox coach Jason Varitek, a decorated catcher during his career. “There’s nothing on the baseball field he can’t do, and he wants to be great. He adds small pieces every year and he’s grown.
“There’s not an aspect year-to-year he hasn’t improved. He’s in a really good place.”
Vázquez made his major league debut in 2014, a 23-year-old best known for his uncommonly strong arm. But his career was derailed in spring training of 2015 when he tore an elbow ligament making a throw to second base.
Vázquez missed all of that season and returned to the majors in April of 2016. His goal to win a Gold Glove has remained unfulfilled since.
“It’s never going to be what it was,” said Vázquez, looking down at his scar. “I can still throw but I get paid for framing pitches now.”
Framing — the art of catching a borderline pitch and nudging it into the strike zone — has been aided by Vázquez setting up with his right knee on the ground this season as opposed to the traditional squat.
That also has helped him with blocking errant pitches.
“He has impeccable hands. Now he’s right up at the top in the game,” Varitek said. “[The new stance] was a choice, not a mandate. I think it’s extremely beneficial for a guy who plays every day.
“The ability to reduce the taxation on the body long-term, especially. It’s actually more efficient. He took the feedback and was receptive to it.”
Vázquez has been credited with three Defensive Runs Saved this season, the most in the American League. Only Jacob Stallings of the Pirates (5) and Will Smith of the Dodgers (4) have more.
His wife has played a role in that. When baseball was shut down by the pandemic at this time last year, the Red Sox arranged for a pitching machine to be delivered to their home in Florida. Christian put on his gear and blocked balls that Gaby fed into the machine.
“She’s tough. She got mad if I dropped one,” Vázquez said.
Gabriela has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Puerto Rico and had plans to work as a staff member in the Puerto Rican senate before she met Christian in 2015.
She was working at a Champs Sports store in Puerto Rico at the time and wasn’t particularly impressed when the store manager told her a professional baseball player wanted to ask her out.
“I said I wasn’t interested. But Christian kept calling me,” she said. “I have to say, we have a lot of fun together. I’ve supported him with baseball and traveled to see games. We’re a baseball family.”
The family includes a bulldog they named Champs.
Boston is all they have known. Christian is signed through the end of this season with the Sox holding an affordable $7 million option for 2022.
“We think we’ll be in Boston next season. But we don’t know for sure,” Gabriela said “We like Boston, even though the weather is bi-polar.”
Diego likes watching baseball on television, even though he thinks every player is his dad and blows them all kisses. He’s also a lefty hitter.
“I want him to be a shortstop,” Vázquez said. “Catching is too hard, trust me.”
In 2008, when he was drafted in the ninth round, Vázquez’s backup plan was to play for Bethune-Cookman in Florida, a historically Black university that has always recruited well in Puerto Rico.
But he signed with the Sox, determined to prove himself professionally. Vázquez played parts of six seasons in the minors before finally improving enough as a hitter to merit being called up.
His biggest ambitions have been accomplished. But there is still more to do.
“I want another World Series. Once you get a taste of that you want it again,” Vázquez said. “A Gold Glove would mean a lot to me, too. I’m a catcher from Puerto Rico, of course I want a Gold Glove.
“But I want Gaby and Diego to be happy, that’s the biggest thing. When I look up in the stands and I see them, I’m never happier than I am then.”