Napoli gets first look at Angels from other side
Rangers catcher shrugs off sentimental meaning of spring start
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Angels were in Surprise on Wednesday afternoon and Mike Napoli was behind the plate for the Rangers.Manager Ron Washington decided to start Napoli against his old team for sentimental reasons. Napoli doesn't appear to be the sentimental type. "It will mean more sometime during the year when we need to win," Napoli said. "Right now, it's just another game to get ready." "Mike has been a pro long enough," Washington said. "He's such a gamer, he'll be himself. If they try to throw a pitch in his zone, I hope he crunches it."
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Napoli went 1-for-2 with a walk and scored two runs in the Rangers' 10-6 win over his former team. One-out singles by Michael Young and Napoli set up David Murphy's three-run homer in the second.
Until this spring, Napoli had spent his entire professional career with the Angels. They drafted him out of high school in 2000 and brought him to the big leagues in 2006. He spent the past five years splitting time with Jeff Mathis at catcher, and the Angels won three straight American League West titles from 2007-09 before the Rangers took them down in 2010.Napoli has spent his entire Major League career trying to beat the Rangers. Now he has quickly become one of them. "Possibly it will be a little weird on the other side," Napoli said. "I'm comfortable here. I have only been here two weeks and all the guys have been great. It's kind of weird ... I always had a sports hate for them because of the rivalry ... not knowing these guys." The question now is if he can muster a "sports hate" for his old buddies in Anaheim. "Oh, yeah," Napoli said. "I got a bunch of great friends over there. My best friend, Jeff Mathis, is over there. But once the game is on, it's time to go." Napoli's time with the Angels came to an end on Jan. 21, when he was traded to the Blue Jays along with outfielder Juan Rivera for Vernon Wells. The Angels still had Mathis and Bobby Wilson at catcher, as well as a good prospect in Hank Conger. "We all saw it coming in a way," Napoli said. "The way our catching depth was, Jeff, Bobby, me others, we knew somebody would have to get moved. It just so happened to be me. It was always in the back of our minds that one of us was not going to be with the Angels. We all wanted to play every day. With all of us there, we knew we weren't going to get that opportunity, so we had to split playing time." The Rangers picked up Napoli just four days after the Angels-Blue Jays trade. They sent reliever Frank Francisco with the idea of Napoli filling a versatile role as part-time first baseman, designated hitter, catcher and pinch-hitter off the bench. He has a reputation for being an offensive catcher, and his .492 slugging percentage is the highest among all active catchers with at least 200 games behind the plate. His .839 OPS is fourth best. The Rangers were attracted by his offense, but Washington said he likes what he sees from Napoli behind the plate. "I hold a high regard for his catching abilities," Washington said. "Not just because he is here. I watched him handle that pitching staff for four years and I was impressed. Mathis is as good as it gets in the way he blocks and calls a game. Mike is the same way. [Angels manager] Mike Scioscia was a catcher and he always has good catchers behind the plate because he takes time to work with them." Scioscia spent 13 seasons as a Major League catcher with the Dodgers. He won two World Series with the Dodgers as a catcher and one as manager of the Angels. Napoli smiled when his former manager's name was brought up. It can't be easy when your manager is a former catcher. "The knowledge he has for the game is unbelievable," Napoli said. "I mean, it was tough sometimes from him being a catcher. He can really get on you. If you can't take it, he's tough to play for. You've got to have thick skin and you can't take it personally. He is trying to get the best out of his players." Now the Angels are in Napoli's rearview mirror. He may not be sentimental, but he's also not bitter in the way he views his time in Anaheim. "It was great," Napoli said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity they gave me to be in the big leagues. I learned a lot of things over there. There are no hard feelings. I got to see the business part of it and I'm here with the Rangers now."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.