Mike Napoli signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox last December. And by January, he found out he was another Bo Jackson.
Not because the seventh-year veteran catcher is a rare two-sport pro, but because a few weeks after signing that contract, a physical examination revealed that Napoli has avascular necrosis in both hips, the same degenerative condition that ended Jackson’s mythical career.
Avascular necrosis (AVN), 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.
Doctors haven’t pinpointed the direct cause, but The Bearded One’s cash flow was directly affected by the discovery. Boston remixed its original offer and Napoli signed a one-year, $5 million deal instead. Certain incentives, however, could boost his salary as high as $13 million.
Luckily for Napoli, the condition was discovered in its infant stages and is being medically treated. He is asymptomatic so far, but untreated, the condition advances to stages of severe pain and irreversible disability in just a few years.
“There's a 30 percent chance of being okay without doing anything," says hip and knee specialist Dr. Stephen Mikulak, in an interview with espn.go.com earlier this year. "[If advanced], there's a 70 percent chance there will be a progressive death of bone tissue that will cause the ball portion of the ball and socket joint to collapse. He could develop arthritis and have a lot of pain. He could wind up needing hip replacement surgery [as Jackson did]."
Those are great percentages for a MLB hitter, but it sounds like Napoli’s medical future is a crap shoot. In the meantime, he’s probably earned his full bonus and more with his solid play this season. Nap’s 23 HRs and 92 RBI helped Boston dust AL East competitors with an MLB-leading 97 wins, after most people picked them for the cellar.
Napoli was Bo Jackson-like in the versatility he displayed by moving from catcher to becoming Boston’s everyday first baseman. The 460-foot rocket he hit on Thursday in Game 5 of the ALCS had a touch of Jackson too. As did Napoli’s fleet-footed, intelligent and aggressive base-burning. The second-inning bomb was a majestic crank that landed in the shrubbery some 40 feet behind the 420-foot sign in the outer orbits of Comerica Park, giving the Red Sox an early 1-0 lead.
With the series knotted at 2-2, Napoli—who damn sure knows baseball if nothing else—went 3-for-4 with a second inning homer, a single and double. His bashmatics sparked Boston’s pivotal 4-3 win. The Bean Town Bandits now floss a 3-2 ALCS lead and can advance to their first World Series since 2007 with a win on Friday.
The blast wasn’t Napoli’s first contribution to the Red Sox’s surprising postseason fortune. He smashed a seventh-inning homer in Game 3 off golden-armed Justin Verlander, giving the Red Sox a 1-0 victory and 2-1 series lead over the Tigers on Tuesday .
I credit this one," Tigers' manager Jim Leyland told the Associated Press. “[To] one swing of the bat. They hit it over the fence and we didn't."
Life-altering news like the kind Napoli received could have shaken a lot of players. And with numerous doctors unfamiliar with the condition, what’s playoff pressure when there's a possibility that you won’t be able to walk regularly one day?
Napoli started the ALCS 0-for-6 with six K’s, but as he does in life, he switched up a few things by opting for a longer pair of pants. And instead of keeping the pants legs up to show off his red socks, he pulled them down. The final touch was rubbing his bat on teammate Jonny Gomes’ beard.
If Boston can win Friday’s Game 6, Napoli’s spot in Red Sox lore will be secure. Not bad for a guy with two hips on the fritz.
“We're a long way ahead from Bo Jackson,” cautioned Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, in a January ‘13 Yahoo! Sports article. “Bo Jackson's circumstance was entirely different.”
Nine months later, Cherington’s words ring true. Actually, Napoli’s playing more like Bo before AVN. And if he keeps it up, his playoff prognosis is going to be MVP.