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Last call for catcher: Flaherty opts to retire

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Early yesterday morning, well before his teammates arrived, catcher John Flaherty pulled manager Terry Francona off an exercise bike to deliver a message: ''I think I'm going to call it quits."

Flaherty, 38, who entered camp as the favorite to catch Tim Wakefield, struggled Sunday to catch the knuckleballer. Two called strikes hit him in the mitt and popped out. Another dipped under him for a passed ball.

''I don't think that had anything to do with it," Wakefield said. ''He's probably needed at home more than he wanted to play."

Flaherty's sudden retirement, after 14 years in the majors, cuts the competition to catch Wakefield down to 27-year-old Josh Bard, who backed up Victor Martinez in Cleveland last season, and 35-year-old nonroster invitee Ken Huckaby. Huckaby, who has played only 153 major league games in 15 pro seasons, assumed that Flaherty's heart simply wasn't in it any longer.

''For him, he's played so long [in the majors]," Huckaby said. ''For me, I'm a journeyman, I'll take what I can get."

Huckaby, though, hasn't been available to catch. Prior to the Sox' spring opener last Thursday, he tweaked his left knee, which he had surgery on this winter. He remains day to day, though Francona sounds reluctant to put him behind the plate just yet. With Jason Varitek off playing for Team USA, that leaves only Bard to catch. The plan, for now, is to use Bard every other day while rotating in minor league catchers. General manager Theo Epstein figures to be on the lookout for catching help.

Flaherty, who made his major league debut in 1992 catching Matt Young's bizarre no-hit loss, was Randy Johnson's personal catcher last year with the Yankees but hit just .165.

''I think he had mixed emotions all spring," Francona said. ''He didn't want to shortchange anybody."

Curt Schilling's reaction?

''Disappointed. You feel bad. Hopefully, it's something he's at peace with. Classy guy. It's a tough situation. To catch Wake, that's a whole new set of challenges."

Right off the bat
David Ortiz, before departing for the World Baseball Classic, wondered whether his timing at the plate would be OK. Manny Ramírez, in bowing out of the WBC, cited a fear of embarrassing himself. Right.

Yesterday, Ortiz sent a Johan Santana fastball over the wall against the Venezuelan team in Kissimmee, Fla., and later turned around a Carlos Hernandez offering for a ninth-inning homer in an 11-5 win.

''What's more ridiculous," Schilling said, ''that or Manny?"

Ramírez, in his spring debut, lined the first pitch he saw to right for a single. He later added another single and a sacrifice fly, driving in three runs.

''Hasn't seen a pitch in what, six months?" Schilling said. ''Single to right. Yawning."

Jonathan Papelbon, who started and allowed two runs on four hits over three innings, said of Ramírez, ''The whole dugout just started laughing. It's just a freak show, I guess. He's a freak. It's amazing to see that kind of talent."

Ramírez won't play at Jupiter today (Marlins) or at Vero Beach tomorrow (Dodgers) but should start in left field Friday.

The Sox beat the Orioles, 10-6, and Coco Crisp went 3 for 3.

Clement pleased
Matt Clement opposed Schilling in a minor league game yesterday. Clement, in three innings, fanned five (all on sliders), walked one, and allowed two hits and two runs (one earned), after which he offered a few particularly interesting insights.

Last spring he worked so much to establish a cut fastball that he didn't commit enough time to his bread-and-butter slider. That, ''probably, at times," led him to underutilize his slider during the season.

''I didn't command it like I had in the past," he said. ''I think it's important this year that I get to that earlier in the spring rather than wait until later on."

The arthroscopic surgery he had on his left knee, a procedure he ''argued not to get," appears to have been a blessing.

''The knee wasn't something I thought bothered me a lot," he said. ''It took me a while to decide on the surgery. I was pretty much 50/50. As an athlete, you're proud that you've never had surgery.

However, post-surgery, ''I really noticed a difference on my slider and my sinker. I never dreamed I would. I'm able to get stiffer on my front leg and get over it. I feel so much stronger."

In hindsight, Clement said, ''I had changed the whole way I walked and didn't even realize it."

With seven starters, a bulky contract (two years, $19.75 million remaining), and a history of second-half struggles, it wouldn't be stunning if Clement were dealt this spring. Twice before -- March 28, 2001, and March 27, 2002 -- he's been traded with only days left in spring training.

''I'm not expecting it to happen," he said. ''They haven't given me any indication it might happen."

Cowboy rides in
Kevin Millar received a warm ovation as an Oriole and quickly doubled down the left-field line. Millar, by all indications, has quickly befriended Miguel Tejada. ''Miggy's awesome," Millar said. ''He's got a lot of energy. I think we're very similar personality-wise. He speaks Spanish, I speak English. So it's going to be a really nice combo." Francona said Millar embraced playing for the Sox ''as much as anyone I've ever seen. I mean, he called me last week and said, 'Tell me the joke is over.' Yeah, he loved it." Said Millar, ''I'll miss it a ton. People joke around, 'Cut the cords, cut this.' It's still a part of your life. The three years that we spent there were still the greatest times I had in the game." The adjustment to a new park could be especially tough. No one on the Sox hit more balls off or over the Monster last year than Millar's 22 (14 off, eight over). Outside of Fenway, he homered just once and slugged .314 . . . David Murphy, the Sox' top pick in 2004, remains hitless this spring (0 for 9, 5 K's). ''Everything is so rushed for him," Francona said. ''Right now, he's fouling back good pitches to hit and he's not getting the other ones." Murphy, who hit .275 with 14 homers and 75 RBIs last season with Double A Portland, probably will be Pawtucket's starting center fielder. However, if Willie Harris begins the season in Pawtucket, that could keep Murphy in Portland.

Hand over foot
Papelbon, who took a line drive off the foot/ankle in his previous start, said, ''My ankle, it's not even a question." He did say he's dealing with blisters on his hand and foot. He called these ''nagging spring things." . . . Keith Foulke was scheduled to throw a side session yesterday. The next step, for both Foulke and David Wells, is facing hitters in batting practice. That should be followed by game debuts sometime next week.

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