I was 25 years old, trying to stay optimistic about the coming election, and hoping like mad that the Red Sox could become the first team since 2000 to win back-to-back championships. Their first hurdle was the Angels, who'd been literally a hurdle on the last two championship runs. A minor, easily-cleared obstacle that ups the drama a bit. The LA/California/Anaheim/Los Angeles of Anaheim franchise was one of the few over which Boston could claim complete postseason dominance. A miraculous, Dave Henderson-fueled comeback from 3-1 in 1986, perfunctory sweeps in 2004 and 2007, and now a 2-0 lead at home in 2008. The Angels were the gaggle of henchmen before the main boss. They even wore red shirts.
But on October 5th, 2008 the Angels drew blood. They took a postseason game from Boston for the first time since 1986, thanks to two towering home runs by their backup catcher. Mike Napoli had been something of an internet cause celebre for most of the year, the classic productive player held back by outdated management. That he absolutely mashed the ball (960 OPS with 20 HR in 78 games) didn't matter. He was a catcher; catcher was a defensive position in the mind of Mike Scioscia, and so Jeff Mathis remained the primary. As he proved Scioscia wrong (admittedly not hard to do) with two home runs off Josh Beckett at Fenway, he changed from a guy I'd been mad about online to a guy I was mentally sizing for a Sox jersey.
It would be four years until that jersey actually came about. Boston was looking for a first baseman in the aftermath of the Valentine Interregnum and the Punto Trade, and Napoli was looking for a gig. Both sides agreed that the garage across Lansdowne Street had seen its insurance premiums drop far too low. And so Mike Napoli became a member of our beloved Boston Red Sox.
The experience was everything we could ever have wanted, and yet somehow more. The man that Mike Scioscia buried on the bench for insufficient glovework behind the plate turned out to be downright balletic at first. At the plate, he showed a form of patient, streaky power that would have gotten a player with a different last name run out of town. But when that power was going... Oh my, it was a thing to watch. Mike Napoli has never hit a cheap home run in his life. His swing has none of the poetry of Williams or Griffey. It's a Soviet rocket, designed only for orbital shots or explosions on the launchpad. Even his last home run as a member of the Red Sox, which barely made it into the front row of the Monster seats, got there at the end of a moon-scraping parabola.
As the 2013 team blazed its way into the playoffs, Napoli's facial hair led the way. His beard, rich, lustrous, beyond the reach of all but the most grizzled Civil War generals, served as a totem for the club. The hitting didn't hurt, either, as he managed to slug .700 in the ALCS against the Tigers despite striking out in 11 of 21 plate appearances. His homer off Justin Verlander provided all the scoring in Game 3, giving Boston a series lead it would never look back from.
Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Boston won its third pennant in a decade two weeks later, and it was in the aftermath of the parade that Napoli would make the transition from hero player and lifelong member of the Boston Champions' Club into beloved folk icon. Our city, delirious from a third glorious championship, most of us several glasses of brown liquor deep, looked at our Twitter feeds and exclaimed with one voice: "Is that Nap walking shirtless down Newbury?!?" Because of course it was.
This is not what you'd call an easy town. Angrily blue-collar to the point of resenting any sports contract more generous than that of the average electrician. Calvinist enough (even among the Catholics) to distrust any winning streak as a sign of future heartbreak. Constantly goaded by the local media to treat sports as some form of flagellant badge of honor rather than a break from whatever annoyances we put up with to pay the rent. And yet Mike Napoli, in one transcendent moment of drunken shirtlessness, won every heart along the Charles. 'He got hammered and wandered from McGreevy's to Daisy Buchanan's! I've made that stumble!" Because of course we all have.
Unfortunately, Napoli hasn't been a particularly good player since that wondrous pub crawl. More importantly, the Red Sox have been absolutely dreadful since then. For both of those reasons, it was time for the team to send him elsewhere. He deserves a shot at contention, and the Sox need to figure out which of Travis Shaw, Pablo Sandoval, or Hanley Ramirez will be their first baseman next year. Baseball never stops moving.
The last time I saw Napoli play in person was almost two weeks ago. As the Sox were attempting to rally in the ninth, Nap grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and someone behind me shouted "NOBODY LIKES YOU!" Now, it's intimidating being at your first-ever baseball game, I can understand the stressful urge to shout. But that complete ass-haberdasher reminded me of Nap's greatest power. Everyone liked him. He was from all accounts great in the clubhouse. He embraced the often-unreasonable demands of fan service in this town. And he clearly understands that baseball's a game.
Mike Napoli was damned fun to watch during a brilliant championship season of baseball. I'm not sure we can ask for any more than that.