Managers talk. Coaches talk. Baseball people talk. Especially toward the end of the season.
Last year, Red Sox third base and infield coach Brian Butterfield found himself chatting up friends around the league.
He knew the kind of first baseman he had in Mike Napoli, the work they both had done to transition Napoli from catcher to first base and to mold him into a Gold Glove-caliber player.
But he was curious what people around baseball thought.
“You end up talking with other teams,” Butterfield said. “Who did you vote for Gold Glove? Who’re you thinking of voting for?”
He thought it was strange that Napoli wasn’t on their radar.
“I think he snuck up on people,” Butterfield said. “I think they looked at him as an ex-catcher trying to play first base.
‘I’d rather have a [world championship] ring than a Gold Glove.’
“I told a couple of my friends on other teams and said, ‘Seriously this guy should have serious consideration for the Gold Glove because of everything that he does for our team.’ ”
Butterfield saw it every day, with Napoli picking throws out of the dirt, maneuvering around the bag at first, diving to make stops down the line, leaping to keep hard line drives from turning into extra-base hits down the right-field line, reacting in a blink to start double plays from first.
When a player spends 539 games of his baseball life behind the plate, it’s hard for people to see him any other way.
When the list of finalists for Gold Glove first basemen came out, Napoli was nowhere to be found.
Butterfield says the voters were missing something.
“I thought he should’ve won the Gold Glove last year,” Butterfield said.
He wasn’t alone. Around the Red Sox infield, players knew how many times Napoli’s work at first turned a possible error into an out, and they were thankful for it.
“That blew our mind, because we feel like he’s a Gold Glover,” Middlebrooks said. “Especially knowing the progress he’s made and the work that he’s put in with Butter.
“He was a catcher! He moved to first base and played really well there for us. As an infielder, I know if I get the ball in the vicinity of first base, he’s going to catch it.
“That helps us out. That way we don’t have to worry about the throw. We can worry about making a play on the ball and just getting rid of it. He’s a well-rounded player and it’s a comfort having an infielder like that over there.”
This season, Napoli’s been just as impressive.
He jammed a month’s worth of highlights into last week’s games, from jumping off the bag to grab a wide throw from Middlebrooks and spinning to make the tag on the Rays’ Evan Longoria to the crack-and-react liner he caught off the bat of the A’s Brandon Moss (he wanted badly to double up the runner at second).
“I think it’s as much natural athleticism and reaction ability,” Sox manager John Farrell said. “You’re not going to emulate those plays in a practice setting.’’
Looking back, Napoli didn’t view it as a snub (winning a World Series brightened his outlook), but he felt that in a short time he turned himself into a top-level player at his position.
“I take pride in my defense and I felt like I was good over there,” Napoli said. “But individual awards for me, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. But yeah, I felt like I was good enough to be in the talk of it. But it doesn’t break my heart. I’d rather have a ring than a Gold Glove.”
The work of becoming a first baseman started in spring training and never stopped. Endless ground balls. Endless conversations. The dynamic between Napoli and Butterfield was a perfect fit. Butterfield was a tireless and meticulous teacher. Napoli was an eager student.
“Butter’s done a hell of a job with me,” Napoli said. “I trust him with everything he says. It’s nice having a coach who cares so much about what you can do and your ability and wants to make you better. So I listen to everything he says and it’s almost fun when he hits me ground balls. He tells me when I do good. He tells me when I need to clean stuff up. So it’s fun.”
There was never a point when Napoli didn’t want to get work in.
Even late in the season, when 131 games started to wear on his body (a degenerative condition in his hips was discovered before the season), he wanted to take ground balls.
“It’s easy when you have a guy that’s as diligent as him,” Butterfield said. “He’s a guy that’s always seeking extra work. We got to a point last year, you know, he was banged up. He played hurt a lot last year but nobody ever really knew.
“We got to a point in September, I said, ‘Nap, you’re not going to take any ground balls. You’re fine. We’re not going to do any extra work. You’re not going to take any ground balls during BP. You’re fine. You’re ready.’ That bothered him because he loves to work. He works extremely hard.”
It made sense that Napoli was constantly talking to Dustin Pedroia, the resident Gold Glover directly to his right in the infield.
“Pedey helps me out a lot over there,” Napoli said. “I talked with him about positioning. I put in the work. I still do. I try to get better every day. You can’t be satisfied. That’s the way I look at it.”
In turn, it made sense to Butterfield that Napoli sees the game the same way Pedroia does.
“[Napoli’s] very intelligent,” Butterfield said. “He’s a great guy to talk baseball with because he’s so immersed in everything. He’s going to find a way to win. He doesn’t act like a big power hitter. He acts like a baseball player. Almost like a kind of middle infielder playing first base out there.”
Napoli played 131 games at first base last year, more games than he had played there in the previous seven years combined. But in one unique way, his experience as a catcher helped make Napoli a better first baseman.
“One of the advantages is because he used to catch he can play low and I think that’s one of the keys for an infielder is to be able to get low and have your eyes close to the ball,” Butterfield said. “He can do that.
“As good of an athlete and as hard a worker as he is, I think it just happened quick [snapping his fingers]. I think he’s continuing to get better.”
No one in the American League finished with more defensive runs saved above average a year ago than Napoli’s 10. Gold Glove winner Eric Hosmer finished with four, one fewer than finalist James Loney. The other finalist, Chris Davis, wasn’t in the top 10.
Last week, when the Rays came to Fenway, you saw an intriguing game of “Anything You Can Do” between Napoli and Loney. One inning Loney made a sliding stop to get his glove on a screamer down the line that took a tricky bounce. The next, Napoli leaped to snare a line drive.
“I think they’re both outstanding,” Butterfield said. “They’re two of the top guys.”
For all the highlights, Napoli takes more pride in the plays that might go unnoticed, like picking a throw out of the dirt.
“If he doesn’t pick a throw, he’s [ticked] off because he feels like he let that guy down who threw it,” Butterfield said. “He feels like he should pick everything. He’s very accountable for everything that happens. He’s not only a great player — he’s a star — but he’s a great teammate.”
In a way, it’s as thankless as a block by an offensive lineman.
“It’s your job,” Napoli said. “It’s what you’ve got to do. I want to be able to pick up every single one of my infielders. They make a bad throw, I want to be able to pick them up, save them from having an error, save our team from having an error. I want them to be able to trust me and I think they do.”
They do more than trust him. They vouch for him.
“I would hope that Nap is shedding the ‘Former Catcher Playing First’ label that seems to be attached to him,” Farrell said. “He’s an outstanding first baseman. He’s a very good athlete. He’s got great anticipation in all phases of the game and he’s been an anchor to our infield.
“I think just because he’s a guy that’s changed positions, he doesn’t get the notoriety that he truly deserves. He’s a hell of a player.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.