Mud Hens mark 25th season as Tigers affiliateWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships are a lot of work.
Whether it’s personal or professional, both sides need to be on the same plane of communication and willing to compromise with one another in order to make the relationship succeed. Success can only be achieved if both parties can come to a mutual understanding more often than they disagree, and if their intentions and decisions are made with each other in mind.
When it comes to the affiliation of the Toledo Mud Hens with the Detroit Tigers, the relationship couldn’t be better between the two organizations.
This year, Toledo enters its 25th consecutive season as the Triple-A affiliate of Detroit, having been with the Tigers every year since 1987, the fourth-longest relationship in Triple-A baseball.
“The Tigers have always been very good to the Mud Hens,” Mud Hens President and General Manager Joe Napoli said. “The decade of the late ’80s through the ’90s, the relationship was really based on proximity to Toledo because as a Triple-A baseball facility, unfortunately Ned Skeldon Stadium was a converted harness racing track. Through the decade of the ’90s, they were very patient with us toward the tail end when we all knew we needed a new ballpark.”
While Napoli has served as Toledo’s GM since 1999, he has seen the franchise from both ends of the spectrum. Napoli first held a sales position with the Mud Hens organization about two decades ago before leaving for jobs in Chicago and Detroit, serving as corporate sales and promotions manager for the Bulls and assistant director of marketing and sales for the Tigers, respectively. When he returned to Toledo 12 years ago, Napoli brought years of business savvy and experience to help lead the Mud Hens in the right direction.
“The turning point, really, was when Dave Dombrowski got hired as the Tigers’ president/GM,” Napoli said. “He has changed the franchise dramatically.”
Dombrowski was hired as the Tigers team president on Nov. 5, 2001, assumed the role of general manager April 8, 2002, and now serves as president, CEO and GM for Detroit. When Dombrowski came to the organization, Napoli said he told himself and Toledo Board of Directors Chairman Mike Miller that quality, hardworking people would be hired and that they wouldn’t be outworked.
“Even when they have a lack of success on the field, it’s typically not because they’ve made a series of bad decisions,” Napoli said. “It’s typically because you have things outside of your control. Guys are going to get injured. Guys are going to get older, and you can’t control those factors. The fact is that they won’t get outworked.”
Together with Tigers Vice President and Assistant General Manager Al Avila, Dombrowski began rebuilding the franchise and helped make Detroit into a contender by the 2006 season. That year, the Tigers finished with a 95-67 record and reached the World Series for the first time since 1984. With the addition of Dan Lunetta as Detroit’s director of minor league operations on Dec. 8, 2004, both franchises had the front office pieces in place to bring great success to each club.
“The relationship has never been better,” Napoli said. “The entire staff — Dave Dombrowski, Al Avila, Dan Lunetta — we work with Dan Lunetta on a regular basis. He oversees all the minor league operations. He’s terrific. I know that there are other franchises at the Triple-A level that are envious of our relationship with the Tigers. That’s how good it is.”
Why it works
Lunetta said the most critical components of any partnership are the relationships between the individuals involved in maintaining that working partnership, adding that the relationships between Napoli, Miller, the Mud Hens board members, Dombrowski, Avila, Tigers Director of Player Development Mike Rojas and himself work extremely well.
“If the relationship doesn’t mesh, if those relationships don’t mesh, then the partnership ultimately will have a difficult time succeeding,” Lunetta said in a phone interview with Toledo Free Press. “In our case, the relationships work extraordinarily well, and that’s what allows our partnership to thrive in the manner that it does. I can’t say enough positive things about the Toledo organization, about how our relationship works.
“When a relationship works extraordinarily well — as ours does — there really isn’t a lot that you can say underneath that. We understand each other very well. We understand what’s important to one another.”
Couple that cohesiveness with the fact that there is a large contingent of Detroit fans in Toledo, and the Tigers and Mud Hens are practically a perfect match.
“Southeast Michigan, Northwest Ohio, it’s a great region for sports in general — all sports — but even better for baseball,” Napoli said. “When you look at baseball in this community and you tie in both Cleveland and Detroit, what could be better? From that perspective, there’s a lot to be pleased about, a lot to be thankful for.”
Along with the shared fan base is the added bonus of the proximity of the two clubs, which gives both teams the ability to interchange players without much hassle.
“Beyond how things work on a personal level, the greatest advantage for us as a parent club obviously is that when the Toledo club is at home and there is a need, we can arrange for somebody to be at Comerica [Park] almost on a last minute’s notice,” Lunetta said. “Sometimes that last-second call-up, that last-minute call-up because of our proximity to Toledo might make a difference in a game being won or lost. One never knows.”
In 2006, the same year Detroit made it to the World Series, Toledo won its second straight Governors’ Cup Championship. Former Mud Hens Brandon Inge, Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe all played key roles for the 2006 Tigers as the three combined for 430 hits, 74 home runs and 243 RBI that season, with Monroe setting a franchise record with five homers in the postseason.
Impact of Fifth Third Field
Aiding in the resurgence of both clubs was the opening of Fifth Third Field in Downtown Toledo on April 9, 2002.
“It can’t be measured, it’s that valuable,” Lunetta said of Fifth Third Field. “For us from a baseball standpoint, when we evaluate those critical areas in the relationship with an affiliate club, there are three components: the ownership/front office organization of the affiliate club, the facility and the geographical proximity to Detroit. When you examine those three components in our relationship with Toledo, one can easily see that creates a perfect match for Detroit and Toledo.
“The Mud Hens are run in a major league fashion in every sense of the word, and when we are signing veteran-type free agents during the off-season, it’s not difficult at all to present to a player the advantages to playing in Toledo.”
Until Fifth Third Field was built, it was difficult to get players to sign with Toledo.
“When we were out at the [Lucas County] fairgrounds at Ned Skeldon Stadium, players would reluctantly play at that ballpark, and it had nothing to do with the City of Toledo, it had nothing to do with the City of Maumee, it had nothing to do with the community,” Napoli said. “It had everything to do with the playing facilities, and no matter how we dressed it up, it was still a converted harness racing track. Now today, we have guys who would love to come to Toledo.”
Lunetta added that in his seven years with Detroit he has never heard one negative word from a player who has played for the Mud Hens, and that guys who leave the organization on their own accord often comment how they’d love to come back to be able to play in Toledo.
“The guys love playing in Toledo,” Lunetta said. “Players rave about playing in Toledo, and they always have since I’ve been here.”
Even though fans are sometimes doubtful about how much their support means to the players, Napoli said the feedback he gets from both current and former players about fans is outstanding.
“Our players, they’ll be the first to tell you that if they have to play at the Triple-A level, that they would play in Toledo,” Napoli said. “It would be a first choice. The fact of the matter is, is that again there’s some fans out there that might be skeptical and might think that their support or cheering for a player, they may think it doesn’t motivate them. It clearly does, and we hear that consistently.
“When you mention Curtis Granderson, Brandon Inge, Joel Zumaya, Craig Monroe and all these guys that have passed through Toledo, they comment about that all the time, and they’re very genuine about that.”
Now that the Tigers have become a team that’s built to compete year-in and year-out, the task of acquiring quality, veteran minor league players has become a greater challenge because of that success.
“Anytime a player reaches that veteran status as a minor league free agent, a guy who has had some service time in the major leagues, he’s looking to get back to the major leagues,” Lunetta said. “He’ll go to Triple-A with the understanding that he’s going to be playing there, but we look at that type of player as somebody who could fill a need for us at the major league level when the need arises. That part of signing a veteran-type player becomes a little more challenging when you don’t have as many opportunities at the major league level as we did seven, eight years ago.
“If Al [Avila] or myself, if we are out trying to sign a player, a veteran-type player who’s had success at the minor league level, who’s had success at the Triple-A level and we know he can help us win in Toledo, if we’re selling him only on the value of playing in Toledo and we do not expect that there will be any opportunity for that player at the major league level, chances are we’re not going to sign that guy.”
Since both organizations are focused on winning, the franchises are also selective about who they sign to play in Toledo.
“If we just wanted to go out and sign any kind of player to play in Toledo, there wouldn’t be much of a challenge in doing so because it would be very easy to sign any type of veteran-type player to go to Toledo, but we want to win in Toledo,” Lunetta said. “The Toledo organization wants to win, so our challenge is twofold — to sign the right kind of player who can fill a need for us at the major league level when it arises and to help the Toledo club win.”
No end in sight
When it comes to the future of the partnership between Detroit and Toledo, Lunetta sees no reason why the Tigers and Mud Hens can’t keep the affiliation going for as long as they want.
“I think it’s safe to say in speaking on behalf of both organizations, we see nothing on the horizon that could deter us or prevent us from being together for the next however many years,” Lunetta said. “There has never been a conversation to consider changing affiliations. Our conversations always center around how long will we extend the next agreement.”
For Napoli, it all comes down to the people working for each team, and right now both organizations have the same mindset on how they want to run their clubs.
“As far as a relationship for the next 25 years, I think it really boils down to who’s involved, the relationships that they develop, and if they’re in sync, and if they see eye-to-eye and they have the same philosophies, and it’s clear that we do,” Napoli said. “We want to present baseball to our fans in the best possible way, and by that I mean make sure our fans have a great experience, and our relationship with the Tigers is the same thing.
“We want them to feel the same way our fans do about the franchise, that they enjoy working with us, that it’s not just because we’re 60 miles away.”