Napoli’s new start: 1B with Red Sox

Mike Napoli sees David Ross jogging from field to field each morning at the Red Sox spring complex, heavy-legged because of the shin guards and chest protector and all manner of catching paraphernalia. They make eye contact, and Napoli smiles.

“He knows what I’m smiling about,” Napoli says. “They’re out there blocking balls.”

“I kid him every day about not having to put on the catching gear,” Ross says. “I’m a little bit jealous. He said, ‘Man, I feel really fresh.’ Well, I don’t. We’ve been blocking balls all day and throwing, and he said all he’s done is take ground balls and hit. I bet he feels a lot better — and fresher.”

Both are new to Boston this year; Napoli came from the Texas Rangers as a free agent, Ross from the Atlanta Braves. They laugh while recounting the story, because humor is the first language of a baseball clubhouse. But they know the reason for Napoli’s absence in the catching drills isn’t funny. Not at all.

Two seasons ago, Napoli crouched behind home plate with a chance to squeeze the last strike of the World Series. This spring, he couldn’t tell you the location of his catcher’s gear. It’s probably stashed in an equipment room somewhere. Napoli has no plans to use it in 2013. He’s an everyday first baseman. At least, that is what he and the Red Sox hope.

Napoli, 31, has been diagnosed with avascular necrosis in both hips. The degenerative bone condition was discovered when the Red Sox reviewed Napoli’s medical records after agreeing with him on a three-year, $39 million contract in December. It took more than one month for Napoli to consult with doctors, decide on the proper medication, and sign a reworked one-year, $5 million deal that reflected the previously unknown health risk.

So, for now, the American League’s starting catcher in the 2012 All-Star Game is not a catcher anymore. Napoli and Ross can joke about it, because that is what teammates do. But the truth is that Napoli misses smothering those sliders in the dirt at 9 a.m. on a Sunday in February.

“I want to catch,” says Napoli, who’s made only 118 starts at first over seven seasons in the majors. “I wish I could catch. But it’s just something I have to do. I want to still play baseball. They’re giving me an opportunity to play first. I’m just going to go out there every day and make myself better.”

Might Napoli catch ever again?

“As of now, this year, I’m probably not going to do it,” he answers. “But I’m going to get checkups probably every three months, to see how my hip’s doing, what it looks like in there. My hope is this gets better and I can, but I’m the type of guy that really likes to look at now, day by day, and take whatever I can do now and make the best out of it. Hopefully down the road, I come back. If not, hopefully I can play as long as possible.”

So far, the signs are encouraging. Red Sox orthopedist Dr. Peter Asnis told Napoli that the MRI exam he underwent after arriving at camp showed no further damage in his hips, when compared with the December tests. Napoli is happy. He considers that great news.

Napoli said he met with Asnis recently in an office near the team’s athletic training room to discuss what would come next. “I told him I don’t really want to be babied,” Napoli recalls. “I’ll take the right steps, but I want to be able to move forward. Obviously, they have the last say in everything. I let them know I’m not the ‘babied’ type of guy. If I can be out there and do something, I want to do it, and I want to do it as much as possible.”

Napoli is much like his new organization: He has a brave face and admirable resolve despite painful setbacks. The last strike he waited to catch on Oct. 27, 2011, in St. Louis never came. If Nelson Cruz had caught David Freese’s fly ball to right field, Napoli, who finished the World Series with a 1.164 OPS and 10 RBI, probably would have been named MVP. “A Corvette and a fat ring,” he says wistfully. Instead, those keys belong to Freese.

“One pitch away — twice,” Napoli says now. A moment later, he delves into the Game 6 details — as only a catcher could. “It’s crazy, man,” he sighs. “(Scott) Feldman threw a cutter that, for the first time, didn’t really cut. He nails that pitch. It just flattened out, and (Lance) Berkman was able to fist it to center. If (Feldman) cuts it, it probably doesn’t go that far. Little things like that. It’s the what-ifs I played for a month after the World Series: ‘What if this, what if that . . . ’”

The Red Sox asked similar questions that winter — some still unanswered — about one of the worst collapses in baseball history. The organization’s dramatic response to the final night of that 2011 season — and the days leading up to it — resonates even today, through two managerial changes and an offseason remake that included Napoli, Ross, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and Joel Hanrahan.

If the Rangers had beaten St. Louis, Napoli might have re-signed with Texas before his hip condition, which is still asymptomatic, showed up on an MRI. “Maybe,” he says. “You never know what happens when a team wins a World Series. Everyone’s feeling really good about what went on. It would have been interesting.” Instead, Napoli had a mildly disappointing 2012 season and even more crushing news in the offseason, not long after he thought he had the deal of a lifetime. “You wait for free agency, you have a nice contract, then for something to happen like that — it’s crazy,” he says.

And yet Napoli isn’t bitter. If anything, he’s grateful to an organization that he says has been “100 percent” forthright since the diagnosis. Napoli says his agent, Brian Grieper, heard from the Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays while the deal with Boston was being reworked. But Napoli’s preference was to play for the Red Sox — in part because of the role they offered. The Rangers, he says, wanted him to catch 40 or 50 games. He’s not sure he could handle that.

The Red Sox, their fans unsettled after three seasons without a playoff berth, need a big year. The same is true for Napoli, granted only a short-term opportunity to prove he’s still a premium everyday player — at a different position than the one he’s played for most of his career. Their marriage is beginning under duress. But it can work.

“They expressed to me they still want me here as a Boston Red Sox,” Napoli says. “It was never that they went away, or we went away from them, or that I was mad at them. It was just part of life. I understood it. Of course, it sucked. No one wants that. It took me a little bit to get over it. But I let it go. I feel, if I take care of my body and stay healthy, I can be a good baseball player — and it’ll all come back.”