Kragthorpe: Former Salt Lake Bee Mike Napoli could be World Series MVP
Twenty-five years later, Mike Napoli is in Bruce Hurst territory.
Napoli and the Texas Rangers can clinch the World Series in Thursday's Game 6. Through five games, the former Salt Lake Bees catcher is the clear choice for MVP, positioning himself to join a short list of award-winners with Utah ties.
Hurst, not included.
The votes already were collected with the Dixie High School product as the MVP-to-be in 1986, only to have Bill Buckner and other Boston teammates blow Game 6 as the Red Sox lost the Series to the New York Mets.
Napoli and the Rangers are hoping for a better ending, topping his phenomenal postseason performance five years after he spent a month with the Bees.
He's further removed from his Salt Lake City days than pitchers John Lackey, Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez were in 2002, when they combined for eight innings of one-run ball for the Angels in a Game 7 victory over San Francisco. Each was called up from the Triple-A team during that season. Angels third baseman Troy Glaus was named the MVP, though, so Napoli one of 499 players to appear during the 18-season Buzz/Stingers/Bees era is on the verge of a major distinction in Salt Lake City's baseball history. The only World Series MVPs with Utah ties are former BYU pitcher Jack Morris with Minnesota and ex-Ogden Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Because he's no longer with the Bees' parent club, Napoli would not be celebrated at Spring Mobile Ballpark the way Lackey and the other Angels were. That hardly diminishes his story, or the organization's development of him. Here's a guy who bats eighth in the Rangers' lineup, emerging as an unlikely MVP front-runner.
Highlighted by his three-run homer in a 4-0 victory in Game 4 and a tie-breaking, two-run double in a 4-2 win in Game 5, Napoli has driven in nine runs in the Series. Not bad for a player whose most memorable game with the Bees in the spring of '06 came when he struck out four times in four at-bats against Tacoma.
Having come to town with other emerging stars including Howie Kendrick, Kendrys Morales, Erick Aybar and Jered Weaver, Napoli was batting .244 when he was promoted to the Los Angeles Angels. That was better than anything Jeff Mathis was producing, so Mathis was sent down. Napoli homered at Detroit in his first at-bat as an Angel and never returned to the Bees.
Drafted out of high school in Florida, Napoli had progressed through the Angels' system to Salt Lake. Jim Eppard, the Bees' hitting coach, takes some credit for helping Napoli learn to hit the ball up the middle, instead of trying to pull everything. That teaching was rewarded in Game 5, when Napoli doubled to right-center field.
Rangers manager Ron Washington admired Napoli as an Angel. Now that he's watching him every day, "I know my thoughts were correct and he hasn't proved me wrong in any respect, as far as his game goes," Washington said in a news conference. "He certainly knows how to play baseball, and he was taught well."
Napoli stayed with the Angels through 2010, basically sharing the catcher's job with Mathis, until he was traded to Toronto with Juan Rivera for outfielder Vernon Wells in January. Four days later, the Blue Jays sent him to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco.
He's thriving in Texas. Napoli said his goal in October was to keep doing what he did in the regular season, when he batted .320 with 30 homers in 113 games. Now, he's poised to join the MVP list that includes Morris, who pitched an epic, 10-inning shutout against Atlanta in Game 7 in '91. In '81, Yeager was one of three co-MVPs for the Dodgers. Yeager appeared in one game with Ogden in '67 a year before Buckner played a full season for the rookie-league team.