Mikey likes it: Napoli, mom thrilled by Series
Turn of events puts Rangers catcher in position to realize dream
ARLINGTON -- When the final out was recorded in the American League Championship Series and the Rangers had earned another shot at the World Series, a boyhood dream came true for Mike Napoli.
One of the few Rangers who wasn't around for the postseason thrills of 2010, Napoli leaped from behind home plate and engulfed closer Neftali Feliz in a joyous hug, an embrace that turned into a mob scene of celebration on the infield at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
A thousand miles away, a mother's dream came true as well.
Donna Torres was at her home in South Florida, doing what Napoli would expect his mom to do. Instead of going to Texas for Game 6 like she had for other playoff games and countless others in Napoli's Major League career, she had to be home for his sister Michelle's senior homecoming dance. It was a big event in one of her children's lives -- how could she miss it?
Watching the game at home, tears streaming down her face, Torres was overwhelmed, and with good reason: She had two kids going to the big dance on the same night.
"I was crying so hard the entire time I was watching, because I was just so happy," said Torres. "I mean, I still have times where I go, 'Is that really my son on TV?' It seems like just yesterday he was hitting the ball off the tee, and now Mikey's going to the World Series."
Her husband and Napoli's stepfather, Rick Torres, was there for the big baseball event, making it down to the field in the wild celebration of family and friends that followed, along with Napoli's girlfriend, Selma Alameri. With the chaos all around him on the field, Napoli couldn't stop smiling.
"When I got traded here, I knew something special could happen, and we did it. It all worked out great," said Napoli, who came up with the Angels and spent five seasons with them before being traded to Toronto and then the Rangers just four days later in January.
And when his mother came into the conversation, there was an earnest and enthusiastic response.
"If it weren't for my mother, I wouldn't be here today. She deserves a lot of credit, and I love her to death," Napoli said.
Soon enough, the text message hit Donna Torres' cellphone, imparting similar words: "I love you so much."
Remember, this is a tough-as-nails catcher whose tight, powerful swing bashes baseballs and who has taken more than a couple of hits at the plate this postseason, including a crushing one from former teammate Sean Rodriguez of the Rays in the Division Series, and another in which he deftly collapsed with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera bearing down on him.
But when it comes to mom, Napoli's always going to be a grown-up version of that kid who could only dream that he was starting his road to the World Series, his mom at the steering wheel.
"She was taking me to practices when I was five years old in tee-ball, working two jobs and taking care of me and my brother, always making sure I was where I needed to be," Napoli said. "She's been there my whole life throughout everything. She's a great person. I'll always look up to her."
Virtually every ballplayer has a mother, or had one, who made an impact on his life, many making sacrifices like those. But this relationship has been particularly strong from the beginning, when -- as Torres says -- she missed out on carving a Halloween pumpkin in 1981, delivering one instead. Not long after, she was raising Mikey and his younger brother Joey as a single mother, and she started her firstborn on a baseball journey that continues in St. Louis this week.
"Mikey and I are very, very close," Torres said. "I kind of did it on my own for a while, and Mikey only had me for a while."
Now, she's sharing him with the Rangers and their fans, and everyone's enjoying the dream.
And, to think, a year ago Napoli didn't know what would become of him in 2011.
"Last offseason, it was kind of tough," he says now. "Even during the season, I wasn't sure if I was going to be with the Angels or not. I got put on waivers and Boston claimed me, so I wasn't really sure if they were going to get a deal done. They didn't, but I kind of knew going into the offseason there was probably going to be a move."
His career was a bit out at sea, and fittingly Napoli was on a cruise with his mom and other family members in January when his baseball life changed forever.
Napoli had been a vital part of the Angels' regular lineup since making his debut in 2006, delivering a two-homer game against the Red Sox in the 2008 Division Series while participating in one of three postseason runs with the Angels. But he was in a difficult spot with the organization, having split time behind the plate with best friend Jeff Mathis while gradually being moved to first base and designated hitter, playing four more games at first than at catcher in 2010. He hit 26 homers but batted .238.
Maybe the time had come for him to move on, and that was something that came up during the offseason between mother and son.
The message he had for her: "You know what, Mom? I'm ready."
Sure enough, while on that cruise, he got a message from his agent saying he'd been traded to the Blue Jays. A change of scenery was in order, and it had materialized on the open seas.
"A bunch of us on the ship were just screaming and celebrating for him -- we must have looked crazy," Torres said.
Ah, but the sea changes in Napoli's career weren't over once he got back to dry land. Just four days later, Napoli got another phone call, and made a call to his mom.
"I got home from the cruise and he calls me up and he's laughing. He just said, 'You're never going to believe this, but I got traded again,'" Torres said.
This time it was the Rangers, and this time it was for good -- in more ways than one. Still, there was a little bit of trepidation going from the Angels to a fierce division rival.
"When I got traded the first time, I was excited because I thought I'd maybe get a new start somewhere and get a lot of ABs and really show what I can do," Napoli said. "Then to get traded twice and hear it's to our rivals, in my mind, I was like, 'Oh, wow, I used to hate these guys.' Now I've got to go in the clubhouse and meet new guys, how are they going to respond? In my mind, I said, 'I know some of these guys don't like me,' and I didn't like some of them."
Anybody wondering how it all turned out missed the celebration Saturday night after Texas defeated Detroit in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Mike Napoli isn't just one of them. The Rangers have come to love the guy many of them once liked about as much as a root canal in catcher's gear.
"He's been an unbelievable guy for us, really stepped up big-time behind the dish and you couldn't ask for a better guy," starter Derek Holland said. "He wants to lead, he wants to win and you can't ask for anything else.
"I mean, he's a goofball, so he fits right in. We hated him when he was with the Angels, but when he came over here we saw how he really was. He's a great guy, and a great teammate."
Said Michael Young, the team's elder statesman: "That's probably been the biggest thing we've gotten to know about Nap. We knew he was a good defender, we knew he had great power. But as a teammate, he's off the charts."
By the time the Rangers were wrapping up another AL West title, it was clear Napoli had found himself a new baseball home.
The bonding with his former rivals and new teammates began months earlier in Surprise, Ariz., at Spring Training. And while Napoli felt more at ease than he first imagined, it took some time for him to emerge as one of the boys in the Rangers clubhouse.
"He probably came in a little quieter than he is now and was feeling his way around, and I think that's pretty natural when you consider you're coming from a division rival," Young said. "Once he started getting comfortable with the guys and the real Nap started coming out, it's been a lot of fun since then."
Ah, yes, the fun -- like dressing up with a few teammates as a scary clown before the Division Series began, sending Young and his fear of clowns bolting off the field and through a tunnel. And there are the tiny ducks he has in his locker, gag gifts from his brother -- all in a row, of course.
"I don't know, I like to mess around and a lot of guys are the same way in here. I just roll with it," Napoli said.
Given regular playing time after the All-Star break, in part because Adrian Beltre's hamstring injury opened up a lineup spot, Napoli was spectacular offensively during August and September. By the end of the season he became just the third player in the Rangers' vaunted hitting history to exceed a .300 average, a .400 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage in a season. Going .320/.414/.631, Napoli joined Josh Hamilton (2010) and Rafael Palmeiro (1999).
"I think sometimes it works magic for guys, a change of scenery," said veteran reliever Darren Oliver, a teammate of Napoli's with the Angels from 2007-09. "He got out of there, and when they gave him a chance over here to play every day he took it and ran with it. He had to earn his stripes, and he did. There's no telling where we'd be without him right now, that's for sure."
The fans at Rangers Ballpark certainly have caught on, and they've made Napoli one of the hometown heroes on a team full of them. The chant began in the Division Series, and continues through October:
NAH-PO-LEE! NAH-PO-LEE! NAH-PO-LEE!
"It's awesome. I love it every time I come up to bat and I hear that. It pumps me up," Napoli says.
It's as though Napoli's whole world has changed for the better in Texas. Any good mother could recognize that.
"He just seems so much happier since he's been with the Rangers," Torres said.
And why not? Napoli is an important cog in the Rangers' rise to a second World Series, providing power at the plate and leadership behind it throughout the postseason. He has a girlfriend his mother adores, he has teammates around him who have flipped their disdain into total devotion, and he's gaining respect as one of the better all-around catchers in the game.
And, of course, he's got his mom, right there with him, all the way -- quite literally tattooed on his forearm. He'd gone out to lunch with her in Tampa Bay, where she's always taken the four-hour drive to see him play, and asked her to sign her name on the back of a business card. Before too long, "Donna Rose" was engraved in ink.
"I always kid him that once he gets married and has kids, he's going to have to name his daughter Donna Rose because of that tattoo," his mom said.
That's something for the future, but in the present Torres is preparing to see the World Series games in Texas, where she looks forward to spending time with her Mikey.
It's a long way from those rides to the tee-ball games, but for a mom it's really just like yesterday.
"Words don't even describe how exciting this is," Torres said. "Seeing Mikey from tee-ball to now being in the World Series, it's just ... wow. He's an amazing son, so kind, so loving and humble."
Now that Mikey's going to the World Series, he's living every little boy's dream -- and the dream of every mother who made the sacrifices and spent the time.
"This is my home now, and hopefully I can play here for a while," Napoli said. "Now, I'm playing for a championship. It's been a fun journey. I couldn't ask for anything more."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.