FORT MYERS, Fla. — When Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington started the process of rebuilding the team after the embarrassing 2012 season, catcher David Ross was the first free agent he called.
The Red Sox moved quickly to sign Ross to a two-year contract and said they planned to play him extensively, far more than the typical backup. They saw Ross starting 50-60 games and being an important contributor in 2013.
Instead, a series of concussions put Ross on the 60-day disabled list and limited him to 36 games, the fewest of his career. Ross had only 116 plate appearances and hit .216.
“If it wasn’t for the postseason, it would have been a bad season for me,” Ross said. “Terrible, actually.”
Ross started seven games in the postseason, including the final three of the World Series. The Sox were 6-1 in the games he started and Ross had several important hits.
Now, as they prepare for the 2014 season, the Red Sox are eager for Ross to play the role they envisioned for him last season. New catcher A.J. Pierzynski was told before he signed that Ross was going to get significant playing time.
“We walked through the scenario that we saw unfolding. He was understanding of it,” manager John Farrell said before the Red Sox beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-1, Friday.
Ross caught five innings, guiding starter Felix Doubront to a strong performance.
“Ross, he’s the best,” Doubront said. “If you ask any of the pitchers, they’ll tell you we’re glad he’s here. I trust what he says.”
Ross is able to distill the data in an advance scouting report and pass it on to the pitchers effectively, a skill that made former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek so valuable.
Farrell sees it as no coincidence that Red Sox pitchers allowed only four runs in the final three games of the World Series with Ross behind the plate.
“He’s immensely valuable to what we’re trying to do,” Farrell said.
When Farrell benched Jarrod Saltalamacchia in favor of Ross during that critical juncture of the Series, Ross had mixed emotions.
“It was an awkward moment because Salty’s my friend, and when you have a guy like that, I try and put myself in his shoes,” Ross said. “Salty grinded out the season and took care of this team. He was a leader. He went through the season and worked with the pitchers through the ups and downs. He led them to 97 wins.
“John put me in that situation and showed a lot of confidence in me. But I felt bad for Salty. I know there are no egos at that point and it’s about winning. We won a world championship and he was happy. But it was a tough situation.”
For Ross, the postseason allowed him to banish the disappointment of the regular season.
He was on the disabled list from June 18 to Aug. 18 with concussions symptoms so troubling that doctors told him to return to his family’s home in Florida rather than be subjected to the bright lights and loud music of the ballpark.
“I thought my career might be over there for a while,” Ross said. “There were a couple of weeks things weren’t getting better.”
Ross was initially angry that the team placed him on the 60-day DL. But it proved to be fortunate for him.
“It made me stop rushing and stop hurrying and just take my time,” he said. “I had to recover. It stunk to be home for two months because I had never been home during the summer; I’ve always played. But it had to happen.”
Ross has not had any symptoms since and consults regularly with Dr. Michael Collins, the head trauma expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who treated him. The two exchanged text messages late last month.
“I’m trying to be outspoken about what happened to me with other players so they know not to take the risks,” Ross said. “If I have a question, I get with Dr. Collins.”
After Ross came off the disabled list in August, he slowly worked his way into a bigger role.
“The postseason was like a season for me, the ups and downs and grinds of playing,” Ross said. “It was a second season for me. I got to accomplish something. For me, as a backup, that I played and had a significant role, I felt like I had a good year.”
Pierzynski has averaged 121 starts behind the plate over the last 12 seasons, making him one of the most durable catchers in the game. But that could get cut down this season.
Ross is a righthanded hitter and Pierzynski a lefthanded hitter, but Farrell will not necessarily platoon them.
“It’s got to be a two-way street,” said Ross. “It’s going to play itself out. If I’m doing well, I’m probably going to play a little bit more and the same for A.J.
“I’m the backup but I take pride in giving the starter rest so he can be strong for the final push.”
Ross will be a free agent after the season. He wants to play at least one more season, then consider a career in the game as a coach or manager.
Atlanta, because it is home, is a possible landing spot. But Ross also could see himself staying with the Red Sox in some capacity.
“They treat you like human beings here, not employees,” he said. “I love this organization. But that’s for later. My goal now is to be healthy and be the kind of catcher they wanted when they signed me. I’m ready to go.”Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.