LAKELAND, Fla. -- Those who don't follow the Braves likely didn't understood why there was a strong reaction to David Ross' decision to sign with the Red Sox in November. Seldom has a backup catcher become as beloved as Ross was during his four years in Atlanta.
Ross established himself as a clubhouse favorite who proved productive with his glove and bat when inserted in the lineup. In other words, he possessed many of the qualities the Tigers came to love about Gerald Laird, who is now Atlanta's new backup catcher.
"He was really great for us last year," Tigers starting catcher Alex Avila said. "He's a big reason why we were able to get to the playoffs. When I went down with injuries, he stepped in and did a really good job."
As Avila battled multiple injuries last year, Laird proved productive and helped the Tigers produce the late-season surge that carried to the playoffs and into the World Series. The Braves are looking forward to receiving similar contributions, as Laird will serve as their starting catcher until Brian McCann makes his expected return from right shoulder surgery at some point in April.
"I know I'm a backup, but I think the asset I bring is that I can play every day, too, like last year when Alex went down," Laird said. "I can play as a starter for a while and be productive. I know my role now, and that's just to play when the guys need a day off. I just want to make sure I'm prepared when the guys get a day off to give the team a chance to win. I take pride in that."
Laird can also take pride in the fact that he has participated in the past two World Series. After serving as a backup to Yadier Molina with the 2011 champion Cardinals, Laird entered the free-agent market and returned to Detroit, where he had played during the '09 and '10 seasons.
While serving as Detroit's starter in 2009, Laird led American League catchers with a 41.6 caught stealing percentage. He returned the next year to share the position and serve as a mentor to Avila, who did not begin catching until 2008, his final year at the University of Alabama.
"I had only caught for a year or year and a half, and then I had to catch in the big leagues," Avila said. "It was a tough transition, but he definitely helped me along with it. He harped on the fundamentals and taught me not only the importance of good footwork, but how to handle a pitching staff."
With the strong possibility that McCann could exit Atlanta as a free agent at the end of this season, Laird could find himself as an everyday player again next year. But the 33-year-old catcher is also prepared to serve as a backup who could mentor highly-regarded prospect Christian Bethancourt, who could be Atlanta's starting catcher in 2014 if he shows some improvement at the plate.
"You never know what can happen next year," Laird said. "If they sign [McCann] back, then I'll be happy to have him back, because we'll be just as good of a team and I'll be his backup. But if not, maybe I can help one of the young guys come up through the system when they step in. It was a good fit with a team that seems to be on the verge of doing some great things. I want to win 100 games. I don't want to lose 100 games and play a lot."
After combining to hit .214 with a .591 OPS from 2010-11, Laird batted .282 with a .710 OPS in 63 games with the Tigers last year. More importantly, his most productive stretches came while Avila was sidelined.
When Avila was on the disabled list with a hamstring strain in June, Laird batted .306 and helped the Tigers go 8-5 in the absence of their All-Star catcher.
When Avila suffered a concussion on Sept. 16, the Tigers were two games behind the White Sox in the AL Central race. With Avila limited down the stretch, Laird batted .367 in nine games and helped his club produce the late-season surge needed to gain a playoff entry.
The Tigers won three of the six games Laird started in the postseason, including the fourth game of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.
"It was exciting," Laird said. "The year before, I didn't play very much because of [Yadier Molina]. Obviously he's the best in the game. To have a team like we did last year where I played half the games in September and half the games in the playoffs, it's just something you always dream about."
During the first few weeks of Spring Training, Laird has quickly gained comfort with his new environment and teammates. In the process, he has shown why his former teammates regarded him as the same kind of strong clubhouse presence that Ross was with the Braves.
When Freddie Freeman's shower shoes ended up in Laird's locker earlier this week, the veteran catcher attempted to teach the young first baseman some organizational skills by emptying all of the clothes and gloves in Freeman's locker in a nearby trash can.
"He's definitely a vocal guy and a Type A personality," Avila said. "He knows what he's talking about. He's a fun guy to be around. There's never a dull moment with him."