Rays don't exist without Naimoli

Rays don't exist without Naimoli

The first time I met Vince Naimoli was in August 1992 at a crowded Tampa International Airport coffee shop. The millionaire entrepreneur had just signed a $115 million deal with owner Bob Lurie to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them to St. Petersburg.

Naimoli was giddy and in a hurry that night. He talked about growing up in Paterson, N.J., and being a passionate baseball fan: "It was always the New York Giants."

His eyes became bright when he related that, at age 14, he was delivering newspapers with a radio under one arm the day Bobby Thomson blasted his famous home run that propelled the Giants to the 1951 World Series.

Naimoli's enthusiasm quickly waned when he had the rug pulled out from under him a few weeks later. The National League put the Lurie-Naimoli deal on hold, deciding to consider offers from other investors who would keep the Giants in San Francisco. Then, the door was slammed shut in November when a group headed by Peter Magowan bought the franchise.

As I follow the Tampa Bay Rays' unbelievable Cinderella ride this summer, the mind always wanders back to that night with Naimoli in 1992. For me that's where the Rays' marvelous season began.

The white elephant that was the domed stadium in St. Petersburg remained empty after the near miss with the Giants continued a pattern. Prior to Naimoli's bid, only an 11th-hour stadium deal in Chicago kept the White Sox from moving there, and then Major League Baseball snubbed Tampa/St. Petersburg when it chose South Florida and Denver for expansion teams in 1991.

But give Naimoli credit for not giving up.

He and his investors continued their full-court press on MLB's fickle owners, and in 1995 at the stately Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., they were awarded an expansion franchise, along with Arizona.

I've always felt MLB made a huge mistake adding two more teams -- a prime reason contraction was considered after the 2001 season. But that's another story.

This is about Naimoli, the much-maligned, often-criticized father of baseball in the Tampa area.

He ran the franchise for its first eight rocky seasons. There were more bumps in the road than most owners endure, and few successes, but without him, I am convinced we wouldn't be celebrating the Rays atop AL East.

Stuart Sternberg became principal owner after the 2005 season, and under the guidance of team president Matt Silverman and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, the club has dramatically reversed its downward spiral.

Naimoli, 70, remains chairman and owns about 23 percent of the Rays' stock.

What's happening this year has to be bittersweet to Naimoli. He still attends many home games and has nothing but positive things to say about current management and the team's performance.

But in Naimoli's perfect world, this turnaround would have happened on his watch.

"I'm happy as I can be," Naimoli recently said. "The only misgiving I really have is that [former general manager] Chuck LaMar doesn't get any of the credit. He put many of the pieces together while Stu Sternberg and Andy Friedman have added the missing links.

"They finally arrived, and I'm so pleased. I was talking to a man who works for the Yankees last night. He said, 'Did you ever envision they'd win this quickly?' I told him I knew they'd win eventually. This is a long building process, as we all know, but I never thought it would be this soon.

"Again, I have to tip my hat to Stu and Andy, because honestly, we had some great pieces, especially the young starting pitching and the like, but they did a fine job getting the other ingredients."

Sternberg is aware of Naimoli's contributions. "Vince had the conviction and commitment to bring baseball to St Petersburg," said Sternberg. "I'm grateful that he had the confidence in me becoming the managing partner of this organization."

Even still, Naimoli sometimes reflects on how things transpired during his tenure.

"Luck is a part of any game, and they've had some good luck on some of their pieces. And we had some luck on some of ours." But overall, Naimoli didn't have much luck.

I remember the day before the then Devil Rays played their first game on March 31, 1998, Vince, wearing a hard hat, was frantically trying to get renovated Tropicana Field ready for the first pitch. He was all over the place, micromanaging even the most minute detail of construction.

Maybe it was this style that didn't serve him well as a baseball CEO. There were disputes with some members of his ownership group and a strained relationship with the local media.

I always felt one of the biggest mistakes he and LaMar made was in the early years, when their temptation for a quick winner caused them to change course. Instead of going with a methodical, youth-oriented plan, they pumped money into the payroll, signing veterans such as Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, Wade Boggs and Vinny Castillo.

Attendance didn't improve with those former All-Stars, and neither did the record. They remained in last place.

"Canseco had 31 home runs at the All-Star break in 1999," said Naimoli. "Then, he hurt his back. We had a $50 million payroll, and it's less than that now. I have to wonder about luck. If he hadn't hurt his back, it might have been a little different. That would not have been a mistake. "

Naimoli remained fiercely loyal to LaMar, an excellent judge of young talent, but whose moves as general manager were often criticized. LaMar is now director of professional scouting for the Phillies.

A stroke of genius was hiring hometown hero Lou Piniella as manager prior to the 2003 season. Piniella increased the victory total from 55 to 63 his first season, and in 2004 guided the Rays out of last place, when they won 70 games.

With the new management in place, the last year of Piniella's contract was bought out and Joe Maddon took over. Piniella, of course, now manages the first-place Cubs.

"Vince fought long and hard to bring a team to Tampa Bay when we awarded the franchise in 1995," says Commissioner Bud Selig. "He deserves a lot of credit getting the team there and for having it survive the difficult years."

"Believe me, I'm enjoying this," says Naimoli. "I'm having a lot of fun watching this team and don't have the pressure."

Regardless of how the Rays finally finish this season, they should pause and tip their hats to Naimoli. Without him, there wouldn't be Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.