Rays Tales: The 10 most impactful/influential people in franchise history

Our list starts at the top with first owner Vince Naimoli and current owner Stuart Sternberg, and it gets more interesting from there.
ampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, right, greets former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli, center, as former owner Gus Stavros, left, looks on Saturday, March 31, 2018 in St. Petersburg. The Rays honored the 1998 team prior to their game against the Boston Red Sox.
ampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg, right, greets former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli, center, as former owner Gus Stavros, left, looks on Saturday, March 31, 2018 in St. Petersburg. The Rays honored the 1998 team prior to their game against the Boston Red Sox.
Published May 25

CLEVELAND — Seeing Andrew Friedman and Jim Hickey back at the Trop last week, chatting recently with principal owner Stuart Sternberg, and reading John Romano’s tale of the transition from Vince Naimoli’s ownership that began 15 years ago this month got us thinking:

Who are the 10 most impactful/influential people in Rays franchise history?

The ones who had, and in some cases still have, a direct role in guiding and shaping the franchise, for better or worse, and on different levels, but definitely for real.

Here, with a little help from some friends, is what we came up with:

Vince Namoli brought baseball to Tampa Bay. [Times files (2005)]
Vince Namoli brought baseball to Tampa Bay. [Times files (2005)]

1. Vince Naimoli, managing general partner 1995-2005

Naimoli did the heavy lifting in fighting to get the franchise, relentless through multiple twists and turns. He first got involved with a done deal to buy and relocate the Giants in 1992, only to see MLB refuse approval and stall to find a group to keep them in San Francisco. Naimoli shifted his dogged determination to getting an expansion team, forcing MLB to act by threatening a lawsuit, and 2½ years later the Devil Rays franchise was awarded, beginning play in 1998. He was not the proper person to run the team, given repeated blowups and sparring with the community, but he was absolutely the right man, committed to do whatever it took, to bring baseball to Tampa Bay after others had tried and, for a multitude of reasons, failed.

[ MORE RAYS: Stu Sternberg and his Wall Street cohorts didn't set out to change baseball ]

2. Stuart Sternberg, principal owner 2005-current

For all that Naimoli did in getting the team, Sternberg rescued it by leading a challenging transformation into a success. That included re-engaging with the community, stressing innovation and empowerment, fielding a low-budget high-win team that has become a model across the industry. Now Sternberg has his own defining battle, trying after repeated rejections to get a new stadium built in the bay area in hopes it boosts abysmally low attendance. If not, he might eventually have to decide if he wants to be the guy who moved the franchise out of the area.

Former Rays manager Joe Maddon (right). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Former Rays manager Joe Maddon (right). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

3. Joe Maddon, manager 2006-14

Maddon was out front for the transformation, something of the poster boy with his perpetually positive perspective and unorthodox ideas on how to get the most out of players. Remember themed road trips, and clubhouse visitors, from snakes to singers? But Maddon was also a master communicator, whose every word served a purpose, and a fearless innovator, implementing many of the changes now commonplace throughout the game, from shifting, lineup construction and bullpen management to relaxed clubhouse rules and skipping batting practice.

[ MORE RAYS: Andrew Friedman's four best moves with the Rays ]

4. Andrew Friedman, head of baseball operations 2005-14

Though much of the Rays’ breakthrough success was rooted in collaboration, Friedman made many of the final decisions. He was willing to take big chances, see things (and players) in different ways, blend new-wave analytics and old-school scouting in processing data on multiple levels, and learn from mistakes. He had a way of making everyone at the table and in the clubhouse feel they mattered, and was guided by the mantra that information was king. He does much of the same now with the Dodgers.

5. Evan Longoria, third baseman 2008-17

Carl Crawford was the team’s first homegrown star, but Longoria became that and more, bringing status, national attention (remember his New Era TV commercial and viral Gillette video?) and a certain level of celebrity. Plus, for a period of time he was one of the best third basemen in the game, adding a presence to the lineup.

From left Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman, President Brian Auld, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg talk at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday, April 1, 2017. [Times files (2017)]
From left Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman, President Brian Auld, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg talk at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday, April 1, 2017. [Times files (2017)]

6. Matt Silverman, team president 2005-current

Silverman, the third member of the transformational trio with Sternberg and Friedman, is primarily charged with more important though less-visible business-side matters, though including the successful rebranding as Rays. He was thrust into a pivotal role after the post-2014 departures of Friedman and Maddon to oversee and restructure baseball operations and rebuild the farm system. He led the search to hire Kevin Cash as manager, turned the leadership roles over to Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, and went back to business ops and the stadium quest.

[ MORE RAYS: Andrew Friedman's four worst moves with the Rays ]

7. Chuck LaMar, GM 1995-2005

All the losing the Devil Rays did (518-775) wasn’t all LaMar’s fault, as he operated under Naimoli’s budget restraints and mercurial management. Some high-profile moves at the big-league level didn’t work out (Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman, Kevin Stocker, to name a few), but the core of the 2008 breakthrough team was acquired on LaMar’s watch, from top picks such as B.J. Upton to Crawford and James Shields. Also, he made the right pick in 1999 in Josh Hamilton but got the wrong result, with no one foreseeing his spiral into drug issues.

NEW YORK SEPTEMBER 13 James Shields #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the New York Yankees during the first game of a day-night doubleheader on September 13, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Rays defeated the Yankees 7-1.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
NEW YORK SEPTEMBER 13 James Shields #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the New York Yankees during the first game of a day-night doubleheader on September 13, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Rays defeated the Yankees 7-1. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

8. James Shields, pitcher 2006-12

Crawford was a four-time All-Star, David Price and Blake Snell won Cy Young Awards, Ben Zobrist became the industry­wide model for multipositional key players. But, shy of Longoria, no player had more impact on the franchise than Shields, who created the template for the hard work, dedication and drive that has defined the starting pitching excellence that has defined the organization and been passed down with a simple mantra: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.’’

9. Dewayne Staats, TV broadcaster 1998-current

Though Staats doesn’t have any say in what the Rays do, he has talked more about them than anyone, serving as the familiar host on TV and the primary connection for fans since day one. To many, he is the face of the franchise.

10. John Higgins, senior VP/general counsel 1995-current

Little of what Higgins does is in the public eye, which is exactly how they want it. But he has been there from the start, working with Naimoli to land the franchise, being hired as the team’s first employee on April 1, 1995, and serving a key role in the transition to Sternberg’s ownership. Bridging the two regimes, he knows all the secrets.

Among others considered: Don Zimmer, Crawford, Gerry Hunsicker, Tom Foley, Jim Hickey, Wade Boggs, David Price.

The Rays Division

There will be lots of good stories and few secrets flying around the Trop this week with visits by former Rays turned managers Charlie Montoyo (Blue Jays) and Rocco Baldelli (Twins). Here is how the seven current skippers with Rays ties stack up (through Friday):

Team Manager W-L GB
Twins Rocco Baldelli 34-16 --
Rays Kevin Cash 29-19 4
Cubs Joe Maddon 29-20 4.5
Phillies Gabe Kapler 30-21 4.5
Mets Mickey Callaway 24-26 10
Blue Jays Charlie Montoyo 20-31 14.5
Nationals Davey Martinez 20-31 14.5

Short stops

• The focus on the Rays’ attendance issues and urgency to resolve the stadium situation keeps gaining more attention. There was a thorough piece by Jayson Stark on The Athletic website, and an accompanying MLB Network discussion, and, more intriguing, a visit to the Trop last week by a reporter from Le Journal de Montreal.

• In the latest mocks for the June 3-5 draft, Baseball America has the Rays using the No. 22 pick on North Carolina first baseman/outfielder Michael Busch, mlb.com has them taking Alabama prep shortstop Gunnar Henderson, and fangraphs.com and cbssports.com predict California prep shortstop Keoni Cavaco.

Rays rumblings

What do you think, maybe five-six starts for Brendan McKay at Triple A, then a call­up, maybe for the July 13 doubleheader in Baltimore right after the All-Star break? … Keep reading rumors about the Rays having interest in free agent starter Dallas Keuchel but still would be majorly surprised to see them a) serious and b) high bidder. … Having six catchers on the 40-man roster (three on the injured list) limits flexibility for some potential moves. … A post on the always sensitive and understanding barstoolsports.com after the May 12 power outage vs. the Yankees said the Trop was “originally built for a circus’’ and is the worst “sports arena in the world” and should be blown up. … Anthony Rendon’s name is being floated as a July trade candidate as the Nationals implode; mlb.com’s Mark Feinsand has the Rays sixth on a list of potential fits for the third baseman. … Work continues to find a new permanent in-game host at the Trop. … Sure was good to see former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey back at the Trop last week and to hear he is back in the game, working for the Dodgers. … Condolences to the friends and family of Gerry Fraley, a longtime and legendary baseball writer with Tampa Bay ties who died Saturday. … One-time Rays uber-prospect Josh Hamilton will be inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in August and in a rare interview he told reporters that he was “doing good” in his ongoing battle with sobriety: “You can only keep so busy, so there’s always thoughts about doing stuff I shouldn’t do. But that’s going to be the rest of my life, so I don’t even think about it. Don’t react, don’t do it. It’s all good.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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