- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Good morning from the Fort, where the ESPN Baseball Tonight bus has pulled into town, just in time to see Mike Napoli play in his first exhibition game since doctors scared the bejeezus out of him by telling him the bone tissue in his hips was in danger of dying.
Napoli ran the bases on Wednesday with no problem, a step up from the running in a swimming pool and other agility drills he has been doing. He said no symptoms of his condition, avascular necrosis, have manifested themselves since Red Sox doctors diagnosed him during a physical administered after he agreed to sign as a free agent last December.
He is scheduled to play first base Friday night in JetBlue Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and since one month remains before the April 1 regular-season opener in New York against the Yankees, he should have plenty of time to prepare for the season ahead.
Napoli was plagued with leg issues last season, a consequence, he believes, of the left ankle he severely sprained while running the bases in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. Incredibly, he caught Game 7 despite grotesquely turning the ankle under his body, but the following season had a left quadriceps issue, which ultimately placed him on the disabled list for 34 games.
One teammate with a particular interest in how Napoli fares is pitcher John Lackey, who became close friends with the man who was his catcher for parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Only Bengie Molina has caught more of Lackey’s games (76) than Napoli (61); with Napoli behind the plate, Lackey had a 3.63 ERA.
“It’ll be fun,’’ Lackey said of Napoli returning to play Friday night. “He’s a good teammate and a good buddy. I root for all my teammates, but when you’ve got a personal relationship, a guy you hang out with, you might pull for him a little bit extra, sure.’’
Napoli said he first met Lackey in 2005 during his first big-league camp. At the time, Lackey was 26, only three years older than the 23-year-old Napoli, but the pitcher already had three years in the big leagues and as a rookie had won a World Series Game 7. Napoli was fresh from playing for Rancho Cucamonga in the Class A California League.
“When I first met Lack, I was a young guy just trying to keep my cool and staying out of the way of the veteran guys,’’ Napoli said.
“I think our relationship started when I started catching him. I caught a bullpen here or there, then started catching him in ’06, my first year in the big leagues.
“He was awesome. He kind of showed me the way. He and Adam Kennedy were the two guys I kind of looked up to. They showed me how to carry myself on the field and off the field. He just showed me and [catcher Jeff] Mathis and all the young guys. When we got into a city, we’d have dinner with him. He always took care of everything, made sure everything was good with us.
“He kind of told us, ‘This is the way you do it. When you’re a veteran, make sure you take care of the young guys. Keep it going.’’’
While in Anaheim, Napoli soon cultivated his own reputation as a great teammate. In his first years in the big leagues, Angels star Vladimir Guerrero bought Napoli and infielder Erick Aybar suits, and another friendship was born.
“I used to hang out with everybody,’’ Napoli said. “I was really close with [Erick] Aybar, and we’d go to Vladi’s house. I didn’t know what they were saying, but they’d want me to come over for dinner. I’d go and hang out and just see the different cultures and stuff. I was into that.
“Vladi was one of a kind as a hitter. I’ve never seen someone hit so many bad pitches for line drives. His eye-hand coordination and timing were really special. A lot of guys can’t do that. [Dustin] Pedroia, the way he swings, he can hit a high pitch, a low pitch, his hand-eye coordination are unbelievable, too.’’
In 2009, Napoli enjoyed a special moment with Lackey, Guerrero, Aybar and the rest of his Angels teammates. After two consecutive autumns in which the Red Sox knocked the Angels out of the playoffs in the first round, the Angels swept three straight from the Sox in a first-round KO. Lackey set the tone with a 5-0 shutout in Game 1; Napoli doubled off Clay Buchholz in the clinching Game 3 at Fenway Park.
“I remember that it was something awesome,’’ Napoli said. “We got to [Jonathan] Papelbon in the final game, and we went nuts. Finally, we got over the hump. That was pretty special. We went pretty crazy.’’
Lackey signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after that season, and the following winter, Napoli was gone, traded to the Texas Rangers. Contrary to prevailing opinion, Napoli said he never felt like he and the Rangers were second-class citizens in Dallas Cowboys country.
“You know what? It was awesome,’’ he said. “They really started getting into it. They drew well. The two years I was there, the way they treated me was great. It was amazing to have 50,000 people chanting my name.
“I had a great time with the fans. I didn’t think that it was the Cowboys’ part of town. They got into baseball and it was really cool. Last year they had over three million fans, even with that heat. It was so hot, even night games I’d be changing my jersey, wearing three different shirts a game. I had to get IVs, for Pete’s sake. It was brutal.’’
In 2011, Napoli’s first season with the Rangers, Texas returned to the World Series for a second consecutive season, this time against the St. Louis Cardinals. He homered in a 3-2 loss in Game 1, then hit a three-run home run in Game 4, the decisive blow in the Rangers’ 4-0 win. Then, in Game 5, he broke a 2-all tie in the eighth inning with a two-run double that gave the Rangers a 4-2 win and making him a leading contender for World Series MVP.
The Rangers held a 7-5 lead in Game 6 and were one out away from the first Series title in franchise history when David Freese hit a game-tying, two-run triple. The Rangers were ahead 9-8 and one out away in the 10th when Lance Berkman singled to tie it again, and Freese’s walkoff home run won it for the 11th.
With Napoli playing on his bad ankle, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 7, but the Cardinals tied the score in the bottom of the inning and went on to a 6-2 win for the championship.
“We were so close -- it was tough, man,’’ Napoli said. “I went through a month of depression after that, thinking about the what-ifs. I went through it and through it. To go a whole season and put yourself in the right situation to get it done, and lose, that was tough. You have to tip your hat to St Louis, but I still think about it to this day, man. We could have had a world championship.’’
Napoli has moved on now, to a new team, the Red Sox, and a new position, first base. The quest remains the same. Friday night, he takes his first step.