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20 years of covering the Rays: The good, the bad and … Vince Naimoli

Life on the Rays baseball beat is never dull when covering personalities such as Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and former owner Vince Naimoli.
There were those who felt original owner Vince Naimoli ran the team like a king, ordering employees around, dictating cost-saving methods, creating rules as he went. [Times files (2008)]
Published Mar. 24, 2018
Updated Mar. 25, 2018

With the Rays planning a year-long celebration of their 20th anniversary, the Times is taking a look back —with 20 lists of 20 things about those first 20 seasons. Check out some more of our coverage here:

20 years of Rays and 'the things we've loved' about them

20 years of Rays: Greatest moments in franchise history

20 years of the Rays: The 20 best players

20 years of the Rays: The 20 best quotes

Marc Topkin was covering baseball in Tampa Bay before there was a team in Tampa Bay. The Rays' 20th season marked his 20th season covering them. Despite filing two or three stories a day for nine months every year — plus in the winter when warranted — there are some stories he never got to tell, or stories that deserve further attention.

So with some help from friends and colleagues along the way, Marc shares these 20 Rays tales worth telling:

How do you really feel?

Tampa Bay Times reporter and BBWAA chapter chairman Marc Topkin presents Evan Longoria with the BBWAA Champion and Don Zimmer MVP awards before a 2016 game. [Times files (2016)]

I'd covered baseball — spring training, All-Star Games, postseason, owners/winter meetings — for the Times for 10 years before the Rays began play, but being on the beat was different, with daily access, interaction and accountability. That included occasionally getting yelled at by players (often the lesser ones, talking to you Shawn Camp), team execs (30-plus minutes for the "offense" of quoting a top prospect's dad being unhappy with the development plan), agents (Josh Hamilton's guy didn't like me going to visit him at home in North Carolina, even though he ended up inviting me in) and, often, a certain first owner of the team. Most memorable— in the pre-Internet era, when traveling people relied on others to tell them what was in the newspaper — was getting lashed by original GM Chuck LaMar, for a story that appeared in the Tampa Tribune.

Mount St. Lou

Lou Piniella removes his cap before an opening-day game against the Blue Jays in 2005. [AP Photo/Scott Audette]

Lou Piniella was fascinating to cover as a manager, as much for what he had to say as how he would say it. He hated losing so much that he couldn't contain himself from going off on tirades in post-game media sessions — which occasionally were cut short or even canceled. But Piniella wasn't as keen on pre-game interviews, often delaying them or trying to beg off. So it was unusual to walk into the clubhouse one Sunday morning in Pittsburgh (June 12, 2005) with another writer at the usual time and be told Piniella had been there for a while and was waiting for us. Having been up most of the night after an 18-2 loss, he had a message he wanted to deliver, and needed a prompt. I apparently obliged with a benign question, and he blasted the incoming Sternberg ownership group for not caring about the present team at the expense of the future. Further, that he would no longer "take responsibility for this" and "if you want answers about what's going on here" to call the new owners. No surprise, he negotiated an early departure.

When in Montreal …

Word from veteran NL-team reporters was that when in Montreal, one had to check out the Chez Paree gentleman's club. Arm twisted on my first 1999 visit — other names withheld to protect the guilty — I walked in with a colleague just as Jose Canseco and a teammate did. While the three of us exchanged awkward glances, Canseco, who played his whole career in the AL, wandered off — straight to the off-limits dancers' dressing area, where we could clearly hear several saying warm hellos and welcoming him back.

Wading in

Wade Boggs points to the crowd as he heads to the dugout after a grand slam home run against the Texas Rangers in 1998. [Times files (1998)]

Getting to cover Hall of Fame-bound, Tampa-produced Wade Boggs was one of the things I was looking most forward to going into the inaugural 1998 season. And it didn't take long to realize one of the reasons he was so good was how serious he took his craft. Such as the morning midway through that spring training he called me over to point out — firmly — a mistake in the Times that he wanted to see corrected: We had his batting average wrong. His spring batting average.

When it rains …

As if it wasn't odd enough that the threat of Hurricane Gordon forced cancellation of the Sept. 17, 2000, game at domed Tropicana Field, consider this: Had the Rays — in the midst of losing 16 of 18 — lost that game, they would have had the first pick in the 2001 draft instead of the third, and (in theory) could have taken Joe Mauer or Mark Prior rather than Dewon Brazelton (who they took instead of Mark Teixeira.)

Dan the man

Talk about the Rays' 2008 breakthrough often focuses on the off-season additions of veteran leaders Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Troy Percival. But manager Joe Maddon insists the key move actually came in July 2007 — that the player most responsible for installing the needed sense of professionalism actually was reliever Dan Wheeler.

Free press?

An afternoon phone call first alerted me that Vince Naimoli, who led the original ownership group, was especially peeved over a parody piece in that day's Times, suggesting casting for the upcoming movie The Rookie, with Naimoli played by Sopranos star James Gandolfini. When I showed up to cover the April 9, 2000, ESPN Sunday night game, a security guard told me how mad Naimoli was: He had all copies of the Times removed from the luxury suites and the newspaper boxes that were stationed around the Trop as part of a sponsorship agreement piled up on the loading dock. It took a few calls between lawyers to straighten that out.

KC masterpiece

David Price, left, talks with manager Joe Maddon after a bullpen session before a game against the Cleveland Indians in 2007. [AP Photo/Chris O’Meara]

Former manager Joe Maddon saw little value in calling meetings to address a struggling team, feeling they were just for show. But when absolutely necessary, he had two rules — to do it after a win so he'd get the players attention, and to do it on the road so as not to put out negative vibes in their home space. Which is what led to a lesser known, but key galvanizing moment in the magical 2008 season, beyond Elliot Johnson's spring steamrollering of Yankees catchers Francisco Cervelli, Jonny Gomes' spirted defense when the Yanks retaliated, James Shields' roundhouse swing at Coco Crisp that sparked a nasty brawl in Boston, Dan Johnson's storybook homer vs. the Red Sox. The Rays had lost 10 of 14 in July and frittered away a five-game AL East lead when Maddon seized the moment to deliver a blistering address after a win in Kansas City. It seemed to work as they finished 36-21 and won the East.

Not-so-friendly skies

As much flying as a Florida-based team does there are going to be some rough flights. One of the closest calls came on a July 2000 trip into Kansas City when they had to abort the landing due to violent wind shear, then circle back later, leaving even the flight attendants shaken. The pilot said later they were fortunate to have been, unexpectedly, in a Delta 757, that with their usual 727 it might not have gone as well.

Not a good look

Though not necessarily pleased, most players would eventually go along with the now-banned rookie hazing ritual of dressing up like women. But not RHP Esteban Yan — who at 6-foot-4 and at least 255 pounds may have had good reason — who threw the outfit and a trash can in the clubhouse before leaving Yankee Stadium.

Flushed out

There were those who felt original owner Naimoli ran the team like a king, ordering employees around, dictating cost-saving methods, creating rules as he went (such as no concession stand food in the press box), arguing with anyone in his way. He also defended his throne. When then-Mets scout Howie Freiling made the innocent mistake of using the restroom in Naimoli's suite that was adjacent to the press box, Naimoli had him ejected and wanted to ban him for life.

Hot stuff

Maddon's immense charitable efforts got off to a bad start. Before his first Thanksmas event at St. Petersburg's St. Vincent De Paul center in 2006 he was pouring boiling water into a sink and splashed onto his feet, causing burns that had to be treated by the training staff at the Trop.

Buyer beware

Stuart Sternberg, left, poses with Vince Naimoli before a game against the Texas Rangers in 2004. [AP Photo/Chris O’Meara]

Stuart Sternberg bought the Rays sight unseen. At home anyway. In spending  years working on the deal, and having several operatives on the ground in St. Petersburg, Sternberg didn't want his feelings to be tainted by the experience. So he didn't attend a game until his group's initial purchase of 48 percent of team was completed in May 2004. After renegotiating, they moved up the date and took full control in October 2005.

A Hal of a time

Hal McRae knew what he was getting into when he was named to replace fired Larry Rothschild as manager 14 games into the 2001 season, and 2002 confirmed it as the Rays lost a majors-most 106 games. McRae tried to handle the losing well, but he cracked — in a good way — when a reporter pointed out an arcane stat, something like Chris Gomez tying a team record for shortstops with 10 homers for the season. McRae broke out laughing loudly, noting that on other teams "That would be the record for a (adjective added) month."

Now it's personal

Former Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes seemed to create enough trouble on his own, most seriously allegations by his wife that he threatened to kill her, sent a photo of a handgun to her cellphone and left a voicemail that included "You dead, dawg," all of which the Times reported. So it wasn't totally shocking — though somewhat concerning — when I had to ask some follow-up questions on a road trip and he made a threat against me.

Door-to-door service

Naimoli didn't like to waste time or money. So there wasn't much anyone could do when he (plus wife, her twin sister and others) would take the team bus after games in New York and have it detour to his apartment on the way back to the team hotel.

Rain man

Seminole Indian medicine man Bobby Henry sits in the dugout just prior to the Rays’ game against the Seattle Mariners in 2014. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Maddon was always pushing boundaries between the assorted themed dress-up trips (Woodstock, nerd, urban cowboy, team Braysers, grunge, Johnny Cash) and having entertainers (magician, bands) and animals (penguins, birds, a 20-foot snake) into the clubhouse. But the move that seemed to freak the most people out was bringing in Seminole Indian medicine man Bobby Henry, hoping to reverse a 2014 losing skid. He did make it rain anyway.

Trade winds

Obviously only a miniscule number of trades that are talked about come to fruition. Some get closer than others. While the Rays had deeper than reported talks at times about Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, there were actually reports, including by, and a press release written, about them acquiring outfielder Jason Bay from the Pirates at the July 2008 deadline for pitcher Jeff Niemann and infielder Reid Brignac. One problem — the Pirates instead dealt him to Boston as part of a three-way deal that sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles.

Handy man

Luke Scott shows off the head of the first boar he says he ever killed with a spear. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]

Over the years players have  brought all kinds of personal items into the clubhouse. Everything from Josh Hamilton's drugs (as he admitted in his book) to golf clubs to baby gifts. But nothing topped outfielder/designated hitter Luke Scott, who in spring 2013 brought in and mounted the head of a boar he killed, then showed off the spears he used to do it.

A question I never thought I'd ask

One thing I say I always like about this job is that you never know what you are going to be writing about beyond what happens on the field. Good or bad. It could be about a player's family, an injury or illness, high finances related to contracts, and legal and even criminal matters. Then there was the 2010 day when a national sports website posted a picture that it claimed a prominent Rays player had sent to someone of a certain body part. That was an awkward interview — and denial.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.