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02/20/11 3:10 PM EST

Now a backup, Varitek aims to play into his 40s

Red Sox captain in great shape, happy to serve as mentor, coach

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jason Varitek passed the stair test better than ever this winter, and perhaps that was the clearest indication yet of how much his new role -- backup catcher -- agrees with him.

"I kind of always had a barometer," said Varitek. "When I could walk down stairs straight, I knew I was ready to start training. So if I had to go down the steps sideways, I knew I had to wait a little longer. It would take anywhere from a month to six weeks. This year, it was [less] because there was less of a workload on me. After a couple of weeks, I was ready to go."

Few established players have made the transition from cornerstone to backup as smoothly as Varitek. But perhaps there's an underlying reason he has taken to it so well.

Though the transition means he's on the field less frequently during the course of a season, it could also prolong the length of his career by several seasons.

"He took to it about as well as you could," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He was on pace offensively to have his best year in a long time. He was as productive as you wanted him to be. The broken bone derailed his season. I know it's hard to imagine, but it looks like he's in better shape now than he was. I don't know how he does it, but he's in great shape, but I think he's going to excel in that role."

Entering his 14th full season with the Red Sox, Varitek will turn 39 on April 11. That age for a catcher usually means an imminent expiration date.

But things are just different with Varitek. He works out feverishly in the winter -- always has.

As Francona said a few days ago, Varitek can "embarrass" younger players by the way he bounds from station to station and handles drill after drill during the early days of camp.

Why does Varitek still have the same enthusiasm for the game at 38 that he did at 28?

"Why not?" Varitek said. "You can only play this game for so long, and as long as your body holds out and you can be productive and do things, I love playing."

So he will keep playing and playing and playing until his body gives him some reason not to.

Already, Varitek has caught 1,421 games -- the most games in Red Sox history. Carlton Fisk was 44 when he caught his final Major League game. Bob Boone was 42.

Varitek would love to join them as high-profile catchers who kept chugging along into their 40s.

"Once you're done playing, you're done," Varitek said. "There's no making a comeback if we stop playing this game at a point. If my body holds up and I'm able to do the things I feel I can still do, I'll play as long as I can. If I start compromising my livelihood or my kids, later in life, I've got to start questioning things. If I'm not putting myself in a competitive spot to help a team win, I've got to question things again. But, yes, that's what I envision."

There are few things Varitek enjoys more than picking the brain of Fisk, a Hall of Famer, not to mention a Red Sox icon.

"I love talking to Pudge whenever he comes [to Boston]," said Varitek. "I could sit and talk to him all day long. I wish he was around more often. I've spent time talking to Steve Odgers, who used to work with Pudge. Now, for me, personally, the work I've done 10-15 years ago, this is when it's starting to show and pay off and do things -- maybe not as much then. But it's put my body in a position to handle things. I think if I hadn't done that work, it would be a lot different."

While still fulfilling his role of team captain, Varitek is more of a hybrid than ever. He is a mentor to starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a coach to whichever player might need it at the time. But playing -- even if he doesn't do it as much -- is still something Varitek takes very seriously.

Could he manage some day?

"I'm worried enough about playing right now. We'll talk about that later," Varitek said.

With emotions flowing at Fenway during Game No. 162 of last season, it seemed that Varitek's time in Boston might have been coming to an end. Victor Martinez was also headed to free agency, but if the Sox had kept him, Varitek likely was headed elsewhere.

"I think that it was very uncertain," said Varitek. "About as uncertain as it could be. My kids were upset for a good two hours after I got done with icing and talking to the media and doing those things after the game, and I realized that they grew up here. It wasn't just me that grew up here. It presented me with an emotional time, but at that point, it was out of my control. I did things well enough and got better in enough areas where I knew there was a good chance I could help a team. Hopefully it was going to be here, and it turned out to be that way."

And if Varitek continues to have his way, he will keep resurfacing with the Red Sox for a few more seasons.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.