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Published: Saturday, 10/1/2005

For the Hens, hits just keep on comin'

BY JOE NAPOLI
Napoli Napoli
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AS YOU can imagine, long-suffering baseball fans in T-town are calling the 2005 International League Champion Toledo Mud Hens "magical."

Actually, the Hens, lovable losers no more, may be a whole lot more.

About 15 years ago, Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated called the Mud Hens of Toledo the most evocative name in all of American sport.

His assignment: climb inside the soul of minor league baseball in an essay for SI.

Off he went to Toledo, Ohio, to "capture the off-the-beaten-path quirkiness of minor league baseball." Upon arrival, Mr. Montville found out what we already knew. The wondrous soul of minor league baseball lives here. So what makes the Toledo Mud Hens so uncommonly special?

Even the skeptics who have turned their backs on big-time, big-money sports teams must admit that this small-time, small-money team captured the soul of its city and its fans.

Blade photographers skillfully captured the joy in Mudville for all to see, and as the saying goes, "Every picture tells a story."

Take a close look at the expressive faces in the many photographs of fans and players jubilantly celebrating victory at Fifth Third Field during three champagne-soaked celebrations.

The players jogged around the perimeter of the field as they sprayed ecstatic fans with champagne, slapped high-fives with the outstretched hands of wide-eyed children, and shook hands with the men and women who were shocked and surprised to suddenly be made part of the party.

Take a closer look at each adoring face, and you will see that there is pure-hearted joy in Mudville.

Behind the scenes was also truly remarkable. Be it major or minor league, the clubhouse atmosphere is reflective of society and family at its best and worst.

The same tensions, frustrations, misunderstandings, kinship, and joy that occurs in the neighborhood "melting pot" occurs among the 100-plus people who interact at one time or another in the Hens clubhouse or "home."

Furthermore, the Hens spend more time together than you and your family. Think about it for a moment. The team receives one day off - yes, that is correct, one day off - every 30 days or so over the course of a 144-game season.

Half of those days are on the road, away from their "home." A typical daily schedule consists of the coaching staff and players beginning to show up for work around 1 p.m. and knocking off around 11 p.m.

How many different ways can you say "dysfunctional?"

Moreover, the transient Hens family was well stocked with dissimilar personalities from far-flung places.

With more roster changes than three people can count on their collective fingers and toes, it's remarkable that any minor league club can do better than break even.

Players, coaches, front office staff, journalists, umpires, bat boys, doctors, trainers, and roving instructors arrived in Toledo from throughout the world: Venezuela, Missouri, New York, the Dominican Republic, Minnesota, Santo Domingo, South Carolina, Alabama, California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Kansas just to name a few.

Southern boys, city slickers, surfer dudes, rich, poor, middle-class, black, white, Latino, Mexican, brainy, laid back, short-tempered, book-smart, street-smart. You name it, we had it.

However, this family was different.

The participants in this year's drama learned about themselves and each other as they talked baseball, worked hard, got frustrated, and played cards.

They watched movies, got lonely, got injured, and rode the bus.

They rode a streak, suffered through a slump, and rode the plane.

They misunderstood, laughed at, got mad at, and teased each other.

Then, before almost every game - I am not sure when it all started - they huddled together to perform that hopelessly silly but curiously charming dance.

Does a cockamamie two-step dance symbolize camaraderie and understanding? If you had the chance to bear witness, you know that it most certainly did.

Need more proof?

How often do competitive "this may be my last shot" players insist that a teammate be in the lineup? Ask Kevin "Super" Hooper.

How often does a sore-armed hitting coach continue to provide lessons to eager students in the batting cage, sometimes as late as 15 minutes before the game? Ask Leon "Bull" Durham.

How often does the pitching coach double as the staff psychologist in order to have a heart-to-heart talk with a player loaded with talent but consumed by insecurity? Ask Jeff Jones.

Moreover, if that isn't enough, how often does the manager, a 30-year veteran, a former major league all-star, and a quiet man prone to understatement, tell you that this is the best team he has ever been involved with? Ask Larry Parrish.

To further illustrate the sincerity and thoughtfulness of this family, I have one last story to share. It is one of joy and regret.

As unusual as each of our three champagne celebrations between players and fans may have been, we did have one more.

The coaching staff and players invited the Mud Hens front office "family" into the visitors' locker room in Indianapolis for one more champagne-soaked celebration, a sight to see.

Ask John Harris. The Blade columnist stood patiently in the doorway leading to the visitors' locker room.

We did not speak but I caught his eye on more than one occasion.

I could swear I heard him say, "Who are these people. Why are they dancing with the players? Should I join in? Looks like fun. No, no, I am a professional. Have they run out of champagne yet? Can I safely do my interview? More champagne is coming. Get me out of here!"

The only regret uttered countless times by all was that, "We wish we could have shared this with our fans in Toledo."

With that I might suggest, Opening Day is Thursday, April 6, 2006.

Hold onto to your seats. It's gonna be one heckuva party!

Joe Napoli is general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens.



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