Napoli on Mathis: ‘He’s one of my best friends’
Baseball is still a little tough for Mike Napoli to watch in his first year of retirement, so he doesn’t flip the TV on to a ballgame very often.
He’s invested in some racehorses, and even has the trainer of the disqualified Kentucky Derby winner working in his stables at Gulfstream Park just north of Miami.
He’s a full-time Florida resident, as are many retirees, and despite the baseball urges he feels, it’s pretty good to be Mike Napoli.
Nobody on Saturday at Globe Life Park, where Napoli made an appearance, knows what that’s like better than Texas Rangers catcher Jeff Mathis.
“He’s one of my best friends,” Napoli said.
The Florida natives, Napoli from the south near Miami and Mathis from the north near Tallahassee, first met each other in the Los Angeles Angels’ system, where life as a catcher was no picnic with Mike Scioscia, a former MLB catcher, as the manager.
Mathis and Napoli competed for playing time throughout their time in the Angels’ farm system and with the Angels, but also did all they could to help each other succeed.
Many times that meant venting after being on the receiving end of a Scioscia rebuke or enduring a stint in his doghouse. It possible that a beer or two was consumed.
“We leaned on each other for a lot of things,” Mathis said. “He was great defensive and didn’t get enough credit as he should have in Anaheim. Everybody saw that when he got over here.
“But me leaning on him offensively and us going over stuff defensively, and there was always chat back and forth about what we could do to be better ourselves and what we could do better to help what we were going through. But it definitely helped having each other there.”
Napoli was drafted by the Angels in the 17th round in 2000, and Mathis followed as the 33rd overall pick in 2001. He ended up beating Napoli to the majors by a season.
They were teammates for the first time in 2002 at Low A Cedar Rapids and again in 2003 at High A Rancho Cucamonga and in 2006 at Triple A Salt Lake City. They spent springs together and were reunited in the majors in 2006.
Mathis is considered one of the game’s top defensive catchers, while Napoli ultimately had to quit catching for health issues. But he had tremendous power, connecting for 267 career homers in 12 seasons, while Mathis’ offense has lagged.
“That’s why our friendship was so good,” Napoli said. “We were fighting for the same spot, but then again, every night when we came home, we tried to help each other in any way.
“We talked about hitting a lot, we talked about defense, what it takes to be a big-league player and what we had to do to get better. Us being there for each other built our relationship even more.”
Napoli spent five seasons with the Angels before they traded him to Toronto in the Vernon Wells trade after the 2010 season, and the Blue Jays flipped him to the Rangers four days later for reliever Frank Francisco.
It was the first of three stints Napoli had with the Rangers, and the one that included appearing in the 2011 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Getting traded away from Anaheim, I think I was able to open up as a person,” Napoli said, crediting former manager Ron Washington. “Wash allowed me to become that player. I think I grew a lot being here and being around a lot of guys.”
Mathis stayed with the Angels for seven seasons before hitting free agency in 2012. He gives Scioscia, who retired after last season, credit for shaping him into a quality defensive catcher.
“A lot of things that he was doing and applying to us at the time, you didn’t really understand them,” Mathis said. “It was for a good reason, but me and a couple others were scratching our heads a lot. But I definitely respect the heck of him and appreciate the opportunities that he gave me.”
Mathis and Napoli have spent time together in past off-seasons, with Mathis taking Napoli hunting in northern Florida. Copious amounts of trash talk have been exchanged between Napoli, a Miami Hurricanes fan, and Mathis, a Florida State Seminoles fan.
With all the time they have spent together, it’s no surprise that they said the same thing about what stood out to them about the other.
“The ultimate thing was the teammate he was, the way he treated everybody and the way he went about his business,” said Mathis, who signed a two-year contract with the Rangers in November. “Probably a lot of the same things people in here would say about him. I just got to experience it first.”
Said Napoli: “He’s just an overall good human being. Great teammate. Someone that cares, cares about his teammates. It’s just good being around him. He loves the game. He’s a guy that could definitely teach younger players how to go about their business the right way.”