In the absence of David Ortiz, Mike Napoli emerged as the Red Sox' most important and most consistent middle-of-the-order presence. After a season-opening struggle in New York, he's offered a steady drumbeat of big hits, a pattern that continued on Thursday night in Cleveland when he went 2-for-5 with a triple and yet another RBI -- his fifth straight game driving in a run.
Napoli has started his Red Sox career in somewhat historic fashion. To this point in the season, he has 17 RBI, becoming the first first-year Red Sox since Ted Williams in 1939 to drive in that many runs in the team's first 15 games.
Yet on Thursday, in the Red Sox' 6-3 win to close out a second straight series sweep with a three-game dismissal of the Indians, Napoli's most notable contributions may have come on the bases. On a sacrifice fly, he tagged from first and advanced to second base, positioning him to score from second on a two-out single by Mike Carp for the Sox' sixth run.
Ultimately, as impressive as Napoli's base running was, it had little impact on the game. He scored the Sox' sixth and final run, a score that didn't impact the game's ultimate outcome. Yet given where Napoli was just a few months ago, it was hard to ignore the significance of the play.
After all, it was in December that Napoli received the shocking news after taking a physical -- following his agreement with the Sox on a three-year, $39 million deal -- that he had a degenerative condition, avascular necrosis, in both hips. The news was jarring, its impact on his career potentially decisive.
"Honestly, at one point, I didn't know if he was going to continue to play baseball," said Brian Grieper, Napoli's agent. "At one point, I thought his career in baseball might have been over."
At a time when Napoli has been a central contributor to the Red Sox lineup, it is worth revisiting his offseason whirlwind -- specifically as it relates to his relationship with his agent. For it was the two of them who operated in concert to navigate through an almost two month state of limbo that extended between Napoli's two very different deals with the Red Sox.
'PRACTICALLY A MEMBER OF HIS FAMILY'
Grieper was an ambitious student at the University of Miami in his early 20s who wanted to get into the agent game. His first client was a former classmate at the University of Memphis. As an undrafted free agent, the client received a six-figure signing bonus from the Mariners.
"I thought, 'This is going to be easy,' " Grieper recalled. "Two weeks later, his contract got voided due to a pre-existing medical condition performed by a Mariners team doctor that was never performed.
He lost his college eligibility, his contract and then me and his dad put together a grievance. We put together a huge packet of information against the Seattle Mariners. It took time, but we ended up winning that grievance."
While in law school, Grieper scoured local competitions for talent and potential clients. He noticed a teenage Napoli, then intermingling time at first base and the outfield with catching, playing for Charles Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla. He was difficult to overlook.
"He was a kid who had a full beard back then, too," Grieper recalled with a laugh. "I was going to watch this guy, watch this guy who hit home runs all the time."
He cultivated a relationship with Napoli's family, becoming close to his mother and step-father that remains intact. (Indeed, prior to a visit with Napoli in Fort Myers this spring, Grieper had stopped by the parents' house to pick up boxes of Napoli's belongings to haul across the state.) Eventually, he earned their trust. Despite his youth and his relative inexperience, the family told Grieper that he would be the advisor to their son.
That served as the basis not just of a professional relationship but of what has become a deep friendship between Grieper, Napoli and the player's family.
"He's one of my best friends," said Napoli. "We've built a relationship over the years. He's a guy who's out for my best interests. I felt that. I'm a pretty good reader of people. He's a good person. I'm loyal to people who are good to me. He's been there for me my whole career."
"He and I have been together for 14 years now. It's almost like I'm an extension of the family, because I know everyone across the board. I know all of his friends," said Grieper. "The term player-agent is one thing, but with him, I'm practically a member of his family."
Napoli, a recruit at LSU, was taken as a 17th-round draft pick by the Angels in 2000. That summer, while in negotiations with the team, he took batting practice at the Tropicana Dome when the Angels played the Rays. Mike Scoscia saw the teenage catcher with considerable raw power and was on board: Sign him, he said. The Angels gave Napoli a $100,000 bonus; Grieper received a take of roughly $4,000.
As a later-round draft pick, it took time for Napoli to emerge as a prospect with a clear path to the big leagues. The Angels didn't protect him in his first year of eligibility from the Rule 5 draft, but Napoli wasn't selected. The next year, in 2005, he slammed 31 homers for Double-A Arkansas. The catcher was playing in the Dominican Winter League when Grieper got to share a piece of significant news.
"I ended up sending a fax. This is before text messaging, Skype -- I faxed to the hotel, having them basically slip it under his door, to say, 'Call me.' I wrote it in Spanish," Greiper recalled. "He got back from the game and it was about 1 o'clock in the morning in Florida, and he said, 'What's going on?' I said, 'Congratulations -- you were put on the 40-man.' "
Grieper helped Napoli navigate a complicated dynamic with the Angels, one in which his playing time and role always seemed on uncertain footing despite being a perennial threat to hit 20-plus homers and post strong on-base percentages. But after a pair of trades -- first to the Blue Jays, then to the Rangers -- in a four-day span following the 2010 season, Napoli flourished.
In 2011, he hit .320 with a .414 OBP, .631 slugging mark and 30 homers while serving as the primary catcher for a team that came within a strike of winning the World Series. That landmark season ensured that, even with a considerable hit to his numbers in 2012 (.227/.343/.469, 24 homers), Napoli should have a host of attractive offers from which to choose once he reached free agency after the 2012 campaign.
While Napoli and the Rangers discussed the possibility of a multi-year extension during spring training prior to last year, the player -- who had played on one-year deals in every season of his career -- was comfortable with the idea of playing out the season and hitting free agency. After all, the 2012-13 offseason market for catchers (and, for that matter, first basemen) appeared thin, and so Napoli and Grieper felt it was in the player's best interests to see what he might glean on the open market.
A DEAL '13 YEARS IN THE MAKING' GOES UP IN SMOKE
Interest was immediate. The Red Sox called Grieper on the first day that they were permitted to do so to express interest in the client, making explicit the interest in the catcher that had been evident ever since Boston put in a waiver claim on Napoli in August 2010 (the Angels elected to pull back Napoli). There were offseason trips by Napoli and Grieper to Texas, Seattle and Boston to discuss potential deals; ultimately, though, the cards aligned for him to sign a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox. It represented a landmark in the career of both the player and his agent.
"This was 13 years in the making to get to a point as a player and an agent," said Grieper. "You know the game of baseball. You can represent 30 guys and out of those 30 maybe five guys make it, sometimes less. The odds are somewhat against the player. From that standpoint, it was a big deal -- a huge deal. We waited a long time for this deal to come. It was great to get the original deal done."
But then, there was the physical, which resulted in the diagnosis of avascular necrosis in Napoli's hips. What was poised to be a day of considerable celebration suddenly transformed into confusion and disconcertment as they tried to make sense of the diagnosis.
"We were actually up in Boston on that Monday. It was me, him, his mom and one of his friends in Boston. They were actually waiting downstairs at the hotel lobby bar waiting for me. I got a call from [Red Sox GM Ben Cherington] late in the afternoon. He told me, 'Hey, we found something on the physical we have to discuss,' " said Grieper. "It was one of the most difficult things I've had to do not just in my professional career but in my life, to say, 'Hey -- come up to my room, sit down and this is what we just found out.' It didn't sink in with him and it didn't sink in with me. The only thing I knew was from what I googled for about three minutes before he came up to my room. At that point, the press conference got cancelled. We were trying to figure out what was next."
It took a while to know. The Red Sox could no longer offer their original deal. All parties were left to figure out the medical implications of Napoli's condition.
Napoli -- who had never experienced any pain to suggest the degenerative condition -- had been working out to that point at Athletes' Performance in Texas. Uncertain whether doing so represented a health threat, he stopped and spent the next two weeks in Dallas before heading back around Christmas to Pembroke Pines.
It was a confounding period, not just in terms of Napoli's financial future (and, by extension, Grieper's), but also in figuring out important questions about Napoli's quality of life going forward given a condition that could limit his mobility.
"There was a big deal on the table, and then you don't have a big deal on the table anymore," said Grieper. "The emotional roller coaster, first and foremost, was trying to make sure that he was okay, physically and mentally. Honestly, there were times when he and I were on the phone those first couple of weeks, that first week, where I definitely shed some tears. I couldn't put myself in his shoes, per se, but knowing what it was, knowing the condition, knowing who he is, I knew that it was emotional for him, which ultimately became emotional for me. But ultimately, I had to be strong for him and his family to help guide them through the process."
'CERTAINLY AN INTERESTING PROCESS'
Grieper's research over the next month and a half was extensive. He contacted, by his recollection, 12 or 13 specialists to review Napoli's MRI and the relevant medical information.
"It was crazy. There was tough times, definitely. I was definitely frustrated at times, but the things he did for me -- he went to extreme lengths to find out what was in my best interests not just from a baseball standpoint but for my life, for my future and just normal life," said Napoli. "He did everything possible to find out every little thing about this. It got to the point where, every day, he would give me something little about this and about that. I got so worn about it that I was like, 'When we find out a plan and what we're going to do, call me.' He was on it. What he did was awesome."
Had Napoli received the three-year, $39 million guarantee to which he and the Sox initially agreed, it would have represented a landmark windfall in Grieper's career.
"It was certainly a big deal for him and a big deal for me, too," acknowledged Grieper.
The agent would have received a seven-figure commission over the life of the contract. In many ways, given that Napoli had already earned more than $20 million in his career, the financial consequences of his unraveled free-agent contract were felt more acutely by the agent than the player.
Yet if the representative felt anxiety on his own behalf, Napoli did not feel it.
"He put that aside," said Napoli. "He definitely was positive towards me, reassured me that we were going to get through this and take it year by year. I've got all the trust in the world in that guy."
"His well-being was No. 1 and his contract was No. 2, with No. 1 being far superior than anything else," explained Grieper. "Long-term, we don't know all the effects and we don't know what's going to happen long term. You try to put yourself physically in the best position you can be long term and move forward and do what's best for the next five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years of his playing career, whatever that may be."
Eventually, Grieper found a voice of optimism. Dr. Joseph Lane at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery said that Napoli's condition had been detected early enough that it was treatable and manageable.
"We literally hopped on a plane to see him after I talked to him," said Grieper.
Lane offered reassurance that Napoli's career could move forward. Still, it would be on different terms than the ones that had been negotiated with the Sox initially. It became clear that Napoli would be in line for a one-year rather than a multi-year contract. While Lane had offered reassurance that the slugger's career would move forward, teams were understandably leery of the idea of committing to a player beyond 2013 given that he had been diagnosed with a degenerative condition.
But once it became clear that Napoli should seek the best one-year deal available, he experienced a second wave of free-agent interest.
"When the original three-year deal fell apart and you're talking about a one-year deal, then every team that had interest and some that didn't have initial interest came calling. There were some teams at the end that were interested in him on a one-year deal," said Grieper. "I think at one point, Mike was ready for the process to be over. He wasn't sure where he was heading for spring training. He was working out. At one point he said to me, let's finish this up here. There's no reason to continue to drag this out. We're going to be in good shape mentally and physically."
It was late January, and spring training was starting to creep into view. It was time for him to commit to a team.
Napoli still wanted to sign with the Red Sox. The playing opportunity as an everyday first baseman was clear. The interest -- which had included the participation of principal owner John Henry at a recruiting dinner in December, prior to Napoli's first agreement with the team -- had remained steadfast throughout a 51-day medical odyssey. The team's own research into Napoli's condition and commitment to work out a protocol that was in his short- and long-term interests all represented factors that suggested that Boston was the right team for the 31-year-old.
The resulting deal? A one-year, $5 million guarantee. However, if Napoli remains healthy for most or all of the season, he can earn up to $13 million.
It's a very different deal than the windfall for player and agent alike that was represented by the initial three-year contract to which the Sox and Napoli agreed. Still, under the circumstances, given the optimism that surrounds the first baseman's health -- with its implications for both his playing career and his life beyond baseball -- it was a contract that offered plenty of satisfaction.
"The running joke I had this offseason with other front office personnel was, anytime I saw a deal completed pending a physical, I said, 'If anyone knows about pending a physical at this point, it's me,' " Grieper laughed. "But we're happy with the deal. We felt a little bit of relief that the deal got done. We're comfortable with the deal. And there's happiness that it's with the Red Sox. To go from where we were to where we are, it's two different types of emotions. Most importantly, I'm happy for him.
"There was a club that still wanted him, understood his condition and was willing to work out a protocol for the short-term and the long-term, because that was the ultimate goal here -- to make sure he has health for the rest of his life," he continued. "It certainly was an interesting process the second go-round. I termed it as the first half -- getting the three-year, $39 million, and the second half -- the one-year, $5 million. There were a bunch of steps in between. It was a great experience. I helped guide him along the way. It was stressful for him at times, but you could see at different points that he was ready to move on and really be happy with where he is, understanding the entire situation. He's happy to be on a baseball field playing, with a team that wanted him and in a place where he wants to be. ... We believe that with this contract, he'll get his  money back, and then another couple years, make that money back that he was originally slated to get and maybe more."
And now, in the early weeks of the 2013 season, Napoli is in a good place. He is healthy, with no evident ill effects of his condition, and he is playing a critical role in the early success of the Red Sox.
He has emerged from an offseason that was at times trying to find renewed happiness on the field. Still, while his health permits him the luxury of looking forward, he remains mindful of all that those who are close to him did while he wrestled with an anxious offseason.
"I went through periods where I was moody, just like anyone else would be. There were some tough times but we got through it," said Napoli. "[Grieper] has done everything possible to get the most for me in my best interests. It definitely feels good to pay someone who's looking out for you and your best interests.
"I knew the people who cared. I know the people who care. We all stayed strong through it and got through it," he added. "I like to live life one day at a time, take positives out of whatever you can and go from there."
And in mid-April, at least, there has been plenty from which Napoli and the Red Sox have seen little but encouraging signs.