ARLINGTON, Texas — When Mike Napoli was playing for the other team, Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler had a serious dislike for him.
Sure, a lot of that had to do with Napoli playing for a division opponent the past five years before he became part of a World Series team in Texas.
There was also the way Napoli flipped his bat after hitting a home run or how the top button of his Angels jersey was often undone.
“I would never tell you last year I would probably enjoy having him in the clubhouse,” Kinsler said. “You never know what his personality is until you meet a guy, but as far as the way he plays and uniform he wears, there’s certain things that bothered me.”
Not until Napoli joined the Rangers — after being traded twice in five days last winter — and had a breakout season to help Texas reach its second consecutive World Series.
“It’s pretty simple to get along with him, and he’s just a great guy to have around,” Kinsler said.
“Yeah, I didn’t like them, either,” Napoli said. “That’s just part of the sport-hate thing. You don’t know people. Just coming over here, it’s been amazing.”
Watching Texas from the opposite side, Napoli saw a team that had a lot of fun and enjoyed the game. He also saw the Los Angeles Angels replaced as AL West champions by the Rangers last year when they went to their first World Series.
Napoli has fit right in with the loaded lineup for Texas, which plays the next three games of the World Series at home after a 2-1 victory at St. Louis in Game 2 evened the series at a game a piece. Game 3 is Saturday night at Rangers Ballpark.
“I knew coming over here was going to be fun,” Napoli said. “I knew they had a great core of players and they were a winning ballclub, so I was excited to come over here and be part of it.”
Texas fans have taken to chanting “Nap-o-li!, Nap-o-li!” when the former rival comes to bat at home during the playoffs. It worked the first time they did it in Game 2 of the AL division series, when Napoli kept fouling off pitches before hitting a tying two-run single in the rally that gave the Rangers their first victory over Tampa Bay.
“It was pretty nuts, unexpected,” he said. “It was crazy, but now I like it…. I like hearing it. It’s definitely a cool experience.”
Like he did in the season opener for Texas nearly seven months ago, Napoli also homered in his first World Series game for the Rangers on Wednesday night.
The catcher has endured two bone-jarring collisions at the plate in the playoffs, including the eighth inning in Game 4 of the AL championship series in Detroit when Miguel Cabrera tried to bowl over him for the tiebreaking run. Napoli held on, then three innings later had a go-ahead RBI single before scoring on Nelson Cruz’s second 11th-inning homer of that series.
“I call him a dirt bag,” manager Ron Washington said. “He’s a gamer, and he tries to do whatever it takes to help his team win.”
In the clubhouse Friday, Napoli wore a “DirtBag” T-shirt sent to him by a music and clothing company with that name. A DirtBag banner hangs over the empty corner locker between he and Michael Young.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, familiar with the catcher from his days with the Angels, at one point during the ALDS declared “The Year of the Napoli.” Along with his big hit in Game 2, Napoli had the go-ahead homer in Game 3.
Napoli spent the first five seasons of his career with the Angels, who traded him in January to Toronto. The first time Napoli actually heard from the Blue Jays was four days later when they told him he was going to Texas in exchange for reliever Frank Francisco.
Washington was all for the move when general manager Jon Daniels called to discuss Napoli’s possible availability, even though it was unclear how the catcher-first baseman could be worked into the lineup. The Rangers had already signed catcher Yorvit Torrealba and had plans for Michael Young to play first base after signing All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre.
“I said get him,” Washington said. “We certainly needed to put another professional bat in our lineup, especially losing (Vladimir) Guerrero.”
Napoli set career highs by hitting .320 with 30 homers and 75 RBIs in 113 games in the regular season. Of his starts, 57 were at catcher, 27 at first base and 18 as the designated hitter.
Since returning to the lineup July 4 after missing three weeks with a strained left oblique, Napoli has been one of the best hitters in the majors. He hit .378 with 20 homers and 50 RBIs over the last 67 regular-season games, and .302 with two homers through the first 12 postseason games.
Napoli, who turns 30 this winter, has established himself behind the plate working with Rangers pitchers and with his defensive play.
“I’m just glad that I can show I can get it done behind the plate. I kind of got the label to where I was just an offensive player and could hit for power, I really couldn’t do it behind the plate,” Napoli said. “But just coming over here, I settled in and got comfortable in my receiving and working with the pitchers. So I mean, I’m glad that I can show that I can get it done on both sides.”