FORT MYERS, Fla. — Mike Napoli danced off third base Wednesday afternoon, looking back toward the outfield. He then retreated to the bag and tagged up before putting his head down and running to the plate.
But there were no teams on the field, and JetBlue Park was empty outside of a small tour group walking through the stands. Napoli was just pretending he scored a run as part of a drill to test his readiness to finally play in a game for the Red Sox.
Napoli passed, and he will start at first base Friday night against the Pirates at JetBlue. After three months of being told what he couldn’t do, Napoli gets to play baseball again.
“This has been a strange time,” he said.
Napoli agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Sox in early December, only to learn a few days later that an issue with his hips had been detected during his physical. Napoli was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative disease that restricts the flow of blood to bones.
The Red Sox, fearful of Napoli breaking down physically, renegotiated his deal down to one year and $5 million guaranteed. Napoli can earn an additional $8 million if he stays healthy.
In the interim, Napoli was advised not to run. Once he reported to spring training, he was restricted to taking batting practice and fielding grounders. As his new teammates ran the bases, Napoli ran on an underwater treadmill that lessened the impact on his hips.
“First time I’ve done that,” Napoli said.
The state-of-the-art device has cameras so that a player can monitor his form. Napoli also has special shoes he wears for the workouts. He runs sprints on some days and longer 15-minute jogs on others.
“At first it’s a little weird, but you get used to it,” Napoli said.
Meanwhile, Napoli has yet to feel any pain in his hips, despite his diagnosis. Medication appears to have controlled the issue for now.
“It was just my muscles in my legs, getting them in shape,” said Napoli. “I’ve never once thought about my hips in anything I’ve done because I’ve never felt anything.
“For me to worry about my hips, it doesn’t bother me. I’m just worried about getting my quads and hamstrings and everything in shape because I haven’t run in two months.
“I would run a lot in the offseason to get ready. But I feel good to go. I worked out hard to get my legs in shape.”
Napoli has done two days of base-running drills. But he has yet to slide. That will be another milestone.
“We talked about it,” Napoli said. “I’ve gone into every spring without sliding in the offseason. As soon as there is a double play or something, you just do it. I’m not saying I’m the most graceful slider in the world, but I’m sure I’ll remember.
“Play the game, that’s the best way to go at it. That’s the way I’ve always done it. I’ll just play the game and let things happen. When you start worrying about things — I can’t slide or I shouldn’t slide — that’s when you get in-between and you hurt yourself.”
Manager John Farrell wants Napoli to be careful.
“The one thing that we’re still being a little cautious with is the sliding,” said Farrell. “We’re not in a position to say, ‘Don’t slide,’ but if he does, just give himself ample time to stop before jarring himself on the bag.”
As Napoli adjusts to a new physical reality, he also is changing positions. After seven seasons as a catcher, Napoli will play first base for the Red Sox. He has started 118 games at first base in his career but never focused on the intricacies of the position.
“I never really knew what the right position was and how I should go at it,” he said. “I would just try to be athletic over there and make a play.”
New Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield, one of the game’s best infield instructors, has been working with Napoli for several weeks. The process started with Butterfield rolling ground balls to Napoli and built him from there.
“Still a long way to go with everything, and 20 years ago, I would be panicking right now,” Butterfield said. “But it’s incremental things, it’s tweaking here and there.”
Butterfield has been working mainly on Napoli’s footwork, getting him in a position to make a play on a ball and turn his body to make a throw.
“He’s such a good athlete and he’s used to playing in a low position when he’s catching,” Butterfield said. “Get yourself in a position to catch the ball first and you’ll be surprised — your feet will go into the right position more often than not.
“He’s starting to figure it out on his own, trusting his footwork. So far so good.”
Butterfield’s ultimate goal is for Napoli to become a first baseman the other infielders can trust.
“There’s an awful lot of stuff that goes into first base, because you’re responsible for the welfare of a third baseman, a shortstop, and a second baseman,” said Butterfield. “We spend a lot of time on footwork around the base, taking throws and being able to move easily, because those guys depend on him.
“Because he works so hard and wants to be that good defender and he’s a good athlete, in time I think he will be very good there.”
Farrell is impressed with Napoli’s hands and agility, a product of his time as a catcher. The Red Sox believe Napoli will be able to handle the position well.
With a month left in spring training, Napoli has time on his side. For now, he will play every other day. The one thing he knows is that first base is much easier than catching.
“Oh, yeah, 100 percent,” Napoli said.Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.