Romano: Love or hate him, give Vince Naimoli the credit he's due

Vince Naimoli will throw out the first pitch Monday at the Tampa Bay Rays opening game.
Vince Naimoli will throw out the first pitch Monday at the Tampa Bay Rays opening game.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

The fighter is older, and more frail than you know. His time in the spotlight has passed, and his greatest accomplishment has been relegated to history's back pages.

Instead, the stories now told of Vince Naimoli are often derisive — comical and demeaning recollections of his time spent as the owner of the woebegone Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Mind you, those tales seem limitless and are forever entertaining. But the truth is they paint an incomplete picture.

So as the Rays prepare to open a new season Monday with Naimoli throwing out the first pitch, remember this:

He is the father of baseball in Tampa Bay.

When every other effort to land a franchise here had failed, Naimoli was the tough SOB who finally brought it home. He was the obstinate one. The bare-knuckled executive.

That's worth remembering when he shuffles unsteadily toward the mound.

That's worth cheering, both long and loud.

• • •

The negotiations had taken all day — too long, everyone agreed.

Finally, the Devil Rays executives figured they had gotten as much as they were going to get and persuaded their new corporate partners to sign off on their terms.

That's when Naimoli asked for more.

It was his philosophy that if the other side agreed, that meant you hadn't wrangled every cent possible out of them.

So the CEO of the national media firm slowly rose from his seat on the opposite side of the Tropicana Field conference room and dropped to his knees in front of Naimoli.

Please, he pleaded, I've got nothing left.

"Vince was relentless. Absolutely relentless,'' said John Higgins, who was the first Rays employee hired by Naimoli and remains the team's senior vice president and general counsel. "He was hard-charging and tenacious by nature. That's just who he was. He was never one to sit back and reflect, or have deep, interpersonal conversations.

"He was a fighter, a hard-nosed dealmaker.''

It was, in part, that pugnacious personality and frugal sensibility that made Naimoli ill-suited to be a sports owner, as the world quickly discovered.

But for a few short years, his fury was a blessing in Tampa Bay.

The market had been chasing baseball for parts of two decades when Naimoli was first recruited to have a small share in an ownership group as the Seattle Mariners were considering moving to Tampa Bay in the early 1990s.

That deal, like so many others, fell through. Tampa Bay had become Major League Baseball's favorite stalking horse, the place everyone used when they wanted a better stadium deal or when they needed to motivate a new ownership group locally.

Tampa Bay took it on the chin year after year with the hope that, next time, MLB officials would reward the area's patience.

Naimoli was having none of that. He wasn't willing to play nice and he wasn't willing to be a patsy. He struck a deal to purchase the San Francisco Giants, and when the National League president intervened, Naimoli initiated a flurry of lawsuits.

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Two years later, Tampa Bay had an expansion team.

This was typical of the hardscrabble Naimoli. He grew up the son of a subway worker in a blue-collar area of Paterson, N.J., and he viewed life as a daily battle. If you weren't competing, then you were almost certainly losing.

"He was always a tough, old soul,'' said his wife, Lenda. "Even today, he's the same way. The man has his name on buildings and fields at universities across the country, and he still only owns one damn pair of shoes. He's never been extravagant. He's never going to get a $300 haircut when he can find one for $10. Never going to stop cutting coupons.

"My sister (Glenda) and I play golf, we play tennis, we have fun every day. Vince enjoyed working every day.''

Although Naimoli, 77, still sits on the boards of several universities, the days of nonstop work are well behind him.

Lenda said he was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in the fall, and his health has steadily declined.

"He's trapped in his own body,'' she said.

We are a month removed from the 20th anniversary of the awarding of a Major League Baseball franchise in Tampa Bay. For many local residents, that spring day was their first true glimpse of the corporate turnaround exec who would go on to dominate newspaper headlines — in good ways and bad — for the next decade.

It's been a while, and the team is no longer his, but Vince Naimoli is coming back Monday to start a new season with a ceremonial first pitch.

He deserves the honor. He deserves the moment.

And he deserves your applause.