My beard grows down to my toes,
I never wears no clothes,
I wraps my hair
Around my bare,
And down the road I goes.
Paul Bunyan. Pecos Bill. Mike Napoli. Though the man known as Nap may not have created the Rio Grande or the Great Lakes, but he routinely strolls shirtless through the streets and also inspired a popular line of t-shirts. Huh, a guy who likes to strip his clothes off and who can sell merch? It’s like the Cubs replaced Tim Buss and Joe Maddon with a single quality assurance coach.
The stocky build and glorious beard might have you thinking Napoli belongs with the Hell’s Angels instead of replacing people who left for the Anaheim Angels, but he’s a bit less rowdy than his image might lead some to believe. By all accounts, he’s been very humble while navigating the transition from player to coach after taking a year off to come to terms with the end of his playing career.
The Cubs offered Napoli a role last year after interviewing him for the bench coach opening that eventually went to Mark Loretta, but he wasn’t ready at the time. He’d kept in touch with David Ross all the while, though, and knew he wanted to join his good friend’s staff when the opportunity arose. As Napoli told Jordan Bastian, who covered the Indians [ding!] for MLB.com prior to coming to Chicago, he’s relishing the new opportunity.
“It’s whatever they want me to do,” Napoli said. “I was telling some guys, I didn’t think I could care more than when I played. And then I get here — I didn’t think I could — and I do.”
Maybe it’s just me, but that is really cool to hear coming from a guy who was more or less forced into retirement by a knee injury. Some former players get into coaching as a way to stay close to the game and fill the void left from the conclusion of their playing days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re finding fulfillment. To hear Napoli talk, he may have discovered something even better.
That sounds like exactly the type of fresh perspective the Cubs need at this point, and Napoli’s amorphous role should really help his “boss” make his own transition. After all, isn’t that what a quality assurance coach does? Wait, what does a quality assurance coach do?
“I really don’t know,” Napoli joked during an in-game interview on Marquee Sports Network. “No, you know, Rossy’s given me the freedom to kinda bounce around and do different things with baserunning, I’ve been spending some time with the catchers and with the hitters. So…just trying to build relationships with all the players, being new here and not knowing everybody.”
That idea of doing a little bit of everything and getting to know all the players on an individual level is really where Napoli can have an impact. Revered as a great clubhouse guy and emotional catalyst, he may be able to parlay that same dynamic into his new role. That should in turn allow Ross to invest more fully in being a manager and not just the old buddy many skeptics think the Cubs hired.
“I think building a relationship with these guys,” Napoli said, “and showing them that I’m here for them and I care, it makes it easier conversations when you might have to get into a guy to help them out. They’re not going to take it the wrong way if you’re genuine.”
That’s been kind of a theme this year as the team embraces a welcome philosophical change from the previous regime. A widely acknowledged need to shake things up did not manifest in any big changes on the player personnel side, so the Cubs are leaning more on Ross and his staff to catalyze growth. The wisdom of that strategy will remain in question for some time yet, but the early returns at least sound good.
What really matters is whether and how Napoli and the rest of the coaching staff help to assure quality once the competition gets turned up and the games are real.