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Out of the spotlight, Naimoli still loves the Rays

Vince Naimoli waits for someone to buy his book, Business, Baseball and Beyond, on Monday afternoon during a book-signing at Haslam’s bookstore in St. Petersburg, not far from Tropicana Field.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Vince Naimoli waits for someone to buy his book, Business, Baseball and Beyond, on Monday afternoon during a book-signing at Haslam’s bookstore in St. Petersburg, not far from Tropicana Field.

ST. PETERSBURG — Four hours before Monday's first pitch, as the ballplayers were filing into Tropicana Field and bartenders were tapping kegs for the fans and bloggers were betting that night — surely — the Rays would clinch a playoff spot, the man who brought Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay sat a few blocks away.

Alone.

In the back of Haslam's bookstore.

Reading his memoir.

"VINCE NAIMOLI," screamed the hardback's gold headline, in inch-high, all capital letters. Business, Baseball & Beyond, whispered the white subhead on the glossy cover. Last fall, Naimoli published 5,000 copies.

Monday afternoon, the man who used to be the face of the franchise, who for a decade owned the team and made all the calls, waited to see if anyone would show up and ask him to sign his story.

"If you need any more copies," Naimoli told the bookstore owner, "I still got a bunch of them at home."

Someone had shoved a round wooden table into the aisle between shelves labeled Business and Baseball. Someone had poured cranberry juice into a cut-glass bowl, set out a tray of Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Twenty minutes after the signing was scheduled to begin, no one had even looked at one of Naimoli's books.

"So how closely involved with the team are you these days?" asked Haslam's owner, Ray Hinst Jr., 65.

"I still go to games," Naimoli said. He twisted the sparkling ALCS ring on his wedding ring finger.

"But now I don't have the pressure."

• • •

Naimoli, 73, was living with his second wife, raising his fourth daughter, managing three Fortune 500 companies when he began working to bring professional baseball to Tampa Bay in 1995.

It took years of frustration, and millions of dollars, but on that spring night in 1998 when the Devil Rays finally strode onto Tropicana Field, Naimoli wrote, "it was like welcoming a new baby into the family."

He commanded the team through purple uniforms, and forest green. Through Fred Mc­Griff and Wade Boggs, Lou Pinella and Don Zimmer. From hope to ridicule to empty ballparks.

"So I anted up the money," he wrote, "about $30 million to save the team. I didn't go public with that tidbit. If I had, it might have changed some perceptions about me."

Fame and fortune were hard, he wrote. The media distorted his image with "horrific" stories. Naimoli said he wrote the book "to clear up a few falsehoods."

In 2005, he gave control of the Rays to Stuart Sternberg and his group of investors, though he says he still owns about 20 percent of the team. Three years later, when the Rays almost won the World Series, Naimoli was there, watching in the cold Philadelphia rain.

"When we do win our first World Series championship," he wrote in the book's ending, "I'll be bursting with pride. And curious: Will people remember how it all began? How I helped make their dream come true?"

• • •

He wore a beige golf shirt to the book-signing. A dark green Devil Rays logo was stitched above his heart.

He looked thinner, and grayer, than in the smiling dark-haired photo on his book jacket. Softer than his hard-edged image. More like a kindly grandfather than a tyrannical team owner.

This couldn't be the man who threw a Mets scout out of Tropicana Field for using the private bathroom near the owner's suite. He didn't look like a guy who would throw a temper tantrum at a cop for pulling his wife over for speeding.

Here he was talking to a bookstore owner on a quiet Monday afternoon, the two of them alone by the punch bowl.

A middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt sauntered by, picked up a book, put it down. A white-haired man sporting a green Devil Rays cap browsed other baseball books behind him. A woman in a gray Rays sweatshirt, also old-school-Naimoli era, strode right past to find a book on natural healing.

"May I have my picture taken with you, please?" asked a pretty blonde whose boyfriend worked at the store.

Naimoli put his arm around her shoulders and smiled for the camera.

• • •

Book-signings are only for the brave. Unless you're Bill Clinton, or Stephen King, you can spend hours staring at empty aisles, watching people pass you by.

Naimoli said he was donating the proceeds from his $24.99 book to college scholarships.

Maybe that's why he stayed.

For more than an hour, he sat at that table, talking to store workers, answering customers' questions. Hardly anyone asked about him. A half-dozen people asked about the Rays.

Yes, they're going to win the World Series this year.

No, he doesn't want to lose Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli.

Maybe, some day, the team will move to a new stadium near Derby Lane.

Three hours before the first pitch, Naimoli had signed one book for a man named Lou.

When a disheveled man walked up, rubbing his forehead, he looked hopeful. "I have a weird question," the man said. Naimoli nodded and smiled. "Isn't Ted Williams' body frozen somewhere?"

He told the bookstore owner he would stay until 5. Maybe some fans would stop in before that night's big game.

And was Naimoli going to the game? Was he going to sit in section 110, where he still has season tickets?

"No, I won't be there tonight," Naimoli said. He rested his arm on the stack of books. "I promised my wife I'd come home for dinner." Chicken fettuccini.

Staff Writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

Out of the spotlight, Naimoli still loves the Rays 09/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 11:25am]
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