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Boston’s Napoli Carries Fine Memories of His Rangers Days

Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli, right, heads back to the dugout after a striking out, next to Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski during the second inning of a baseball game Friday, May 3, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli, right, heads back to the dugout after a striking out, next to Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski during the second inning of a baseball game Friday, May 3, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Arlington, Texas — Mike Napoli has good memories of his two seasons with the Texas Rangers, and fans greeted him with their old chants of “Nap-o-li!, Nap-o-li!”

They were then cheering when he struck out in the second inning because Napoli is on the other side now, playing first base for the Boston Red Sox.

Still, the reaction Napoli got Friday night in his first game back in Texas was much different than five-time All-Star and former AL MVP Josh Hamilton got in his return with the Los Angeles Angels last month. Napoli also got a nice ovation when the starting lineups were announced. Hamilton was booed throughout that weekend series.

“I don’t think it’s too weird. ... I’ve got a lot of good friends over there,” Napoli said in Boston’s dugout before the series opener. “I had two great years here, a lot of moments I’ll never forget.”

During the Rangers batting practice, Napoli shared a hug with bench coach Jackie Moore and talked to many of his former teammates, including an exaggerated exchange with Adrian Beltre.

Asked before the game what kind of reaction he expected from the fans, he said. “I’d imagine it would be all right. ... I left here on a good note.”

Napoli hit 54 homers the last two seasons as a catcher and first baseman for the Rangers, and had 10 RBIs in his only World Series two years ago. He went into Friday night’s game with a majors-leading 22 extra-base hits, including six homers.

The Rangers were interested in him staying, even after not making a $13.3 million qualifying offer.

Napoli reached a $39 million, three-year agreement with Boston in December before a hip condition was detected by doctors. That even re-opened the possibility of a return to Texas, but seven weeks later he finalized a one-year deal with the Red Sox for a guaranteed $5 million with a chance to earn $8 million in bonuses.

“It was basically down to here or Boston. Just an opportunity I had here to play first every day, not be behind the plate,” Napoli said. “It was the best fit for me in my career and health wise. So everything has worked out.”

Napoli spent the first five seasons of his career with the AL West rival Angels. Los Angeles traded him to Toronto in January 2011, and the first time the Napoli actually heard from the Blue Jays was four days later, when they told him he was dealt to the Rangers.

First-year Red Sox manager John Farrell was in Toronto then, but never even got a chance to talk to Napoli as a Blue Jay. Farrell knows what a difference those two years in Texas made for his first baseman.

“When we think back to him being in Anaheim, across the field, you always felt there was a dangerous hitter there,” Farrell said. “Whether or not so much emphasis was being placed on the defensive side as a catcher, he came here and got the freedom of playing first base in a very good hitter’s ballpark. I think it allowed him to not only flourish, but any hitter here gains confidence.”

Napoli hit .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBIs when Texas its second straight AL pennant in 2011. He slumped to a .227 average with 24 homers and 56 RBIs while dealing with some minor injuries last season, but he still became a first-time All-Star after being selected as a starter by the fan vote.

In his first month with the Red Sox, Napoli set club records for April with his 18 extra-base hits and 13 doubles.

“Hopefully we can get him out,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “Right now, he’s swinging the bat well. But it’s nothing new that I haven’t seen before. He’s healthy. When he was healthy here, he was tremendous.”