ARLINGTON, Texas — The funny, familiar feeling that came over Mike Napoli Thursday in Toronto when he picked up some catcher’s equipment and went to warm up starting pitcher Ryan Dempster was actually excitement.
It had been so long since he was behind the plate that he nearly forgot how fond he was of it.
“I squatted down, I was catching, and everyone was looking at me like, ‘Hey!’ ” said Napoli. “I looked at them and was like, ‘Nah, let’s not get too excited about that.’ ”
This is the first time in Napoli’s eight-year career that he isn’t playing the majority of his games at catcher. He caught at least 60 games each of the previous seven summers. This season, he has played almost strictly first base (25 games) with the occasional cameo as a designated hitter (three games).
The switch was part of the reason Napoli signed with the Red Sox in late January. With a degenerative condition, avascular necrosis, present in both hips, it would be difficult for him to spend every night in a nine-inning crouch. When the decision came down to staying in Texas, where he hit .320 with 30 home runs in 2011, or coming to Boston, he made the choice based on health and longevity.
“Just the opportunity here to play first every day, not being behind the plate,” Napoli said. “Still wasn’t sure how my hips were going to respond. I thought it was the best fit for me, my career, health-wise. Everything’s worked out, my hip’s been fine.”
The season he is having is a testament to that. His 31 RBIs and 22 extra-base hits are both major league highs. His six home runs have traveled nearly a half-mile. He set a club record for the month of April with 13 doubles.
“I just try to grind it out and do the little things,” Napoli said.
Back in Texas for the first time, Napoli exchanged the obvious pleasantries with former teammates during batting practice and reminisced about his two years here, saying they allowed him to come into his own as a ballplayer after five seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
“They were important,” Napoli said. “I came over here and just how it was in the clubhouse, my personality, I could really … get out here and be myself and be the player I could be.
“Not taking anything away from Anaheim, it’s just it was different there than it was over here in Texas. It was awesome for me. It helped out my career. I got to play a lot more and I did good things.”
The chemistry in this year’s Red Sox clubhouse is part of the reason the team is off to a 20-8 start — best record in the majors — and Napoli said it has helped him excel as well.
“We all are here for each other, we play for each other, we want to do good for each other,” Napoli said. “So you get nine guys out there playing for each other, good things are going to happen.”