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Vince Naimoli made Rays' magic season possible

Vince Naimoli visits the Trop before a game last month. Naimoli stubbornly pursued bringing a team to the area for years before St. Petersburg became the home of the Devil Rays. With him as owner, the team lost 775 games in eight seasons.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Vince Naimoli visits the Trop before a game last month. Naimoli stubbornly pursued bringing a team to the area for years before St. Petersburg became the home of the Devil Rays. With him as owner, the team lost 775 games in eight seasons.

If it is time that heals pain, then it is success that erases the scars. If it is winning that grants forgiveness, then it is a moment such as this that allows for a full pardon.

The bad days are gone now, and the memories are fading fast. The Tampa Bay Rays are on their way to redefining a franchise, and with every footprint, another painful bit of the past is covered up.

At this point, who wants to look back? The Rays — the Rays! — are in the American League Championship Series, and as far as most of us care, forever starts now.

On the other hand, it is time for a bit of reflection, a bit of appreciation. For all that has happened, for all that failed to happen, for all the bruised feelings and stepped-upon toes, it finally is time to look over your shoulder and muster a smile.

After all this time, it finally is time to appreciate Vince Naimoli.

Yeah, him.

I know, I know. As an owner, Naimoli had a tight fist, a clumsy tongue and a habit of stepping on other people's toes. He drove his own partners crazy, and he left sponsors grumbling, and by the end, fans pretty much agreed he was a one-man obstacle in the way of success.

On the other hand, Naimoli brought baseball to Tampa Bay. He unlocked the building, he purchased the uniforms and he brought the ball.

Try playing tonight without one of those.

There should be a moment. There should be a cheer. Sometime tonight, between the anthem and the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, you should say thanks.

"If not for him," said outfielder Rocco Baldellli, "none of this would be possible."

At a time like this, you would expect a man's emotions to tumble inside of him. Naimoli, reached on his cell phone on Thursday, said he could not talk. He said he could not give a reason. He said he was unsure if he would be here for tonight's game.

So what must Naimoli, who turned 71 last month, be feeling? I covered him for a decade. I spent a game with him in the stands, and I spent a game with him in his skybox, and I spent an hour in his office while he threw a toy against the floor that kept sounding "Stee-rike." I was there when he retired, and when he unretired.

Odds are, Naimoli feels some paternal pride. Say what you want about him, but the guy spent a lot of nights pulling for Tampa Bay. Odds are, he feels some regret, because it was not his organization that accomplished it. Odds are, he would like a little more appreciation, a little more applause, a little more credit.

Perhaps you will not find any of it easy to give. Around here, Naimoli's name turned into a swear word years ago. All blame, whether intentional or incidental, was aimed in his direction. The truest thing ever said about Naimoli was that he was the best of all men to land a franchise, and the worst of all men to run one.

And yet, without him, there is no … this. Put it this way: No matter what else history has remembered Christopher Columbus for, he did get the boats across the ocean.

Naimoli was relentless, remember? Other men chased baseball in the name of Tampa Bay, and they all fell short, or gave up, or moved on to other endeavors. St. Petersburg became the preferred leverage for other teams to get new stadiums.

Naimoli was different. He would not go away. He wore out cell phones. He wrote endless letters. He walked up to so many owners that when they closed their eyes to sleep, it was his face they saw. And sure enough, in 1995, he was the man with the right tenacity at the right time, and baseball came to town.

"I don't think there would be baseball in Tampa Bay without Vince," said Paul Beeston, the former president of Major League Baseball. "He pursued it with a passion.

"It could have gone somewhere else. He could have thrown up his hands and let it go to someone else, who would have relocated it. He could have let it be contracted. It didn't happen. Vince is the person who kept saying he wanted baseball and he wanted it in Tampa Bay. My bet is that he's not getting the credit he deserves."

When an owner loses 775 games in eight seasons, it tends to happen that way. Naimoli struck a lot of people as thin-skinned and thick-headed, and the organization's plans seemed to shift from building-with-kids to buying free agents to paring payroll. Meanwhile, nights at Tropicana Field could be miserable. Naimoli, who attended 140 or so games a year when he owned the team, knew all about that.

Once, Naimoli said he lost three hours of sleep or so after seeing the Rays lose. At that rate, over eight years, Naimoli lost almost 97 days.

The long-term Rays players remember Naimoli as a different owner. Baldelli still talks fondly about the relationship Naimoli built with his family. "He was a great guy to me," Baldelli said.

Then there is pitcher Andy Sonnanstine, who was pitching for Kent State in 2004 NCAA Regionals when he beat Notre Dame. Naimoli, in the crowd, recommended Sonnanstine to his scouts.

"To me, he single-handledly got me with the organization," Sonnanstine said. "Anytime I do well, I remember that he jump-started my career."

Others say similar things. Trever Miller. Carl Crawford. Third base coach Tom Foley. Clearly, Naimoli was different with his team than in public perception.

Even now, the temptation with Naimoli is to lump him with former Bucs' owner Hugh Culverhouse or former Lightning owner Art Williams as the men who sold to the owners who delivered success. Except for this: Culverhouse wasn't awarded the team (it was Tom McClosky). Neither was Williams (it was Phil Esposito).

So does Naimoli deserve some credit here? Sure, some. Scott Kazmir, Crawford and Baldelli were on the team in Naimoli's last season. James Shields, B.J. Upton and Sonnanstine were in the minors. Players such as Delmon Young (in the minors), Aubrey Huff, Mark Hendrickson, Julio Lugo and Joey Gathright were traded for pieces that are now on the roster.

Recently, Naimoli said this much to mlb.com. "We had some great pieces, but they added the other ingredients."

Actually, it was more than "other ingredients": Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Akinori Iwamura, Matt Garza. Yes, Stu Sternberg deserves most of the applause.

Still, the point here is not to pit the current ownership vs. the former one. The point is that a man worked tirelessly for a night such as this. Someone should appreciate that.

On the best night of baseball this area has ever seen, somebody ought to say thanks.

Tampa Bay's baseball journey

The quest to land major league baseball began in 1976 with a businessman's dream. Along the way, the pursuit took so many astounding twists and heartbreaking turns that even the most ardent believers had their faith tested. You can immerse yourself in this history with our interactive photo time line at rays.tampabay.com.

Today's schedule

3:30: Parking lots open

5:30: Gates open

6:15-7: Rays batting practice

7-7:45: Red Sox batting practice

8:10: Team introductions

8:23: National anthem (B.K. Jackson, 17, saxophonist, Blake High; American Idol runnerup David Archuleta will sing God Bless America in 7th inning)

8:28: Ceremonial first pitch (11 original season ticket holders representing each of Rays' 11 seasons)

8:37: First pitch

Vince Naimoli made Rays' magic season possible 10/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:36pm]
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