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Original Rays franchise owner Vince Naimoli dies at age 81

He was known for leading the effort that finally got a team for Tampa Bay, and some controversy in operating it.
Former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli visits Tropicana Field before a 2008 game against the Boston Red Sox. [Times (2008)]
Published Aug. 26
Updated Aug. 26

ST. PETERSBURG — Vince Naimoli, the Tampa-based businessman who led the effort that finally brought a Major League Baseball franchise to the bay area, died Sunday night after a long illness. He was 81.

Naimoli emerged unexpectedly from the private sector in 1992 as the new leader of Tampa Bay’s 20-year pursuit of a team. After a deal to buy and relocate the San Francisco Giants was scuttled by MLB, he turned the focus to pursuing an expansion franchise, which was awarded in 1995 and began play in 1998 as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

“Vince was unyielding in his pursuit of a Major League Baseball franchise for Tampa Bay, and his success in landing the then Devil Rays changed the region’s sports landscape forever,” the Rays said in a statement. "In addition to his distinguished business and baseball careers, his family’s philanthropic efforts in the community will be felt for generations. We are grateful for his leadership and wish his family peace during this difficult time.”

Naimoli operated with an aggressive and relentless but often confrontational style, leading many to suggest he was the right person to lead the fight for a team but the wrong person to run it.

That was evidenced by a series of missteps, blowups and worse with area businesses and community groups while the team also failed on the field.

New Tampa Bay Devil Rays general partner Stuart Sternberg, left, poses with managing general partner Vince Naimoli before the start of the Devil Rays game with the Texas Rangers on May 13, 2004. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

Naimoli sold a large share of the franchise to a group led by New York investor Stuart Sternberg in May 2004 and stepped down as managing general partner in October 2005, ending his involvement in day-to-day operations.

“I recall him with great fondness," former MLB commissioner Bud Selig told the Tampa Bay Times recently. “He was so proud and so happy. He was trying to do the right thing and he brought Tampa (Bay) that franchise. People should always remember, and I hope they will always remember, that he brought them a big- league franchise.

“It didn’t work out at the end I guess, like he wanted it to, and I understand that. But he played quite an interesting and historical role in Tampa (Bay) baseball."

MORE RAYS: Memorable front pages in Rays history.

Naimoli was diagnosed in fall 2014 with a brain disorder called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, and his health has been in decline since. He has spent the last several years in an assisted living facility in Tampa, making few public appearances. He threw out the first pitch at the 2015 Rays season opener.

Naimoli deserved to be lauded for his tireless effort in securing the franchise, succeeding where several other area leaders had failed. But his bottom-line mentality, tempestuous manner and short fuse in operating the team often resulted in controversy and acrimony.

Vince Naimoli framed by copies of the St. Petersburg Times' Baseball Extra in March of 1995. [RICARDO FERRO | Times (1995)]

There is a long list of incidents during Naimoli’s reign that obscured and even overshadowed the work he did to get the team, as well as his charitable endeavors.

Even before the Devil Rays began play, he alienated area companies by refusing to do business unless they bought season tickets, demanded payment for the convention and visitors bureau to use the team photos on the cover of its promotional guide and sparred with Dillard's over unauthorized use of the logo in an ad, leading to cancellation of orders for team merchandise.

He also had an ego.

Asked about the decision to have four baseball Hall of Famers throw out the ceremonial first pitches for the inaugural game rather than civic leaders such as Jack Lake or Rick Dodge who worked for years on the effort, Naimoli said: "There is no one but me who got the team."

As the years went on, the list of Naimoli stories grew.

There was the time Naimoli had a Mets scout who made the seemingly innocent mistake of using a bathroom in his executive suite off the press box ejected from the stadium and loudly threatened to ban him for life.

Vince Naimoli in the Rays dugout before the start of the game against the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 28, 2005. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The time he reacted to a Times parody article suggesting he be played in a movie by actor James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame by having copies of the paper removed from suites and newspaper boxes that were stationed around the stadium stacked on the loading dock while threatening legal action.

The time he ordered the team to shun a fundraiser for the medically needy because it was held at different venue than Trop. The time he spoke at a Tampa chamber event and chastised members for not supporting the team, calling out the host hotel for canceling its season tickets. (And the time on his watch, said to be a matter of miscommunication, the St. Petersburg High School band was told it had to pay admission for a planned national anthem performance, which it then cancelled.)

MORE RAYS: The good, the bad and Vince Naimoli

Those tales were often mixed with details of his ongoing efforts to limit and cut costs, from eschewing first-class travel to insisting copies be made on both sides of papers to negotiating the best deal on everything he could.

Those who knew him were aware that was just how he operated, but that didn’t soften the perception.

“Vince was relentless. Absolutely relentless," John Higgins, the first team employee Naimoli hired and still the senior vice president and general counsel, told the Times in 2015. “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.”

Vince Namoli carries the game ball into the rotundra of Tropicana Field. [DAVID KADLUBOWSKI | Tampa Bay Times]

There were some Naimoli stories from off-field exploits as well.

Most famously, for throwing what police said was “quite a temper tantrum” when his wife, Lenda, was stopped in July 2004 for running a red light near Tropicana Field. Among other things, Naimoli said: "Do you know who I am? I'm Vincent Joseph Naimoli, owner of the Devil Rays."

He also brought ridicule on himself for complaining in a 2004 letter to Hillsborough County officials a "pesky raccoon was intimidating" his wife and daughter at their plush Avila home, and that for paying “one of the highest property taxes,” they should get more help in dealing with it.

With Naimoli heavily involved in decision making rather than hiring a team president, the Devil Rays struggled under the leadership of first-time general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Larry Rothschild. Changes in philosophy, direction and spending didn’t help, as they won only as many as 70 games once during Naimoli’s eight years in charge. That came after hiring Tampa native Lou Piniella, who would later complain Naimoli didn’t deliver on promised resources.

Amid April 2001 reports that his partners wanted him out and rumors of financial issues, Naimoli showed up in a totally out of character casual Hawaiian shirt to announce in 2001 he would relinquish power in hiring a chief operating officer and spend more time traveling. Well-respected baseball official John McHale Jr. took the job, but that arrangement lasted less than nine months, with Naimoli returning to power.

Naimoli should also be remembered for doing the heavy lifting in fighting to get the franchise, what he called “a path of 10,000 steps, 10,000 phone calls, 10,000 frustrations,’’ navigating myriad twists and turns.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist in a statement for Naimoli’s self-published book, Business, Baseball & Beyond, cited “his strong will and dedication to the cause.’’

Naimoli first got involved as an investor in an unsuccessful 1991-92 effort to buy and relocate the Mariners to Tampa Bay, then moved into a lead role, and the public spotlight, in what was considered a done deal for 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.

“I think," he said then, “this is the greatest day in Tampa Bay history.”

Bob Stewart and Vince Naimoli (R) stand on the field prior to Game 1 of the 2008 MLB World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays. [POOL | Getty Images]

Naimoli came from modest beginnings growing up the rough blue-collar town of Paterson, N.J., the son of an Italian immigrant who worked for the New York City subway system.

He attended Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship and earned a degree in mechanical engineering, then a master’s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and an MBA in night school at Farleigh Dickinson University.

He then went on to make a fortune whacking millions of dollars out of the companies he ran, with work always a priority.

Most of his management and cost-cutting skills were learned in the factories of aluminum can maker Continental Group, where he worked his way up from a plant manager to vice president and general manager. He moved on to Allegheny Beverage and Tampa-based Jim Walter Corp., where he spent three years with the construction and building materials company before leaving because he wasn’t climbing the corporate ladder fast enough.

He saw earnings potential in then struggling Anchor Glass and in 1983 with a group of investors that included former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon paid $77 million, most of it borrowed, to buy it and began slashing costs.

“He looked in every nook and cranny to try and find savings," Richard Dawson, a former corporate counsel of Anchor Glass, said in a 1992 interview. “Woe be to someone who was caught Xeroxing something on only one side of the paper."

Vince Naimoli signs the last iron beam of the renovation of Tropicana Field. [MARK GUSS | Tampa Bay Times]

Anchor’s cost-cutting — which cost 900 people their jobs when it acquired a competitor — made it Tampa Bay’s only Fortune 500 company for a time. But it also drew unwelcomed attention, cited as an example of how unbridled venture capitalism disrupted the economy and led to the decline of the middle class. Others defended the moves as a way to save the remaining jobs, and the company, given competition from disposable products.

In 1989, a Mexican conglomerate paid $295 million for Anchor in a hostile takeover, and Naimoli walked away with more than $20 million.

He applied his turnaround methodology and cost-cutting to other companies. Doehler-Jarvis, an Ohio-based maker of aluminum engine blocks, went from losing $29 million before taxes in 1991 to making $10 million two years later. Harvard Industries, which made auto parts, rocket launchers and office furniture, went from a $131 million loss to a $7 million profit.

Naimoli created and became CEO of Tampa-based Anchor Industries as a holding company for those firms and other investments, and then eventually was invited to join and lead the baseball effort.

His personal and professional frugality was off-set by his charitable generosity.

He donated more than $8 million to Notre Dame, where Club Naimoli overlooks the basketball arena and a wing of the business school bears his name, and he often attended football games. He has also made sizable donations to NJIT and Fairleigh Dickinson, where there are sports complexes in his name. He similarly has made hefty contributions locally to the University of Tampa and University of South Florida.

The Rays will wear a uniform patch in Naimoli’s honor for the rest of the season, and the team will have pregame recognition Friday night at home against the Cleveland Indians.

Naimoli is survived by his wife, Lenda, (who has an identical twin, Glenda); four daughters: Christine, Tory, Alyson and Lindsey; and several grandchildren. Arrangements are pending.

Staff writers Susan Taylor Martin and John Romano contributed to this report; information from Times files was used.

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