Take away the big money and it is easy to feel sorry for Mike Napoli. Maybe even with the big money. One day–maybe the best day of your life–you’re sitting on the top of the world with an exciting new job and set to make more money than you ever made in your life. The next day you’re listening to a doctor say, “Uh, oh.”
For fans on the perimeter when it was announced that Napoli agreed to a three-year, $39-million contract with the Boston Red Sox pending a physical, we pretty much thought about it in baseball terms. It sounded as if Napoli was a good fit and that he could help his new team. It was not an earthshattering-Josh Hamilton-like signing, but one of some significance in the sport.
Usually we hear about such things and a few days later the team and the player hold a press conference to tell the world how happy they are to be working together and we never hear another peep out of the guy till spring training. Except in this case the sounds of silence enveloped Fenway Park. No press conference. No Napoli making a public visit to Boston. Days passed. Weeks passed.
Some fans practically forgot about the deal. Others started asking, “What the heck is going on?” A few days ago we learned that there really was something going on. That Napoli physical was not just a formality. Like many of us he hadn’t been to the doctor recently. Like some of us, when he went and got checked out, he found out there was something wrong with him even though he felt fine.
While were pondering “Whither Mike Napoli?” Mike Napoli was going from a routine checkup to tests to a diagnosis. And a pretty unhappy diagnosis it was, especially for a professional athlete. Napoli learned he was in the early stages of suffering from avascular necrosis in both hips, a degenerative disease that kills bone tissue. Napoli said he was shocked to hear that because had no pain or physical symptoms.
The immediate practical effect for the outgoing Texas Ranger was for the Red Sox to pull their three-year contract offer off the table. They didn’t feel they could commit $13 million a year to a guy who might not be able to run around the bases by the third year of the package. The most publicized known history of an athlete with the same disease is Bo Jackson, the former baseball-football star who retired young because of it.
A seven-year major leaguer who is 31 Napoli is now taking medication to slow the progression of the problem and he negotiated a far different deal with the Red Sox. Almost two months after Napoli thought he had the deal of a lifetime he had to settle for a lot less. Now he has a one-year deal with the Red Sox for $5 million, plug incentives that could raise the payout back to $13 million if he can meet the provisions built around the amount of time spent on the active roster and his number of plate appearances.
It was just as well that the Red Sox had Napoli pencilled in at first base and not catcher, where he has also played. Playing first will put less strain on his hip than catching would.
Professional athletes live off of their finely tuned bodies. You can bet it truly did rock the house when Napoli heard his might be starting to fall apart. The diagnosis has already cost him millions of dollars and two years from a guaranteed job. When Napoli says he had a tough off-season, that’s not hard to believe at all.
So much of the luster of the Napoli agreement has been diminished and he likely will now be a one-year stop gap at first base for the Red Sox. He hopes for a year. Both the player and the team really need this deal to work.