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Making connections

Varitek and Johnson subplots are things everyone can relate to

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 17, 2010

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — They play the game with such ease and grace, and sometimes without emotion, and because of that, we think of them as almost invincible or robotic. But yesterday, the realization hit that even though they make millions of dollars and are playing a game for a living, they are just like us, because life gives them those precious moments you can’t put a price on — and throws those horrific, tragic times at them, too.

Anyone who has lost a parent or dealt with a serious illness remembers vividly those trips to the hospital and bedside vigils, sitting for hours hoping for a miracle. Jason Varitek has been going through this for a couple of weeks.

He missed a week to be with his ailing father, then has tried to catch a moment here or there at his bedside while also performing his duties at Red Sox camp.

The Westmoreland family was anxiously awaiting the results of the brain surgery that outfielder Ryan Westmoreland had at an Arizona hospital yesterday. The hope is that he will be able to resume what was starting out to be a stellar professional career.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was the euphoria experienced by the Johnson family. Astros prospect Chris Johnson was the starting third baseman against the Red Sox yesterday, while his father, Ron Johnson, coached third base for Boston, no more than a few feet from his son on the same field.

In the eighth inning, Koby Clemens entered the game to play first base. Usually, his father, Roger, is somewhere in the stands, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Varitek hasn’t divulged the nature of his father’s illness, but it’s considered quite serious. For the Sox captain, it has been a whirlwind of a spring camp, an emotional one for many reasons. Getting on the field for the second time yesterday, Varitek went 1 for 2 with a double and threw out a runner in a 3-0 loss.

Varitek visited his father before the game, played six innings, then dressed hurriedly and spoke to reporters quickly so he could go back to the hospital for a while longer before he had to return to Fort Myers. On the baseball field, Varitek seemed to find a diversion.

“I think he would want me to [block it out],’’ Varitek said. “I still hope he’s able to get better.’’

Johnson has been a baseball lifer, which means being away from your family. He probably missed most of Chris’s Little League and high school games. But yesterday he watched him as a major leaguer.

“I’ve been around the game for a long time,’’ said Johnson, “and I’ve seen everything and been around a lot of players, but I almost can’t explain it. It was a strange feeling.

“There were just a lot of things that kept sinking in during the course of the game. I know he’s been doing well, but I’m a developer and an evaluator for the last 20 years, and all of a sudden now I see my son on the major league field.

“I know he came up last year in September, but to see him with my own eyes . . . and I’m in the third base coach’s box . . . and there’s Terry Francona and Brad Mills and Roy Oswalt, Jason Varitek, and Jon Lester is on the mound . . .

“Obviously you’re looking at a guy on the other team who you have emotional ties to, and you realize that he moves around and he looks like he can play here. It was exciting. It was really very exciting.’’

Chris Johnson was likely earmarked for Triple A Round Rock after the Astros signed Pedro Feliz in the offseason, but there’s a chance Lance Berkman may not be able to start the season because of a knee injury, which could open a roster spot for Johnson.

The father and son brought out the lineup cards before the game, and there was good-natured banter between the two during the game.

“It was exciting,’’ the younger Johnson said. “I think this was the second time he’s seen me play past high school, so I’m sure it’s exciting for him as well.’’

Johnson spoke of the reality growing up that his father wasn’t around much.

“I’m not sure I understood it at the time,’’ he said, “but as I’ve gotten older and I’m now in the game, I understand completely what my dad has gone through through the years.’’

In the Johnson household, baseball has been a huge part of family life. Ron Johnson, 54, spent three seasons in the majors, 1982-84, with the Royals and Expos before embarking on a minor league coaching and managing career. He has been in the Boston organization for 11 years and was Pawtucket’s manager from 2005 until last year. He was named the team’s first base coach in the offseason, ending a long, long wait to get back to the bigs.

In Varitek’s current situation, he said the support he’s received from the organization has made it easier to handle.

“Everyone in the whole organization has been so supportive,’’ he said. “It’s been tough, but right now I just don’t think my mom wants everybody to know what’s going on with my dad.

“It was actually good to get in there and start and stop for six innings. I haven’t been able to get in there gradually like I have in the past, so I’ve just jumped right in.

“I’m pleased with the way Jon threw the ball. He made some good pitches on both sides of the plate. Even Jon, who is someone I’ve seen a lot, I haven’t been able to see him much this camp.’’

When he mentioned Lester, you remember, yeah, the kid who beat cancer.

Varitek, who looks as if he’s in great shape, said, “Physically, I’m ready. Catching-wise, I have to get my catching joints in the right place. You can do all the drills you want, but it’s a different monster once you get out there. That always takes time anyway.

“Your arm goes through game periods and then you level off. Everybody goes through spring training periods like that. Physically you take your BPs and do your work in the weight room and all that.’’

The two-out double he hit in the first came off Oswalt, on a changeup that he met perfectly. That’s something we’ll never experience. But we could relate when he packed up his stuff and said as he searched for his car keys for the drive to the hospital, “I’ll bet you the traffic is going to be pretty bad.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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