FORT MYERS, Fla. — He was a catcher, now he is a first baseman. He had a three-year, $39 million contract, now he has a one-year, $5 million contract. He was a 31-year-old athlete with more fortune and glory ahead of him. Now he hopes to be able to walk when he is 50.
Say hello to Red Sox free agent acquisition Mike Napoli.
Two months ago, after Napoli agreed to a whopper contract with the Red Sox, he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hips. It’s the disease that ended the football/baseball career of Bo Jackson. It’s a lack of blood flow that can result in bone death. It could mean a couple of hip replacements for Napoli someday. Or worse.
This is not a good situation. For anybody. The Sox are looking for lineup protection for David Ortiz. They were willing to commit almost $40 million to Napoli. Now everything has changed. Napoli is damaged goods. And, like any normal human being, he is thinking about how this will affect him long after his playing days are over.
Looking like the world’s oldest 31-year-old man, Napoli sat in front of his locker at JetBlue Park Saturday morning and said, “I have to look at my life. I want to be able to walk when I am older and be able to play with my kids.’’
Wow. This can’t be what Ben Cherington had in mind when he sought Napoli in the free agent market after Boston’s disastrous 2012 season.
After striking their original deal, the Sox and Napoli haggled for 51 days. An introductory press conference was canceled, and there was rampant speculation about Napoli’s status. He eventually came to Boston. At a much lower price.
“I had to figure out what I could do and what was the best way to treat this thing,’’ Napoli said. “That’s what took so long to figure this out.
“My agent researched this and got me the best doctors possible. He got me different opinions, first with my life and me going forward. Once we figured out that we could treat this and still be able to play, we proceeded and talked with teams and went from there.’’
Napoli has consulted with Dr. Joseph Lane at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. On Saturday, Napoli learned that results of an MRI showed that his condition has not worsened since December. He is now allowed to take ground balls . . . from his knees.
“The doctors were telling me it’s going to get better with the medicine I’m taking, but to actually get the MRI, it’s good news,’’ said the former Texas Ranger. “Nothing got worse. It stayed the same.
“I’m excited and it’s a fun time. It’s tough. You want to be doing what everyone else is doing. But it’s a process. I’m not going to be out there running the bases and stuff like that. I’ll be ready for Opening Day, but we have to take it slow.’’
He has been a catcher for most of his career. No more.
“I loved catching,’’ said Napoli. “I loved being behind the plate and I loved the grind of the game and working with pitchers. It was something I’ve always done, so it’s kind of tough.
“But not catching is definitely a lot easier on your body. I’m definitely going to miss it, but this is going to be a new chapter.’’
What about losing all that money? Five million is not shabby. But $39 million would have taken care of several future generations of Napolis.
“That’s definitely tough,” he said. “You ask anybody about that, it should be tough. But I try to take positives out of everything. Hopefully I get to play four or five more years and end up making it back in the long run.
“But I’m just going to take this year one day at a time and stay healthy and everything should work out.’’
He has played only 133 big league games at first base.
“I don’t have too many concerns,’’ he said. “I feel comfortable over there. I’ll get better and better.
“When I was catching, I used to go out there and take ground balls every once in a while. I’m not really worried about it. I’ve played infield before.’’
At this point, the Sox will be happy just to have his bat in the lineup. Napoli hit 24 homers and knocked in 56 runs with the Rangers last year. He also batted only .227 and fanned 125 times in 352 at-bats. He has been a wrecking ball at Fenway through the years (15 homers, 33 RBIs in 38 games).
Is he haunted by the ghost of Bo Jackson?
“It’s what he has,’’ said Napoli. “But that was 20 years ago. Medicine has changed. Plus, Bo was a freak.
“It’s definitely tough thinking about it, but I’m not at the point where he was.’’
You shake his hand and wish him well. But you worry. The Red Sox’ big free agent acquisition of the offseason just told you he hopes to be able to walk when he is older.
Scary stuff, indeed.