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Do not allow history to forget the greatest achievement of Vince Naimoli’s career

John Romano: The original owner of the Rays never got the credit he deserved for bringing MLB to Tampa Bay. And he had only himself to blame.
In March, 1995, Vince Naimoli held Tampa Bay in the palm of his hand. He brought Major League Baseball to the market after years of near-misses and heartbreaks. Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short lived. TIME ARCHIVES [BAER, BRIAN | St. Petersburg Times]
Published Aug. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — For about 10 minutes, Vince Naimoli was our hero. A simmering combination of fierce and relentless at a time when Tampa Bay was in desperate need of both.

If he was also ruthless and short-tempered, well that could be overlooked in a community that had repeatedly come up short in its pursuit of a Major League Baseball team.

This was the ultimate game of hardball and Naimoli, who passed away on Sunday night, played it well. If he viewed life as a competition, then business had to be a war.

MORE ON NAIMOLI: Original Rays franchise owner Vince Naimoli dies at age 81

So when it finally came to pass, when Naimoli had secured the Devil Rays for Tampa Bay, he was allowed to bask briefly in the glory and adulation he had never known as a corporate turnaround artist.

And if this was a fairy tale, the story would have ended there. The hero would have stepped aside with the cheers still ringing in his ears.

Unfortunately, Naimoli never recognized his greatest strength was also his eventual downfall. He was a street fighter. An optics-be-damned kind of leader. And the reality that he was horribly miscast as a baseball team owner never seemed to cross his mind.

In that sense, his passing is even sadder still. Naimoli deserved a hero’s trip around the bases in his retirement. He should have had a reserved booth in every sports bar in Tampa Bay. He should have been taking selfies with fans every night at Tropicana Field.

Instead, he was pushed out as the team’s managing general partner in 2005 and the stories of his outlandish management style followed him for the rest of his days. Naimoli the conquering hero had been turned into a punchline.

MORE ON NAIMOLI: The 10 most influential people in Rays history

It was an unfair coda for a self-made man. The son of a subway worker, Naimoli took on a paper route as a boy in Paterson, N.J., and didn’t stop busting his hump for nearly 60 years. His appetite for 80-hour work weeks gave him an edge that others were unwilling, or unable, to match. And if success provided him with luxury, it never softened his edges.

In a way, that was why he was so ill-suited in the entertainment/service industry. Naimoli had battered his way to the top, and never grasped that attracting customers required different skill sets than cutting costs and maximizing profits.

Naimoli wore his celebrity like a suit that wouldn’t stop itching. He alienated fans and the corporate community before the first pitch was ever thrown with his demands and impudence. By the franchise’s second season, he was already hinting the team could be moved elsewhere. Naimoli didn’t just have disagreements, he had angry, and petty, public spats.

He argued with department stores. Scouts. Cops. His partners. Tourism officials. Newspapers. High school bands. Even, comically, the raccoons in his Avila neighborhood.

MORE ON NAIMOLI: Once-thundering Vince Naimoli still speaks loudly through gifts

Oh, there was supposedly an awakening somewhere down the line. Naimoli declared he was a changed man, and famously wore a Hawaiian shirt at a press conference to introduce the new, more agreeable Vince. But underneath the floral print, the same restless heart raged on.

4/27/01 St. Petersburg, Fl. Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli announced today he will assume the role as Chairman of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Naimoli laughs at a question from the media. The press conference was held this afternoon at Tropicana Field. slug rays28 staff/cliff mcbride [CLIFF MCBRIDE | Tampa Bay Times]

Naimoli’s instincts had always served him well, and he wasn’t about to start listening to consultants, critics or MLB officials at that point in his life.

I’ve written it a dozen times before and I’ll repeat it again one last time:

Naimoli’s lopsided legacy is a crying shame.

He had more in common with you and I than most other franchise owners. His parents were decent, hard-working people. His upbringing was more hardscrabble than country club. His will to succeed was enviable. And yet it’s his foibles that are always talked about most.

And don’t assume for a minute that it didn’t hurt him to the core. Not long after giving up control of the franchise, Naimoli self-published his own memoir to clear up what he described as misperceptions and media-created falsehoods. The book did not seem to sell much beyond family, friends and the most obsessed Rays fans. He would sit in solitude for an hour or more at book-signings no one attended.

Even then, Naimoli seemed to wrestle with the inevitability of his plight.

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

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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