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Published: Tuesday, 9/13/2005

Mud Hens are no longer league's ugly ducklings

When the Mud Hens last played in the Governors' Cup final in 1980, they were best known for being Cpl. Max Klinger's favorite team on the hit television show M*A*S*H.

The Hens didn't have much of a history to crow about.

They had been the laughingstocks of minor league baseball for as long as anyone cared to remember.

Their legacy consisted mostly of losing, with the rare exception being 1967, when they won their first and only Triple-A championship in just their third season in the International League.

Thank goodness actor Jamie Farr, aka the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, was from Toledo, or else the hard-luck Hens may have continued to lay eggs on their way to possible extinction.

Shortly after being eliminated by arch-nemesis Columbus in the Governors' Cup final a quarter of a century ago - the Clippers won 20 of 25 games against Toledo that season - the Hens quickly reverted to being the IL's ugly ducklings.

Their long-suffering fans had no choice but to accept them for what they were - lovable losers.

Enter Joe Napoli, a 26-year-old sales and marketing whiz for the Double-A Canton-Akron Indians, who was flipping through his July, 1990, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The self-professed baseball junkie from Brooklyn came across a lengthy story on the Mud Hens that piqued his interest. Napoli read the story quickly, then picked up the telephone and called Hens general manager Gene Cook and asked him for a job.

Cook balked, but eventually invited Napoli to come to town to chat with him.

"We hit if off right away and the next thing I know, I had a job with the Mud Hens," Napoli said yesterday. "He hired me as the director of marketing and sales, and by the time I got to town two weeks later, the assistant GM had resigned, so I became Gene's assistant almost by default."

Napoli stayed with the Hens through the end of the 1993 season, and after sales and marketing stints with the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Tigers, he was rehired in 1997 as the Hens' executive director of baseball operations.

Two years later, Napoli succeeded the retiring Cook as Mud Hens GM.

"Gene was just a wonderful man," Napoli said. "He always used to tell me he'd given me just enough rope to hang myself, but I always knew I had a safety net with him. He didn't have a mean bone in his body."

Toledo's losing ways continued under Napoli's watch at Ned Skeldon Stadium, the converted horse racing track in Maumee where the Hens experienced just eight winning seasons in 37 years.

But in 2002, the franchise finally started to turn the corner.

The Hens opened a new downtown hatchery, known as Fifth Third Field, won their first division title in 34 years and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 18. Not even back-to-back 65-78 seasons in 2003 and 2004 dampened the enthusiasm.

Sooner or later, Napoli and Mike Miller, the Mud Hens chairman and president, knew the Hens would rule the roost. Not only did they have a stronger commitment from the Tigers, their roster was stocked with better players.

"The Tigers deserve a lot of the credit for our success," Miller said. "When Mike Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski [in 2001], our relationship with the Tigers did a complete 180. Before that, there couldn't have been a worse relationship." It was a nice blend of veteran players and prospects that helped the Hens compile the IL's best regular season record this year. They also won their first playoff game, their first playoff series, and qualified for their first Governors' Cup final since 1980.

Napoli deserves at least some credit for the turnaround, which includes two division titles in the last four years.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we made the right pick when we chose Joe Napoli to replace Gene Cook," Miller said. "Joe has had a big impact on our organization. And, in turn, he has hired a lot of good people around him who have helped make us good."

As hard as it is to believe, this year's playoff appearance is just the 16th for the Toledo franchise in 109 seasons.

No wonder there is Joy in MudHensville.



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