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Like it or not, Hens, Tigers made for each other

08/22/2017, 3:00pm EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Toledo Mud Hens second baseman Omar Infante reacts to being tagged out at second base during the seventh inning April 13 at Fifth Third Field in Toledo. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

With the Mud Hens swooping toward a franchise-record eighth straight losing season, I asked Joe Napoli the other day if he ever wanted to be out with the Old English D and in with a new parent club.

He responded with a question of his own.

Where would the infield be greener?

Swap the Tigers for the Indians? Sure, that’s the logical next choice. But even if Cleveland would entertain pulling its top affiliate out of Columbus — a pro-Tribe city with a downtown park just as nice as Fifth Third Field — market research tells us Tigers fans outnumber Indians fans about two to one in greater Toledo.

How about a regional franchise? Say, the Pirates or the Reds.

“I don’t think those teams resonate in Toledo,” Napoli said.

What about a sexier national name?

“Is there a wild card out there? Who really has national notoriety?” said Napoli, the president and CEO of the Hens and Walleye. “The Red Sox, the Cubs, the Yankees, those teams aren't going anywhere with their affiliations. So, other than that, is there anyone out there that's a national brand that would make sense for our market?

“Who's the most natural team for us?

Like a slot machine coming up BAR-BAR-BAR, all of the untold scenarios spit out the same conclusion.

Never mind nary a real-life mud hen — average lifespan: nine years — knows what it is like to be named after a winning baseball team. The answer is Tigers-Tigers-Tigers.

For one, aligning with the most popular pro sports team in your market just makes business sense. For another, the sun is beginning to mosey through the clouds.

It does not require an advanced baseball degree to recognize Detroit’s painful transition from the best team money can buy to a leaner, more homegrown operation that develops and retains its young talent could return the joy to Mudville.

“When exactly that turns into a championship team [in Toledo], that’s hard to predict,” Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said by phone. “But the signs of improvement are there.”

Sure, we’ve heard the rah-rah rhetoric from up I-75 before.

Every time the Hens and Tigers renew their vows — most recently signing a two-year extension that runs through 2018 — a championship is assuredly just around the corner.

Take the press release from the last pact: “We certainly would like to reward Mud Hens fans with a championship to celebrate,” Littlefield said.

Or the one before that: “We will continue to focus our efforts on bringing a championship back to Toledo,” director of minor league operations Dan Lunetta said.

Or the one before that.

Napoli smiled.

“I think it's like the Bull Durham movie where the players are rehearsing all the [cliche] lines,” he said. “You’re not going to say, ‘Oh gosh, we've renewed the relationship, we really hope we're mediocre for the next three years.’”

Truth is, he said, the Tigers have been “very straightforward” with Toledo, their partnership as strong as ever. 

All along, Napoli understood the side effects of late owner Mike Ilitch’s single-minded — and laudable — pursuit of an elusive parade. A decade of cutting blank checks, swapping prospects, and asking questions later left the farm system picked clean down to the copper wiring. The Tigers rounded out Baseball America’s organization talent rankings as recently as 2015. 

And that was OK. The primary reason the minor leagues exist is not to keep the charter bus industry in business. It is to help the big club win. 

“Our relationship with the Tigers is going on 30 years,” Napoli said. “When you look at it over a 30-year period, you know you're going to have ebbs and flows. The Tigers have always been straightforward with us. 

“They made it very clear to us several years ago that the state of Mr. Ilitch’s health was driving the on-field decisions. They desperately, desperately as an organization wanted to win a World Series for him. The Detroit community wanted that. Toledo wanted that. That whole affair became very personal, and it should have been, because here was a family who had dedicated the better part of their lives and their investment to a community. When you look at the pattern of decision making, it becomes pretty clear what the Tigers were doing.”

This is not to give the Tigers a total pass. Our criticism of their once-scant spending on minor league free agents — the veteran lifeblood of a good Triple-A club — is documented. 

Nor it to say this is easy for the Hens. Though the baseball is secondary to the entertainment experience, they do feel the pinch of losing. The difference between a good team — Toledo’s last playoff teams in 2007 averaged home crowds of 8,431 — and a middling one can mean up to 1,000 fans per game. The Hens (61-66) are averaging 7,476 fans this year. 

The Hens badly covet a winner in Toledo. And so, Napoli believes, do the Tigers. 

“If on a scale of one to 10, our frustration level is a 10, theirs is a 25,” Napoli said. “That’s how sincere they are.”

Soon enough, it should show on the field. 

Detroit under third-year general manager Al Avila is devoting more and more financial resources to Toledo, with the promise of young baseball capital to come. 

As the Tigers veer their focus to player development and continue to climb higher in the draft — their last top-five pick landed some guy named Verlander — the prospects are coming. We’ve seen the early fruits of the rebuild in Hens third baseman Jeimer Candelario, the Tigers’ top position prospect and one of five infielders brought on in trades with the Cubs and Diamondbacks. But the biggest returns are still on the way. 

Most intriguing is the organization’s line of young starters, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, and Matt Manning. The Tigers’ first-round selections the past three years are all ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game. 

“Today is similar to where we sat in the early 2000s,” said Napoli, referring to the dawn of the franchise’s renaissance, when the Hens captured four division titles and two league championships between 2002 and 2007. “Lots of question marks, but it’s an exciting time.”

Same as ever, in sickness and in health, he knows where the infield is greenest.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Tag(s): Pro  Mud Hens  Tigers  David Briggs