By Dave Hackenberg
The Toledo Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio – There are two Joe Napolis.
One is the suit. The business community loves Napoli, the suit. So do the politicians. He is razor sharp, a man with a plan, the go-to guy who gets things done.
The other Joe Napoli is an aw-shucks type of fellow, the soft-spoken boy from Brooklyn who has found a home in the Midwest, the rust belt, because of a Midas touch that turns rust into gold. This is the Napoli who said he thanks God every night when he closes his eyes and every morning when he opens them for putting him in this place at this time.
It goes without saying, though, that he’s the right guy for this place and time. His is the No. 1 name in Toledo professional sports. Napoli is the vice president and general manager of the Mud Hens, one of minor league baseball’s most successful franchises and now is the top honcho in the not-for-profit organization that will operate the city’s hockey franchise and is the driving force behind the arena that will be built to house it.
The arena will belong to Lucas County and there are three commissioners whose names, justifiably, will be on the plaque mounted in the main lobby on opening night in 2009.
But Napoli will oversee the project much as he did the construction of Fifth Third Field, the home of the Mud Hens. He won’t always be wearing a hard hat, but not a spade of dirt will be turned, not a beam will be raised, not a wall will be painted, not a suite will be built, not a concession stand will be located, not a plaque will be mounted without his nod.
And when it is done, should Fifth Third Field provide us with any example, it will be spectacular beyond our wildest expectations. The suites will all be leased, the tickets will all be sold, the hot dogs will be juicy and hot, the beer will be cold and a good time will be had by all.
The other suits will pat Napoli on the back and he’ll aw-shucks it because, truthfully, he is that person.
“Even on those difficult days, when everything seems to be heading south, I can pause to reflect that I have to be one of the most fortunate people around,” Napoli said.
Fortunate that Gene Cook, the late, great Mud Hens general manager, had second thoughts after first telling Napoli he didn’t have a job for him. Fortunate that Cook and the Hens’ board, knowing a long, tough downtown stadium project full of heavy lifting was needed to get the team out of Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, were smart enough to bring Napoli back after stints in the NBA and with the Detroit Tigers. Fortunate that Cook stepped into retirement and, as a parting gift, oiled the cogs for the new kid with the business community and politicos.
“Gene and I had a great relationship,” Napoli said. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned from him and owe him. Once we realized the new park was going to be a reality, Gene stepped aside, I became the GM and that sent the signal to the community that [Hens board president] Mike Miller, who was an unsung hero, and I were spearheading the project.”
Cook was a gem. Rugged and good looking in a John Wayne sort of way, he and Ned Skeldon, who for so many years was the power behind the Mud Hens throne, were both politicians. They knew who to lean on, they knew how to persuade, and they knew how to get water out of a rock. Even Napoli marvels that Cook’s Mud Hens regularly managed to eke out profits despite fielding mostly bad teams in a bad stadium that was convenient only to the south side of town.
Cook was an old football player, all rough edges, who came at you like a locomotive. He might have worn a suit, but he never was one. He’d literally put a head lock on a businessman and before he’d let him go the poor guy had agreed to buy 2,000 tickets to be distributed to straight-A students, whose parents would then buy tickets, and all of a sudden 6,000 fans would show up on a chilly mid-week night in May for a game that otherwise would have drawn 600 and the Hens would be off and running to another profitable season.
Napoli is softer, more subtle, all the edges are smooth. But make no mistake. He is every bit as effective as Cook in every aspect of the sports business.
The bloom should long since have been off the rose at Fifth Third Field, as clean and classy as the day it opened. This is its sixth season and the novelty should have worn off by now. But Napoli stuck with the Tigers organization when many critics, including yours truly, begged for a change. The result? Back-to-back championships and one sellout crowd after another. The Mud Hens no longer have to survive on giveaways and fireworks nights, but Napoli will never turn off the tap because he knows baseball is just one of the reasons people flock to the stadium.
It is that same total experience he intends to bring to hockey and arena football when the new building opens.
“People stop me in the [stadium] concourse and say it’s their kid’s first game or their grandchild’s first game, and how much fun they’re having,” he said. “They always apologize for taking my time, but I hope they know that’s what it’s all about. They can take all the time they want because that’s the highest form of praise we can get.
“It’s all about the experience for the fans. I know that sounds hokey. But I’ve worked in the major leagues and oftentimes it’s not about the fans. Sometimes it’s about everything but the fans. Some franchises get it and some don’t.”
The Mud Hens have always gotten it, starting with the night in 1966 that Charlie Senger, who was Cook’s predecessor, gave away a pony and 13,695 fans showed up. They still get it to this day, which is why the franchise survived in Maumee and why, in Fifth Third Field, attendance records are rewritten almost annually.
Now, Napoli is being asked to do the same for hockey, which has a rich local history, and for arena football, which has no history here. With a 9,000-seat arena project, including 20 private suites and 750 prestige club seats, he’s being asked to put the final touches on a rather unique entertainment district that will have its indoor and outdoor stadiums and its convention center all lined up in a row. The kid from Brooklyn has become the main man in Toledo sports.
“I’d like to impress you and say it was all part of a script for my life, but that would be baloney,” Napoli said. “There’s no way I could have imagined being in this position and being surrounded by all the bright people in our organization who sweat all the details. It’s a privilege for me to work with them.
“There will be roadblocks and there will be craters, times that it seems like everything is falling apart, as we go about the arena project. But we’ll get it done because Toledoans deserve that it’s done right.”
Amen. That may well have been the suit talking, but the aw-shucks guy suits Toledo to a T.