Joe Napoli, President and CEO of the Mud Hens and Walleye, Has Game

Joe Napoli
Halfway to Hensville Press Conference, Joe Napoli delivers a speech.

Joe Napoli doesn’t believe in creating his own legacy – in fact, he hates being asked that question. Napoli believes that is for other people to determine – not for you to choose for yourself. 

“It’s never been a motivation (establishing a legacy); it’s never been about that,” Napoli explains, adding, “It’s always been about all those little wins that you have (with family) and all those learning curves and opportunities. It’s never been about legacy. I hope people say and write kind things about me, but it’s not for me to define.”

Though his intention to do a good job and not focus on his legacy comes from a place of humility, there is no doubt that Napoli’s work as President and CEO of the Mud Hens and Walleye organizations,  and his resulting general involvement in the betterment of Toledo has secured a fond place for him in the community’s collective heart.

From Banking to Baseball

Napoli didn’t start out as a sports franchise executive. After growing up in Brooklyn, Napoli attended New York’s St. John’s University and joined Manufacturers Hanover Trust, beginning a career in banking. 

Three years into his job, Joe realized that his banking career would likely not lead to the life he imagined for himself. That realization prompted him to read Richard Nelson Bolles’ book, “What Color is Your Parachute,” and he began evaluating the way his passions and hobbies intersected with his career. 

“I started to check off all the boxes and kept coming back to my love affair with sports, and of people, and the ability to tie all that together, as well as making a difference in your community,” Napoli said. “So that all came together pretty nicely, and I started to pursue a career in sports.”

Napoli moved to Canton, Ohio to work with the Canton Indians, a minor league baseball team. Seeking a larger, midsize market, Napoli then moved to Toledo in the early 90s to work with the Toledo Mud Hens. Joe left the area for a few years to work with the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Tigers. 

Joe Napoli
Photo provided via Joe Napoli.

The experiences in Chicago and Detroit made Napoli realize that Toledo is where he wanted to be, so he returned to work for the Mud Hens and was a catalyst for the development of Fifth Third Field, the Mud Hens stadium; the Huntington Center, the Toledo Walleye arena; and Hensville, the three historic buildings and park space by the stadium in downtown Toledo.

“Those were labors of love,” Napoli said. “We went and kicked the tires at a bunch of ballparks around the country. What we learned was, some of them were extremely well done. The ones that were well done really listened closely to the community and business leaders, but mostly to fans. When we were designing Fifth Third Field, the whole idea behind that was to capture as much of what the fans desired in a unique, interesting, special place to visit on a regular basis. So Fifth Third Field is really a reflection of all of that community input. We did the same thing with Huntington Center, and then did the same thing with Hensville.”

Labors of Love

For Napoli, nearly every project he takes on is a labor of love. Outside of his efforts with local sports, Napoli is very involved in other aspects of the community with the Toledo Museum of Art, the Toledo Symphony, Destination Toledo and more.  Though giving back to the community is a huge part of Napoli’s personal and professional mission, the true reason he loves Toledo is because of his work/life balance.

Having a healthy work/life balance is something that Napoli encourages the staff of the Mud Hens and the Walleye to work towards. These organizations believe that high performance at work comes from the ability to balance professional endeavors with a robust home life.

Part of Napoli’s dedication to his family and his work means implementing family style events across the Mud Hens and Walleye schedule. The experiences are accessible to all people, particularly for grandparents, parents and children to have a nice bonding experience.

“I think our (management) team does a remarkable job of recognizing that every age group experiences the Mud Hens, the Walleye and Hensville on very different terms,” Napoli said. “Maybe they are passionate sports fans, maybe they’re not. Maybe this is just a fun night out with the grandkids. Maybe it’s about the grandkids getting the large bucket of popcorn, and maybe it’s about grandma being a baseball fan. It runs the gamut.”

Napoli’s labors of love bleed through to the Mud Hens and Walleye fans, his family and the community as a whole – and he credits a lot of his success to the Toledo area.  “That’s the beauty of Toledo: you can do it all,” Napoli said. “You can work a full day and then run home and be at (family events like) the softball games, or the volleyball games or the theater group or speech and debate, and that’s the beauty of it.” 

Listen to more of Napoli’s story on the Mature Living podcast:

Get to Know Joe

What is the last book that you read or one that you’re reading right now?

I love reading, so for fun it’s “Jack Reacher” and “Lee Child” and
“Harry Bosch.” I just recently started reading about the history of America, like the American Revolution, and that’s totally fascinating from the perspective of just how partially crazy and creative and intelligent the founders of the country were.

What are some hobbies or special interests that you have outside of work?

I love to bike ride on the trails, off the trails, that’s always been a fun pastime for me. I love to write; I write about anything and everything. And really spend a lot of time with my family. I love being around my wife and my kids and my family. So lots of storytelling there amongst everyone navigating the craziness of my kids.

Is there any fictional character that you identify with?

The two characters I enjoy the most, Jack Reacher and Harry Bosch, there are qualities of both of them that I feel like are part of my personality, but I’m not 6”6, 280 pounds of muscle.

What are the qualities that you value in those that you work with professionally and those that you associate with personally?

If you’re passionate, compassionate, empathetic, smart, creative. Mistakes are not an issue – the more the better. All your successes are based on a tremendous pile of mistakes and failures. I’ve learned a lot from my girls. My girls are compassionate, empathetic and thoughtful. I tend to be more brusque and direct than I really need to be, so I’m still working on that.

Outside of the teams that you’re involved with, what sports team(s) do you root for?

It used to be all the New York teams, but not so much anymore. I would say working for the Chicago Bulls, I still root for them. Fans of the Tigers and the Red Wings, not only because they’re affiliates, but we’ve grown so accustomed to being a feeder organization with the Hens and the Walleye, so it’s fun to watch players that have played for us progress and have success at the major league level. It’s more about that connection.

Is there a player or an MLB organization other than the Tigers organization that you admire?

There’s a lot of minor pro sports teams that I admire. On the hockey side, the folks in Jacksonville and Greenville do a tremendous job, as do the teams in Florida and Indianapolis and Cincinnati and Fort Wayne. On the baseball side, again, another long list. Lehigh Valley to Sacramento to Akron, Ohio. The list goes on there. For major league organizations, the Bulls were like a well oiled machine, so were the White Sox and Jerry Reinsdorf owns both of those clubs and he was an amazing owner from the perspective that he hired all of these really good people and just let them do their thing. There are others: the Yankees, the Red Wings and the Tigers have done wonderful work.

What music are you listening to right now?

I love Spotify from the perspective that you get to sample all these different genres of music. So I’m constantly listening to different stuff. So it could be folk music, it could be country, it could be country/folk, it could be rock and country. And the genres are so mixed, so the artists crossover and the abundance of amazing music out there. I really love the experimentation and listening to all of it. As of late, I’ve been on a John Hiatt kick. He’s probably one of the least known American songwriters that writes amazing music that practically no one’s heard of. And then everything from electronic dance music to you know, to classic rock to alternative music and alternative country, alternative rock, so it covers it all.

If you could give your childhood self any piece of advice or encouragement, what would you say?

I was fortunate, when I was younger, to realize that I have had a love of learning. There were times along my career where I thought at different stops, “Oh, I’ve learned everything I need to know.” That never really stops. So I would remind myself of that, that you never stop learning no matter your stage in life. I would probably advise my younger self not to be so stubborn. The other is, I love to debate. I think I would wear people out on the debate. So what would happen is, I would debate the issue and enjoy the process so much I would lose sight of the fact that it would really have a negative effect on others. So I’ve scaled that back and I think I would have advised myself that that’s probably not that healthy.