Napoli becoming 'Swiss Army knife' for Cubs

New quality assurance coach assisting in all areas under Ross

February 26th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- Indians manager Terry Francona had yet to actually see the beard. He had only heard about it. At some point, he planned to cross paths with , but so far they had only exchanged texts throughout the offseason and early on this spring.

When Francona finally saw a photo of Napoli's beard a week ago, the manager gasped and blurted out a response not fit for print. Then, he began chuckling.

"That's horrible," Francona said. "He looks like a caveman. But, I love him."

Napoli -- named the quality assurance coach on Cubs manager David Ross' 2020 staff -- played for Francona during the 2016 season in Cleveland. Napoli earned a reputation over his playing career as a leader in the clubhouse. For Francona's team, Napoli was a veteran with an edge, and he was integral in helping that Tribe team reach the World Series.

When Ross was assembling his first coaching staff, Napoli came to mind for a long list of reasons. One was that reputation. The big buzz word around the Cubs has been "accountability," and Napoli never hesitated to control the room as a player. But Napoli also played for multiple winning teams, experienced three World Series, won one, hit in the middle of lineups, caught, played first base and learned to become a smart baserunner.

All of those things came to mind as Ross envisioned a role for Napoli. The Cubs' new manager wanted his former teammate -- with the Red Sox during their World Series triumph in 2013 -- to have a hand in as many facets of the club as possible.

"Nap is my Swiss Army knife," Ross said. "This guy's as well-rounded of a coach as we're going to have. And he's freshly off the field, so he's very relatable to the players."

During their days together in Boston, Ross and Napoli used to talk about their future after playing. They imagined themselves as coaches together and bantered about the kinds of things they would do as instructors. Napoli always felt Ross was destined for more, though. He knew managing opportunities would come Ross' way.

When Ross retired from playing after the 2016 World Series -- won by the Cubs over Napoli and Cleveland -- his old friend stayed in touch.

"I used to text him all the time," Napoli said, "like, 'When you get a job, I want to be on that staff.'"

Napoli interviewed for the Cubs' bench coach vacancy prior to the 2019 season and was asked if he would consider another role on the staff. At the time, Napoli was coming off an '18 season that was derailed by a knee injury that in part led to his retirement. He gave the situation some thought, and ultimately was not sure he was ready to completely pour himself into the job.

One year later, Napoli felt strongly that it was time to get back into the game. So, when Ross' name popped up on Napoli's phone, the decision was an easy one.

"When I saw he got the job, I was just waiting," Napoli said. "I was hoping he'd call me, and he did. And we had some good conversations. Yeah, I was excited, and nervous at the same time."

Some of those nerves were just over the unknown nature of transitioning from player to coach.

In 12 Major League seasons, Napoli went to the postseason eight times and reached the Fall Classic with Texas (2011), Boston ('13) and Cleveland ('16). He hit 267 homers and made the American League All-Star team in '12. He played for the likes of Mike Scioscia, Ron Washington and Francona. There is a wealth of experience there, but Napoli needed to figure out how to mentally arrange everything as he started to work with players.

Napoli said the good part about the vague job description is that he can dive into helping in as many ways as possible. He might be in the batting cage one moment and then working with first baseman Anthony Rizzo the next. He can talk to catchers during bullpen sessions and then team with third-base coach Will Venable in leading baserunning drills.

"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."

Right now, Napoli said the most important thing on his mind is building a rapport with the players.

"I like to feel it out first, see different personalities, see how they go about their business," Napoli said. "And once I figure that out, I can find different ways to be able to talk to people and mess around with them or whatever."

So, as intimidating as Napoli looks with his stocky build and massive beard, the Cubs have seen a quiet version of him this spring. That fiery edge that Napoli had in his playing days can come later on, if needed.

"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 was the type of impact Napoli made in Cleveland, and other stops throughout his career.

"He was a unifying presence in the clubhouse," Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "He connected with players from all different areas, all different backgrounds and then brought out the best in people. And he did that every day. That's hard to do."

Told of Ross' "Swiss Army knife" description of Napoli, Francona smiled.

"That tells me Rossy's a smart man," said the manager. "When you have good people, you turn them loose. And that's Nap."