Napoli personifies key parts of Red Sox's makeover
Character, characters integral to Boston's immediate clubhouse camaraderie in 2013
BOSTON -- To understand the 2013 Red Sox, maybe all you need to do is understand Mike Napoli.
"The way I look at it is that it'll all work out, if you do things the right way," he said. "That's what I tried to do."
That pretty much sums up the entire club. Napoli arrived at Spring Training after a long, difficult few weeks, and after the original contract he agreed to was never completed. That deal was worth $39 million over three years, but during the pre-signing physical, the Red Sox's medical staff discovered a hip condition it believed could be degenerative.
Napoli did end up with Boston, but with a one-year, $5 million deal that included $8 million in incentives. If he was bitter about the experience, no one ever knew it. When Napoli showed up for Spring Training, he was focused only on being the best player and teammate he could be.
No surprise there. That's precisely the reputation Napoli forged for himself during seven seasons with the Angels and Rangers. He has always been a guy who lost his own ego inside the inner-workings of a team. As he said, he believed that if he did the right thing, everything else would work out.
Napoli was one of the seven free agents signed by general manager Ben Cherington, and like the others, he was sought both for being a good player and a good teammate. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this team is that despite all the new players, the Red Sox became a team very quickly.
Cherington said he noticed good things happening early in Spring Training when he would visit the dining room and find players staying late to talk baseball, family, whatever.
Cherington had attempted to sign players cut from similar cloth, and he did his job so well that the Red Sox bonded quickly. Playing well is also important, and Napoli did his part with 23 home runs, 38 doubles and 73 walks this season.
Now, with the World Series switching back to Fenway Park for Game 6 (air time 7:30 p.m. ET tonight on FOX; first pitch at 8:07 p.m.), Napoli will be back in the lineup at first base. He served as a pinch-hitter during three games in St. Louis as David Ortiz got three starts at first. Ortiz will be the designated hitter for Game 6.
The Red Sox have been asked again and again how all this happened, how a team that didn't acquire a single star-caliber player has gotten within one victory of a championship.
"I can't say I really know how it happened," Napoli said. "I think it's just the amount of veterans we have on this team. A lot of us have been there before. We've been through some tough times. We've been through good times.
"I think we just know how to deal with it. Everyone just wanted to win. It wasn't about you as an individual. It was about everybody together doing something, winning together. There are a lot of different personalities, but for some reason, it all meshes together."
Nine months later, the Red Sox are close on the field and off. If that sounds like the kind of stuff only the media cares about, virtually any player will tell you that camaraderie and caring about one another is a critical element in getting through a long season with its highs and lows and tests, both big and small.
"We don't just hang out while we're here," Napoli said. "We hang out off the field. Our families get together. It's a group that's so tight. We play for each other. No one is selfish on this team. We play for one another."
And there are those beards, a different kind of team-building experience.
"It started in Spring Training," Napoli said. "Me and Jonny [Gomes] and [Dustin] Pedroia were messing around, saying we're going to grow it out all year. It seems like everyone jumped on it. It's just something we do in the clubhouse. We do a lot of things together. That's how tight we are. We love each other. It's just something fun that we do."
Those beards will be a chapter of New England lore if the Red Sox win the World Series. Fans show up at games with fake beards. T-shirts showing the outline of a bearded face are popular, too.
"Fans jumped on it, didn't they?" Napoli said. "They love it. It's just something that's part of this season. We love it. They love it. It's part of our team. It's just something fun."
Bet Napoli is looking forward to the end of the World Series, so he can get a nice, clean shave.
"I'm keeping mine," he said.
Magical seasons are composed of dozens of different things, from young players performing better than expected to the stars playing like stars.
The Red Sox have had all sorts of things go right, but it all began back in Fort Myers, Fla., with a bunch of guys setting their sights on a common goal.
"That's when we began working for this," Napoli said. "Working together. We got here, but we want to win this thing."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.