Turning enemies into allies with Mike Napoli

I have to imagine this was a grand slam against Tim Wakefield.

I have to imagine this was a grand slam against Tim Wakefield.

In the early and mid-2000s, there existed a career reserve outfielder who worked mostly in Canada and, it seemed, specialized in making the lives of the Boston Red Sox miserable every time he stepped to the plate.

Game after game, in one of their 19 annual matchups, the Blue Jays’ Frank Catalanotto hit everything in sight whenever the Sox were the opposition. One night in the newsroom, I blurted out that “Catalanotto must be hitting .700 against the Red Sox.”

“.700?!,” my editor asked incredulously. “When have you ever seen him make an out?”

Probably once, I thought, but damned if I could actually think of one. Point made.

Catalanotto, in 106 career games against the Red Sox, hit .314 with an .891 OPS, 11 home runs and 52 RBI, made a habit of tormenting Boston, first with Toronto and later in a return trip to the Texas Rangers. Those 11 home runs accounted for more than 13 percent of his career total (84), while the 52 RBI fits in at 11 percent of 457. It was only when he travelled to the National League in 2009 that I finally began to feel safe.

It was Catalanotto who popped in my head when I saw a stray clip of Mike Napoli in camp with the Red Sox in Fort Myers, free of his catcher’s gear with the likelihood that he’ll be penciled in at first base for most of this season.

It was the 2008 playoffs that I first got to know Napoli, and it was as he terrorized the Red Sox with two key home runs in the Sox’ win over Anaheim in four games. From then on, Napoli seemed to live to hit against the Red Sox. Whether it was that his right-handed swing was tailored to Fenway’s left-field wall, or he just enjoyed the sight of Jon Leser and Josh Beckett, I don’t know, and I’m not dedicated enough to figure it out.

It doesn’t take much to look at the numbers, though, and see Napoli’s .288 batting average, 1.075 OPS, 15 home runs and 33 RBI in just 38 games against Boston. Take those numbers as you will, but this is about perception, and the surface statistics certainly seem to enforce the idea that Napoli has been burning Boston pitching more often than not.

So, when the news of Napoli’s signing (first to a three-year contract, then a shortened, incentive-laden one-year pact) broke this winter, I was initially relieved. There was plenty of reason for hesitation, given Napoli’s health and his relative productivity for first basemen in the American League, but that never registered here. All that mattered was that a player who continually burned Boston was no longer an immediate threat to be brandished by the opposition.

Years ago, I’d always wished that the Red Sox would sign Catalanotto, if only to never have to face him again. I thought the same of a Toronto predecessor, Joe Carter, in the 1990s. There was a comfort in the idea of turning a worst enemy into an ally.

I have no idea how Napoli will do this season in Boston, whether he’ll be healthy all year or whether playing first base full-time will bring life to his bat again. I just know I don’t have to watch him circle the bases again while Lester or Clay Buccholz watches helplessly from the mound, wondering when the Red Sox will just eliminate the threat and sign the guy.


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