Commentary

Same beard, fresh outlook for Napoli

Without his hip to worry about, Red Sox first baseman has a spring in his step

Updated: February 11, 2014, 5:27 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Napoli lives just across the state, so he was able to resist the urge to charter a Boeing 787 to take him to spring training. Somehow, the Red Sox first baseman was content just to make the drive across Alligator Alley.

"He's got enough money,'' Napoli said when asked about Masahiro Tanaka, the New York Yankees' newest bauble who laid out in the neighborhood of $200K to ferry him, a few other folks and his pet poodle from Japan. "Why not?''

Mike Napoli
Gordon Edes/ESPNBoston.comMike Napoli arrived in Fort Myers with his beard still intact.

Conspicuous consumption has never been Napoli's style; this is a guy, remember, who still makes his home a few miles from his mom in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Ask him if he embarked on any grand adventures in the offseason, and he pauses.

"Adventure?'' he repeats. "The first month after the World Series, that was a good adventure.''

Let's just say Napoli wasn't cheated out of any of the euphoria that gripped Boston after the Sox completed their worst-to-first odyssey by winning their third World Series in a span of 10 seasons. Napoli, who is single, said he stuck around town for a month after the Series, though there were no repeats of the early tweets that showed him strolling down Boylston Street shirtless.

Conspicuous appearance? Now that's a different story. The beard that launched a thousand imitators remains intact and Napoli intends to keep it that way. Yes, he saw the Norelco ad in which teammate Jonny Gomes bid adios to his whiskers, and acknowledged most everyone else on the club has done the same (a notable exception being reliever Andrew Miller, whose Biblical beard predated last season's fashion statement).

"I plan to keep mine,'' said Napoli, who no longer goes unrecognized on South Beach or at Heat games and agreeably posed for pictures with fans who asked. "I might trim mine up so it doesn't get crazy.''

Napoli was among the 36 early arrivals in camp (by John Farrell's count), working out at the team's JetBlue Park complex four days ahead of Saturday's reporting date for pitchers and catchers and a week before position players are due. Beyond displaying his eagerness to get back to work, the most notable aspect of Napoli's participation here is the contrast to last year, when the detection of a degenerative hip condition known as avascular necrosis raised a host of questions about how much -- and how well -- Napoli would play for the Sox.

Nothing underscored the uncertainty more than the Red Sox withdrawing their original three-year, $39 million offer to Napoli and replacing it with a one-year, $5 million, incentive-laden substitute.

The Sox displayed no such compunction this winter after Napoli played in a career-high 139 games, hit 23 home runs and slugged .482. They signed the first baseman to a two-year, $32 million contract that by a per annum basis makes him the highest-paid player on the team in 2014. Napoli said he signaled agent Brian Grieper early that he wanted to come back to the Sox, and is elated at the absence of concern surrounding his health this spring.

Napoli I want to do it again. I'm not going be satisfied because we won the World Series. Our goal is to do it again. We've got a lot of guys with that mentality. We all stayed in touch in the offseason and talked about it.

-- Mike Napoli

"It's been awesome,'' he said. "Last year, I couldn't run, I couldn't do a lot of impact stuff. I got a lot of running in [this winter], I feel good. It feels a lot different. I come in, I don't have to worry about the hip and stuff. It's been a good offseason."

A couple of weeks ago, Napoli said, he watched the team's World Series DVD with his roommate.

"Me and my roommate, we watched it,'' he said. "Pretty cool. I got chills a couple of times. My roommate asked me, 'Did you remember every pitch?' I told him what was going on. I remember everything.

"Just seeing certain things -- when Papi hit the grand slam, Jonny hit that home run in St. Louis. They had a thing about [the Boston Marathon] bombings on there. It took me back to that time. It was pretty cool to watch that.''

He didn't mention the two home runs he hit against the Tigers in the ALCS, the one off Justin Verlander that was the only run in a Game 3 win, and the 460-foot shot he hit off Anibal Sanchez in a Game 5 win. Both were critical to the Sox's conquest of the Tigers.

Building on those memories by winning it all again is the goal, Napoli said, and a common theme of discussions he had with teammates in the offseason. No team in the 21st century has repeated as World Series champions.

"I want to do it again,'' he said. "I'm not going be satisfied because we won the World Series. Our goal is to do it again. We've got a lot of guys with that mentality. We all stayed in touch in the offseason and talked about it.

"It's tough to win one, so we can't get too far ahead of ourselves. A lot of things happen in a year, but we're all going to work together.''

Napoli said he wants to cut down on his strikeouts (a career-high 187 in 2013), although some of those whiffs at least derive from his willingness to take pitches. He saw league-high 4.59 pitches per plate appearance, a stat that does not go unappreciated by a team determined to run up pitch counts to expedite the departure of the opposing starting pitcher.

"People say power hitters strike out, blah, blah,'' he said. "To me, I don't like striking out. I choke up, I have a two-strike approach for me to cut down on strikeouts.''

His transition to full-time first baseman went far better than expected; he ranked among the league's better defenders at the position, according to most of the statistical metrics. Napoli credits infield coach Brian Butterfield for working tirelessly with him last spring, and said he expects more of the same this spring.

"Butter was probably out there today for three hours, hitting ground balls,'' Napoli said.

Napoli said he had no clue what might replace the beard as the unifying symbol of this year's team, although he acknowledged being impressed by the artwork Gomes had tattooed on his body.

"Pretty serious, huh?'' he said. "I liked it. It's pretty cool. It says a lot: beard, duck boat, American flag. But I don't know if I'd ever do something that big. We'll see.''

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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