12:25 AM CST, March 10, 2012
There are all sorts of difference-makers in baseball. Theo Epstein touched on them when he was announced as the Cubs' top man in October.
At his first news conference, Epstein said that if the Cubs turn a corner and become the team they hope to be, it will be because of players who do extra work, coaches who hit extra grounders and scouts who drive extra miles.
He could have said it will be because they have cloned Gary Tuck.
If that name strikes a chord, it may be because you heard Jason Varitek's recent retirement speech. He got emotional talking about Tuck, who would seem to be reasonably low on the food chain as the Red Sox's bullpen coach. Jorge Posada, the Yankee fixture who retired in January, also gave Tuck a mention in his farewell, saying he had helped make him improve at the start of his career.
"If Webster needs a definition of coach, it has to be Gary Tuck," Varitek said. "He has meant more to me at an age I was told my skills were depleted. But he pushed me, got me better, stood by my side, believed in me when no one else did. I forever will have a friend in Coach Tuck."
Tuck is what a good coach should be — a human performance enhancer. He was one of the best things manager Bobby Valentine inherited when he took over the Red Sox.
Earlier this spring, the general manager of an American League club threw Tuck into a conversation when we were talking about Victor Martinez. He had not seemed like the same catcher with the Red Sox that he was with the Indians, just as Jarrod Saltalamacchia suddenly seems like an acceptable receiver now that he has been traded from the Rangers to the Red Sox.
"That's Gary Tuck,'' said the GM.
Tuck, 57, is in his 33rd year as a catching instructor. An Indiana University graduate, he played in the Expos system before working as a coach at Notre Dame and Arizona State, then in the minor league system for the Yankees. He has worked as a big league coach with the Yankees, Marlins and Red Sox, and Brian Cashman rues the day that Joe Girardi took him away from him.
Epstein pounced on the chance to hire Tuck when he was looking for a job after the 2006 season. He had been Girardi's bench coach with the Marlins and probably still would be with him but needed a landing spot when Girardi went a year without a job after getting crossways with owner Jeffrey Loria.
"Coaches are often overlooked but can make an enormous impact on players and on the team overall,'' Epstein said. "Tuck is the most respected catching guy in the game for good reason. He has an outstanding daily catching program — both in spring training and during the season — and he knows how to push the right buttons to get players working hard and striving to improve. He gets results with young players and veterans alike in a very important aspect of the game. That's invaluable for an organization.''
Trouble handling pitchers, and at one low point even throwing the ball back to the mound, caused the Rangers to sour on Saltalamacchia, who once had been a top catching prospect for the Braves. He was intrigued when the Rangers traded him to the Red Sox at the deadline in 2010, as he had heard about Tuck's prowess as an instructor.
Still a work in progress, not a Gold Glove catcher, Saltalamacchia says there's "a night and day difference'' in his defensive skills after working on his fundamentals with Tuck. They got together for offseason workouts in West Palm Beach, Fla., as soon as Saltalamacchia had recovered from the injury that kept the Rangers from even considering him for their playoff roster in 2010.
"I broke my thumb catching a 78 mph curveball,'' Saltalamacchia said, rolling his eyes.
His mechanics were wrong when he reached for that pitch from side-arming lefty Clay Rapada, but after intense workouts with Tuck he's not likely to make such a basic mistake.
"A lot of it is footwork, but I was turning my glove the wrong way to catch the ball too,'' Saltalamacchia said. "With Gary, it's one drill after another drill after another drill, day after day after day. Repetition. A lot of repetition.''
As the Red Sox work to exorcise the demons of their 7-20 September collapse, they are likely to give Saltalamacchia even a bigger role, as Varitek is gone. Kelly Shoppach was signed to share the 2012 workload but the Red Sox's long-term replacement for Varitek is probably Ryan Lavarnway, a Yale product with serious power.
Some believe that Lavarnway, like new Mariners catcher Jesus Montero, is a strong hitter who has too many defensive flaws to catch regularly in the big leagues. He doesn't believe that's so and neither does Ben Cherington, who has replaced Epstein as GM. The Red Sox have Tuck on the case, and have seen for years the impact he can have.
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