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He's catching on with system

Shoppach awaits job with Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alay Soler grew up in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, throwing fastballs. Kelly Shoppach came of age in Fort Worth, catching them. This winter, the two became teammates with Los Leones del Escogido, a Dominican winter league team in Santo Domingo.

Realize that Shoppach makes sense of Spanish about as well as Bostonians made sense of Jimywocky. Thus, the Texan was forced to devise alternate means of communication. He came up with hand signals and whistles, which he and Soler would use in the dugout between innings.

"Changeup whistle would be pffft-pffft, to pull the string on [a hitter]," Shoppach said. "And fastball whistle would be pffffffffft."

That's how Shoppach passed November and December, catching four or five games a week, preparing for what he envisioned would be his inaugural major league season with the Red Sox. He arrived back in the States just days before Christmas.

But Dec. 23, the Sox came to an agreement with Jason Varitek on a four-year, $40 million extension. Meanwhile, back on Nov. 29, the club had re-signed Doug Mirabelli for two seasons and $3 million.

"I'd love to have that job," Shoppach said recently. "But, like I've said, I can't be upset or mad."

Many expected this to be Shoppach's time. He was the first catcher chosen in the 2001 draft, following a junior season at Baylor in which he hit .397 and made just one error in 406 chances, landing him the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top college catcher.

He hit .271 with Single A Sarasota in 2002 and made the midseason and postseason Florida State League All-Star teams. He conquered another tier of the minor leagues by the end of 2003, having hit .282 as an Eastern League All-Star with Double A Portland. Entering 2004, Baseball America rated him the Sox' second-best prospect, behind Hanley Ramirez.

Then, in Pawtucket in 2004, he hit as many home runs (22) as he had in his two previous seasons combined, but his average plummeted to .233. Baseball America since has dropped him six spots to Boston's eighth-best untapped commodity.

The 24-year-old Shoppach sounds receptive to, and in need of, added minor league seasoning.

"I haven't had enough at-bats, which is OK," he said. "I can't force the issue. When the time is there, we'll all know it. I'll be ready. I'll know it. Everybody there will know it."

He's come to accept that opportunity deferred isn't necessarily opportunity denied. Manager Terry Francona talked with Shoppach before camp opened to relay exactly that point.

"He has a good grasp of things," Francona said.

"He'll handle it fine."

In the meantime, Shoppach seeks constant self-improvement. Hence, the winter league experience. Each team, he said, allowed only five non-natives on the roster. Shoppach had only two teammates (Donovan Osborne and Brian Myrow) who spoke English as a first language.

By the end of those two months, he'd found the experience invaluable for two prevailing reasons.

Reason No. 1: the pitching he faced.

Shoppach struck out 138 times last season in 399 at-bats, coming within 10 Ks of equaling the PawSox strikeout record for a season established by Phil Plantier in 1990. Sensing the need to speed up his bat, Shoppach headed south.

"Those guys can throw," he said. "You're going to speed up your hands down there or they're going to make you look foolish. I needed more at-bats."

Shoppach said most of the relievers in the Dominican winter league are major league closers. His team included Oakland's Octavio Dotel and Texas's Francisco Cordero.

"You face a lot of big league pitching," confirmed David Ortiz, a former Escogido player. "All of them throw hard. All of them. It's good for [young guys] because they'll be ready to play in the big leagues the following year."

Reason No. 2: the relationships Shoppach developed and the cultural gap he closed.

"I really think it helped me understand the Latin pitchers, understand where they're coming from, and how to communicate with them, which I haven't had a whole lot of experience with," he said. "When you're around them, you're a lot more open and susceptible to ideas that they might have.

"Like why they play the game like they do. Not necessarily just from a baseball standpoint but a life standpoint. What they've gone through. How hard they've worked to get here. I was trying to earn their trust."

He was a teammate of Josias Manzanillo in the Dominican and played against Juan Cedeno, Anastacio Martinez, and Hanley Ramirez, all of whom are presently in Sox camp.

"I don't know if there's a connection there now that I've played with them in their home country, but they seem to be a lot more friendly," Shoppach said. "There's a lot more communication going on now between myself and some of the pitchers."

Shoppach sacrificed to spend those two months away. He was married Jan. 15, and realizing he'd have a difficult time squeezing in a honeymoon, he had what he called a "pre-honeymoon honeymoon" during the 3 1/2-day Dominican winter league all-star break.

That aside, his wife, Jennifer, remained back home. He'd call, but sparingly.

For some time he was paying 42 cents a minute. If he needed to use his cellphone, that cost a $1.09 per minute, he said.

"Which I had to do one time, for about an hour," he said. "I paid a couple $400 phone bills when I got back here."

As soon as Shoppach was back here -- he has made Fort Myers his home -- be began working out at the Sox facilities. His intentions this year?

"To be more involved," he said. "I know what the expectations are. I've gotten over trying to do too much or trying to do something because I think they'll like it. I'm trying to do what I do to the best of my ability. They've showed a lot of faith in me. Hopefully, I've given them everything they wanted, and I'll continue to do that.

"I want to do it as a Red Sox. That means something."

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