Q&A: Mike Napoli

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Q&A: MIKE NAPOLI

One the most bearded members of the Boston Red Sox has a World Series ring and some punny tattoos.

When the 2004 Boston Red Sox won the World Series and gave their fans a taste of success after 86 years of bitter failure, Boston fans thought there would never be a team as much fun to watch as the self-appointed “Idiots.” Fewer than 10 years later, a team of hirsute ballplayers who actually looked like they were having fun out there proved the city—and the country—wrong, winning the 2013 title in spectacular, nail-biting fashion. One of the team leaders, thanks to his play and his mighty beard, was first baseman Mike Napoli. Since Sox fans hate the clean-cut New York Yankees almost as much as they love their own team, it was only natural that the tattooed first baseman would become the hair-covered face of the Boston franchise.

Napoli cemented himself as a fan favorite when he celebrated the World Series championship by getting behind the bar at McGreevy’s (the Boston joint owned by Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys) and, later, drinking shots while shirtless at another bar down the block and roaming the streets of the city stripped to the waist, as evidenced on social media. His simple take: “I was hanging out with the people and having a good time.”

Napoli spends a good portion of his time off the field sitting for tattoos. “I actually like sitting down for a session,” Napoli said. “If I can sit down for a three- to four-hour session I almost enjoy that. I like to watch the artist work.”

Before Napoli got back on the field to defend the team’s title with his bearded brothers, he took some time to talk to INKED about his transition to first base, the hidden jokes behind some of his tattoos, and what it’s like to play for some of the most demanding fans in sports.

INKED: When you signed with Boston this past off-season, you announced on Twitter that the beard was back. So how’s it doing?
Mike Napoli: It’s good, man. This thing is getting looong. I love it, though. It’s a lot of maintenance, but worth it.

What prompted the entire team to start growing their beards?
I think it all started with Jonny Gomes. He had a big beard going already. [Dustin] Pedroia, Gomes, and I were talking about how we would just grow out our beards. We all ended up doing it and before you know it most of the team was doing it. Some of the trainers and front office people did it too. It became a big ol’ thing.

Who had the toughest time growing one, and did you mock him accordingly?
Our young third baseman, Xander Bogaerts, had a hard time growing one. We messed around with him and said that he hadn’t hit puberty yet. Everyone tried to grow one—it was awesome.

Are you ever going to get rid of it?
I’m pretty sure I will eventually, but I don’t see it being cut in the near future. Who knows? I don’t really make plans; I just go day by day. If I wake up one morning and want to cut it, I probably will.

So you aren’t afraid of some sort of Samsonesque consequences if you shave it?
Nah, I like it so I’m going to roll with it. Plus, the ladies like it so I’m definitely keeping it.

Do you think the great chemistry in the clubhouse pushed you over the top to win it all?
To be able to win it with a group of guys like we have here in Boston made it really special. I don’t think you could ever put together a group of guys like that again. Of course, we’re going to have a lot of the guys back this year, but I don’t think you can really repeat the kind of chemistry that was in the clubhouse last year.

It was a special season for you.
Yeah. We weren’t expected to do really well from everyone on the outside, but when we got together as a group we believed. We worked to get better as a team every day in spring training, and going into the season we kept working hard together. We built confidence over the year and knew we were a good ball club, and everything just rolled together.

You came pretty close to winning it all with both the Rangers and the Angels but ended up coming up short. What was it like to finally be able to push through and win a championship?
Two years ago, when I was with Texas, we were one strike away from winning the World Series. That bothered me a lot. I had to think about that every day that I went to the ballpark, and my goal is always to go to the ballpark and win the World Series. Obviously it was on my mind a lot. To be able to actually win the World Series this year took a lot off of my shoulders.

In the regular season the Sox crushed the ball, but the team struggled mightily at the plate in the postseason. Even with the offensive struggles, you were still able to come up with timely hits to win games. How were you able to prevent yourselves from getting frustrated and losing focus?
I think a lot of that came from the veterans in our clubhouse. You get to the play-offs—especially when you get deep in the play-offs—it’s going to be those 1-0 and 2-1 games. That’s just how it is. The pitchers are really good and they’re not going to give in at any time. That’s just play-off baseball. We took every at bat seriously even though we were getting shut down. A lot of credit has to go to our pitchers. Our pitchers were amazing. I think a lot of it had to do with knowing that we had good pitchers that were going to keep us in the game, so we weren’t panicking or forcing anything at the plate. When we got an opportunity we were able to come through.

This season you played first base exclusively, despite having been a catcher for the majority of your Major League career. What was it like to have to learn a new position at this level?
To be honest, it wasn’t that tough. The physical part about moving to first base from catcher was so, so different. For me, health-wise, it’s like night and day, and now I’m able to stay on the field. Brian Butterfield, our third base coach, gave me tons of ground balls, and he taught me a lot of things that were good for me and helped make me comfortable over there. Ultimately he helped me make a lot of plays that I wouldn’t have made when I was playing first base every so often. The transition has been great. I’ve been able to work really hard at it and I feel that I’ve become a pretty good first baseman.

As catcher you are involved in every single pitch, while at first base you’re a bit less involved. Do you miss playing catcher?
That’s the big difference. Sometimes I can go a whole game without even getting a ground ball, when before I was catching the ball pretty much every play. I think that I adjusted to that, and as the season went on I was more capable at first. I do miss catching. I miss preparing the game plan and working with the pitchers. I like the different personalities and working with those personalities to get them through games and the chess match you have with opposing hitters the second and third time through the order. That’s what I really miss. But the physical part, not one bit. Unless you have really done it you can’t explain how it feels to go through a nine-inning game of squatting and then trying to be able to hit in your fourth at bat when your legs are dead. I definitely don’t want to catch any more. I’m fortunate that I am able to play first base.

Tell us about some of your tattoos.
I have some pretty interesting tattoos—a couple on my feet, one on my chest. I have a full sleeve on my left arm and one on my back that was the first tattoo that I got when I was 17.

What’s on your back?
I’m probably going to get it covered up. I keep on talk- ing about how I need to do that. It’s a tribal design with a scorpion in the middle and tribal stuff on both sides. It’s a really awesome tattoo—I’m being very sarcastic. In fact, I’m glad that I can’t see it.

You have more positive feelings about your sleeve, right?
From my upper arm to my shoulder I have some art with a bunch of men riding horses. That was my second tattoo. It’s just art with three horses, guys riding them, and skulls all around. When you go down my arm I have an eye on the front of my elbow, a nice pretty little eye looking out. Then on my forearm I have a rose.

Is there any significance to the rose?
It’s for my mom. Her middle name is Rose and I call her Donna Rose. Under the rose it says “Donna Rose” in her handwriting. My mom has been a huge part of my life. She brought me up and worked two jobs to make sure that I got to practice on time and had all of my stuff. So that tattoo is something special to me.

Not all of your tattoos are serious, are they?
I have a tattoo of a camel on my big toe on one foot, and on my other foot I have a moose tattooed on the toe’s knuckle. On my chest I have a small little Eskimo tattoo.

Is there an innuendo behind the Eskimo one too?
Do you know what an Eskimo brother is? Well, two of my other buddies got the same tattoo.

With all of the time spent on the road, do you end up getting tattoos in many different places or do you have a go-to guy?
I got most of my lower arm done by Olmy Rosenstock of Zebra Tattoo in Berkeley, CA. I got the Eskimo done in Toronto with my two buddies. We had the day off and got to talking about how we were Eskimo brothers and just decided to go out and get the tattoo. Jonny Gomes has a guy that comes into town, J.J. Osman, who comes into the hotel and does work, so it’s pretty cool.

Speaking of Jonny Gomes, I’ve heard that he spent a lot of time harassing you into signing with the Sox again.
He was on me. He and Pedroia were definitely calling me every day to see what was going on and they definitely wanted me back. That’s the type of group we are. We have this bond together and we all love each other so we want to stay together. We know that we have a good thing going. They were just checking on me because they wanted me to come back, which is a pretty cool brotherhood thing.

How is playing in Boston different from the other places you’ve played?
Man, it is so passionate there. You go to the ballpark and the fans are expecting you to win every day. When you don’t do well they give it to you. I love that and I have embraced it. I remember going in as an opposing player and thinking that I could definitely play here one day and completely love it because of the history. It’s a packed house every single night, “Sweet Caroline” comes on, it’s just really cool. When I started my negotiations as a free agent this year I basically told my agent, “I want to play in Boston so get it worked out.” I love it there so much. I love the town—great food, people are awesome there.

Can you explain the new trend of ballplayers wearing enormous goggles when they are spraying champagne in celebration?
I think that it has become a marketing thing where Oakley just gives everyone the goggles. It started a while back when guys were wearing the really small swim goggles—now it has escalated to ski goggles. Some of the guys, including John Lackey and myself, think that you need to feel the burn of the champagne in your eyes, that’s the whole thing. A lot of guys just don’t want to feel that burn because champagne in your eyes is not fun. Most of the time while I’m spraying champagne my eyes are closed because it burned so badly.

Do you have any sort of celebratory tattoos planned after winning the World Series?
Yeah, Jonny [Gomes] already got one. We were talking about getting duck boat tattoos and Johnny already got his. It’s pretty cool. I’m probably going to get mine soon— I’m just waiting and trying to think of a spot. Maybe I’ll cover up that tribal on my back with a big ol’ duck boat.

Did your teammates give you any sort of trouble after your celebration blew up on social media?
None really. I think they expected it to happen, to tell the truth. I was just having a good time celebrating and it just happened. The guys laughed about it.

It’s becoming incredibly rare to see a professional athlete in an unpolished moment.
I’m real, man. I’ve been single my whole career and I like to have fun—that’s just who I am. I don’t ever really hold back. I like to have fun and sometimes these things happen. I don’t regret it; it was just a good time.

Do rivalries mean anything to the players or is that something that only matters to fans?
I think that rivalries are definitely more of a fan thing. We try to win every day no matter who it is. I think that when Boston and the Yankees get together the atmosphere in the stadium might get you up a little bit more. That’s just our fans; they would rather us win every single game against the Yankees and no one else.

What should we expect from the Sox this year?
Our goal is to defend our title. I’m pretty sure once the 25 of us get together and mess around we’ll come up with something crazy.

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