Napoli likes the smell of opportunity

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When you come to Fenway Park as a visiting player, Mike Napoli said here the other day, and you're walking down the tunnel from the cramped clubhouse to the dugout, what hits you first is the smell. That overpowering, fermented-through-the-decades, God-I-don't-want-to-know-what-that-is smell.

"They've painted the walls and stuff, but my first years it was like, 'Man, am I going to get sick?''' Napoli said here the other day. "It's old, and it has so much history, but it's crazy, that smell you'd get walking down the tunnel, it was the same smell every time.''

But not to worry. Even though Napoli has spent his entire career enjoying the creature comforts of Anaheim Stadium and then the even more deluxe Ballpark in Arlington, he has a soft spot for the Fens. He even looked forward to the abuse he took from Boston fans, especially after they noticed how much damage he was doing to the hometown pitching staff.

In the last five seasons, no visiting player has a higher cumulative slugging percentage in Fenway Park than the .837 posted by Napoli, who hit seven home runs in just 49 Fenway at-bats.

"When I started hitting really good,'' Napoli said, "they were on me all the time. I'd always give them the smirk -- 'Wait for my next at-bat.'

"I used to hear the 'Fat Italian, go eat some pizza' stuff. I'd shake my head and say, 'I know I'm a big guy.'

"Everyone enjoyed playing there. It was fun. I enjoyed playing in the old Yankee Stadium, too. It was so intimidating. Now the way they built the new one, it's so wide open, with all those luxury suites, but it used to be so intimidating. I liked that kind of stuff. The fans were right on me. Man, there'd be a big hit or something, you couldn't hear yourself.''

The hope, of course, is that Napoli will now experience Fenway from the inside, as a member of the Olde Towne Team, and do his part in the ancient rivalry with the Bronx. That certainly was the idea when he locked up a three-year, $39 million deal with the Sox on the first day of the winter meetings, the first time in his career he was going to play for something longer than a one-year contract.

Then came the diagnosis of a hip condition that mystifies him to this day, despite the endless rounds of discussions he had with doctors after a physical administered by Red Sox doctors revealed he had avascular necrosis, meaning that the bone tissue in both hips was in danger of dying because it was cut off from the blood supply necessary to sustain life.

What made it especially maddening, Napoli said, is that he was experiencing no symptoms. What made it truly frightening was not the implications the condition had for his playing career, but for the quality of his daily existence.

"That's what we had to find out,'' Napoli said. "I want to be able to have a family and be able to play with my kids. I don't want to be out there not being able to run around and have fun with my kids. I had to think about life, not just baseball.

"Everyone, they say when a guy's hurt, how will it affect his baseball? People are not thinking about his life. Me and my agent [Brian Grieper] and my family were thinking about me away from baseball first. Once we figured that out, it was: What can I do in baseball to keep me playing and being able to play for years to come?

"It's just something with the veins in there [the hips]. I was so confused. I didn't really know what was going on. I don't feel anything. I'm doing all these drills. I'm doing everything, and I feel great.''

On Friday night, Napoli is scheduled to play first base in an exhibition game against the Pirates at JetBlue Park, the first significant step toward proving, to himself and to the Red Sox, that he can resume his career. He ran the bases for the first time on Wednesday.

The Sox, who had targeted Napoli to be their everyday first baseman, have hedged their bets, substituting a one-year, incentive-laden $5 million deal for the three-year package they'd originally offered, though the 31-year-old Napoli insists he appreciates the Sox for not abruptly pulling out of the deal altogether and for assuring him he is still in their plans.

"I've been doing agilities, running in the pool, all that stuff,'' he said. "It does [get old], but I know it's part of the process. I'm not in a rush to get there when I know we have a lot of time. I'm the type of guy, I've been through injuries before. I know the process.''

No official advisories have been issued, but now that Napoli will start seeing game action, expect an increase of traffic on Alligator Alley, the stretch of highway that links this side of the state to Fort Lauderdale and environs, the area where Napoli grew up in Pembroke Pines. Napoli was first with the Angels and then the Rangers, teams that train in Arizona. This is his first spring training in Florida, and he anticipates a steady flow of family, friends and former teammates.

"They're chomping at the bit,'' he said. "My parents already came. They're anxious to see me out there in spring training, though they get the whole thing.

"I have a lot of family, and then there are all my friends. My mom has remarried twice, my dad is remarried, so there's a bunch of us. And this is an easy trip for them.''

The trip has been anything but easy for Napoli this spring, but he's approaching that point where it's time for him to take a deep breath -- and prepare for another blast of that awful, wonderful smell that means he's back in Fenway Park.