In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer John Wagner spoke with Joe Napoli, who has been the general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens since 1999.
Joe Napoli is an easy guy to spot in a crowd these days: he's the guy with an ear-to-ear grin.
But who can blame the Mud Hens' general manager for smiling?
On the field, Toledo posted the best record in the International League during the regular season in 2005, then claimed the Governors' Cup as playoff champs. Off the field, the Hens set an attendance record while continuing their chart-busting ways in terms of sales of souvenirs. For his efforts, Napoli was named the IL's executive of the year.
This marks the second time Napoli has received that award, also earning the honor in Fifth Third Field's inaugural season of 2002. Napoli, who has served as the team's GM since 1999, also has worked for the Eastern League's Canton-Akron Indians, the Chicago Bulls, and the Detroit Tigers.
Napoli and his Mud Hen staff have been busy this off-season. In recent weeks Toledo has extended its affiliation agreement with Detroit through the 2008 season, then announced the creation of a new logo. And preparations continue for the 2006 Triple-A All-Star Game, which will come to Toledo next July.
"PEOPLE THOUGHT the inaugural season [of Fifth Third Field] was special, and we have been teased that we could never top that. But a lot of people thought last year's season did top that inaugural season, so now people are teasing us by asking how we're going to top that in the future.
"Can we? You can never say never. In 2006 we have the All-Star Celebration: the Home Run Derby, the Fan Festival, the Thunder Over Toledo Fireworks Show, and the All-Star Game itself. Who knows? Maybe the team does come out of the gate and play well, and we have the celebration of Toledo [at the all-star break] shown on ESPN2. Who knows? Maybe '06 will be a better year."
"THE ALL-STAR GAME actually is several days of activities. There's a fan festival that's going to be held over three or four days at the SeaGate Centre; we're going to host a home-run derby at Fifth Third Field; we're going to host a gala at the ballpark, and on top of all that is the All-Star Game itself. We've already sold about 2,000 ticket packages for the All-Star Game, and that's way ahead of the typical pace so there's definitely a high degree of interest.
"We're also close to announcing a naming rights sponsor [for the event], and the naming rights sponsor will allow us to hold all the events in a first-class manner. Our goal is that, after the people experience the Triple-A All-Star Game, that they would walk away saying this was major-league in every way.
"WE HAD QUITE a bit of fun with the new logo. We started working on it in June or July, and it was hard to keep under wraps because we had a lot of fun doing it. The classic logo is not going anywhere; it's tried and true. But we thought the Mud Hen logo needed a bit of an update, so that's what we tried to do. We wanted to be very careful in the sense that the latest rage is to come out with a logo that is sort of 'faddish,' and we wanted to keep with the tradition and the classic look of the ballclub and the logo.
"The management team has discussed the fact that we've had wonderful seasons, but what do we do to go to the next level? We've struggled with that, because we've accomplished more than we expected to accomplish to begin with. It boils down to a few things: it boils down to the fact that we're fortunate to have people in our organization who think like that, who know things are going great and yet think about ways to 'ramp it up' to another level as opposed to those who might coast a little bit.
"And the community has a right to expect more from the organizations and the things they support. They have a right to high standards. The epitome of that came when we opened the ballpark the first year, and the one comment we heard consistently all year was, 'I can't believe I'm in Toledo.'
"What always struck me funny about that was thinking, 'What's so hard to believe?' The community has a lot going for it, and we have a right to expect excellence.
"We're going to die trying [to reach that standard] - and I'd imagine some people on our staff already believe they've died trying."
"I THINK THE NEWS of us re-upping with Detroit in 2002 was met with a high degree of skepticism in the community, and we understood that. But if you've ever had a chance to meet with Dave and his staff, you'd be thoroughly impressed. They're frank, they're thoughtful, and I don't know if they get outworked because their nose is always to the grindstone.
"It would have been rather difficult for us to say we were not interested in renewing following a championship season. And when you think about it, who else is really out there? Cleveland makes sense, but they have a great relationship with Buffalo. Beyond that, I don't know who you would affiliate or partner with."
"IF YOU WERE to start with spring training [last season], as far as play on the field is concerned we had a pretty good idea this was going to be a good ballclub.
The combination of the team performing well along with the special events and attractions all made for a 2005 season I don't think many people will forget. Then it was capped off by the playoff victories and the Governors' Cup.
"It was just a magical season.
"Despite all that, the community has told us loud and clear that we're affordable, it's fun to come to the ballpark, and so the winning and losing really doesn't matter that much to us."