Mike Napoli: Long line of loyalty

BOSTON -- Tyler Munro, 25 years old and baby-faced, was the new coach at Flanagan, a recently opened high school in south Florida, eager to meet his new team and gauge just how good the talent was in this baseball-rich territory.

That's when he first met his junior catcher, Mike Napoli.

"Mike looked older than I did," Munro said by phone the other day from Utah, driving back to his home in Colorado after a family vacation. "Mike was shaving in high school. I looked like a little kid.

"Honestly, he was a full-grown man with facial hair."

Facial hair?

"He had a full beard in the ninth grade," said Napoli's buddy and Flanagan High teammate Mark Eysmann. "And he had forearms like Popeye. You knew he would be able to get it done.

"His father, Joe? Shake his father's hand, it'll crush you. His hands were just rocks."

Todd Claus, who is now the Latin American coordinator for the Red Sox, was a Florida-area scout then for the Angels, the team that drafted and signed Napoli in 2000. He remembers including in his scouting report that Napoli had what he called a "chinstrap beard."

"He was a man among boys," Claus said.

Donna Torres is Napoli's mother, remarried to Rick Torres, a Pembroke Pines, Fla., fireman for 25 years, now retired. She was speaking from Napoli's condo in Boston, and she laughed. Rick was in the kitchen, about to prepare Napoli's favorite egg sandwich: four eggs, ham, salami, cheese, all on a big bun that you scrunch as much as you can, like a pancake, cut it in half and covered with hot sauce.

"I'm thinking how his little sideburns had to be shaved when he was 10," she said. "Look at him now. He's got the best beard on the team. I tease him all the time. After a game one night, I said, 'Let me see if I can braid it.' He said, 'No, Mom,' but I took it and braided it to one side. He was saying, 'Ouch, it hurts.' I said, 'Let's take the hair straightener to it.' He said no."

A man's got to draw a line somewhere, especially when it comes to his beard.

"He does it all himself," Donna said. "Conditions it, combs it, grooms it, trims it, does it all himself."

You have to understand how close Mike is to his mother, his family and his buddies.

The house he bought? It's in Pembroke Lakes, four miles from where Rick and Donna live.

His idea of a good time in the offseason? Throwing some steaks on the grill, popping open a few beers, inviting everybody to the house to watch some football.

"He takes care of his brothers and sisters," Rick said. "He takes care of everybody."

Marriage prospects?

"I always tease him, 'You can take as long as you want finding a wife because I'll stay in that No. 1 spot as long as I can," Donna said. "He's like, 'Mom, you'll always be there.'"

Mike and Donna, that's on another level. The other day, he swiped her cellphone so he could send a text message to his younger sister, Michelle, who is in her second year at Florida State University, where she is majoring in sports management.

Here's what the text said:

"Just want to let you know Michael is my No. 1 child. I'm sorry."

Donna has been going to Mike's games since he was in T-ball and she was working two jobs, and she and Rick will be sitting in the family section at Fenway Park when the World Series opens Wednesday night. She estimates she comes up for a series at least once a month, she has been here for most of the postseason -- some friends back home take care of the dogs -- and every Mother's Day the whole family flies to wherever Mike is playing to spend the day together.

Which leads us to one of the more memorable descriptions you'll ever hear about Mike Napoli.

"He's a mama's boy," said Claus, the scout. "He'll tell you that. But at the same time, he's a dirtbag. He's one of the guys who fits right on our team."

That didn't start with the Red Sox. Munro, the Flanagan coach, remembers how the private-school powerhouse in the area, Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale, tried to persuade Napoli to transfer there. The Westminster baseball coach was Rich Hoffman, who had coached Alex Rodriguez at Westminster Christian in Miami. Munro knew Napoli was good but hadn't realized how good until the summer of his senior year, when he went to a couple of wood-bat showcases, did well and his name started popping up on the Baseball America top-prospects lists.

"[Hoffman] would flash those rings and drop the name A-Rod and tell Mike, 'I can get you there,'" Eysmann said.

But Napoli stayed at Flanagan. "He could have big-leagued all of us," Munro said. "But he didn't."

Why not? Simple, Eysmann said. "Mike was loyal, man," he said. "He stuck it out with us. He was never bigger than us as teammates. He felt he had a responsibility to us. He saw it that way.

"He loves the people he loves. He loves his family, he loves his friends."

Jeff Mathis, a catcher like Napoli, was the Angels' first-round draft choice in 2001, a year after Napoli was taken in the 17th round, much lower than he expected. "[Napoli] was evaluated at a much higher level," Claus said. "But there were signability issues. Some people thought he was going to go to LSU."

Had anyone asked Munro, he would have told them that Napoli had no intention of going to school. "He was no student," he said. "He was a baseball player."

Mathis showed up at the Angels' minicamp in Arizona; Napoli was still in extended spring training, his first season having been cut short by a lower back strain.

"Mike was the first guy I ever met in pro ball other than Claussie, who signed me," said Mathis, who comes from rural Marianna, Fla. "They had assigned us to apartments, four players per apartment. I'm sitting there, nobody's in the room, all of a sudden Mike walks in from the pool. No shirt on, no shoes, sunburned from head to toe. I'm like, 'Holy s---.'"

So, of course, they became the best of friends even though they were competing at the same position.

"Jeff is cut from the exact same cloth," Claus said. "Hard workers, humble, they get after it. They're both dirtbags. One guy [Napoli] basically hit a lot more, but they're very similar people."

They even lived together in the big leagues when they both made it with the Angels. It didn't surprise Mathis, after Napoli was dealt to the Texas Rangers and nearly took them to a World Series title in 2011, that he was embraced immediately in Arlington, just as he would be two years later in Boston.

"I would call him a chameleon," Mathis said. "He really can blend into any situation."

Mathis tells the story of how Napoli, who grew up in sprawling suburban Fort Lauderdale, accepted his invitation to Marianna to go deer hunting one offseason.

"The first time, I made sure to put him in a spot that was a condo-like tree house, so he wouldn't have to sit still, like a dove on a power line," Mathis said. "But I'll be damned if he didn't come up here all jacked up -- he loved it. And all my redneck buddies fell in love with him, talking about what a great guy he was. He blends into every situation. He's got a good personality."

When Napoli came to Boston with his agent, Brian Grieper, right after the winter meetings for the official announcement of his signing with the Red Sox, he invited Donna to come along. He didn't want her to miss his special moment; after all these years of playing on one-year deals, he had come to an agreement on a three-year, $39 million deal with the Sox.

What happened next shook them all -- Napoli, Grieper, Donna -- to the core. While undertaking what was expected to be a routine physical, the Red Sox's doctors had discovered that Napoli had avascular necrosis in both hips, the same degenerative condition that ended the career of two-sport star Bo Jackson.

Avascular necrosis, known by its acronym AVN and also known as osteonecrosis (ON), is a progressive, degenerative disorder that kills bone tissue. According to AVNSupport.org, it is caused by a blockage or loss of blood flow to a joint or bone, causing the joint/bone to die.

"My heart just sank," Donna said. "We were shocked. Here we thought we were going to a press conference, and all of a sudden Mike finds out there's something wrong with his hips. I just said lots of prayers."

For weeks, neither Napoli nor the Red Sox talked publicly about why the deal had been placed on hold while they worked out a new contract. Gone was the guarantee of three years. In its place, a one-year deal for $5 million with performance-based incentives that could make the deal worth as much as $13 million, the equivalent of one year under the old agreement.

But money was the least of Napoli's concerns. He had endured physical setbacks before -- in the minor leagues, he had surgery on both shoulders -- but nothing like this. "When I heard the news," Mathis said, "I got sick to my stomach. I knew how hard he'd worked."

Mathis visited Pembroke Lakes to see his friend.

"I remember sitting in his kitchen," Mathis said. "He was cooking and talking about hip surgery, hip replacement. I'm just going, 'Damn, man.' The look on his face -- just worried about being able to function every day, moving around, having a life after the game."

Napoli had never experienced any symptoms of the disease, and because the condition was detected in its early stages, the more drastic options for treatment, such as surgery, were ruled out. Dr. Joseph Lane of New York's Hospital for Special Surgery placed Napoli on a regimen of medication and scheduled periodic MRIs to monitor the condition.

Napoli said he intended to play a full season. Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said the club had full confidence he would be able to do so. But for both, it was uncharted territory.

Which is what made it all the more satisfying for Donna and Rick to be sitting in Detroit's Comerica Park last Thursday night when Napoli launched a 460-foot home run into the center-field shrubbery. David Ortiz said it was the hardest-hit ball he'd ever seen.

"The only people standing up in the entire stadium was the Red Sox family section, about 40 people, me with my hands in the air," Rick said. "That was a shot."

Rick said Napoli was 11 or 12 the first time he saw him play. His mother, of course, had already talked his ear off about how gifted her son was, but Rick had heard exuberant parents before.

"I saw Mikey before the game, and I told him if he hit one out, I'd give him five bucks," Rick said. "Sure enough, first time up, he cranks one out. There goes that five bucks."

Rick and Donna also were there in high school when Napoli, playing on the road, hit a ball off the roof of the library of a rival school. Rick has learned not to reach for his wallet.

"Now, when he hits one," Rick said with a laugh, "he gives me money."

For Donna, the reaction to watching her son play in the big leagues is not that much different from watching him hit one off the roof of a high school library.

"I've got to pinch myself," she said. "That's my kid? My kid just did that? And when he does really well, it just comes out, 'Who is that kid?'"

For Claus, the answer can be found beneath the beard Napoli is wearing.

"I believe he's born to have his chest blowing out of a Red Sox uniform," Claus said. "That's him. He personifies our uniform, he really does.

"I just think he's an animal. I think the people of Boston appreciate him. Obviously, he's produced, he's brought a certain element of energy. He's even-keeled. He strikes out a lot, but he goes about his business. And every time he comes to the plate, he's dangerous.

"I couldn't be more happy for him, his family, everybody that's been around him. He's a really good person and a great teammate."