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Vince Naimoli, original Tampa Bay Rays owner, dies

Vince Naimoli, owner of the "Tampa Bay Devil Rays"

PALM BEACH, FL - MARCH 9: Vince Naimoli, owner of the “Tampa Bay Devil Rays” displays his new team’s jersey to reporters 09 March in Palm Beach, Florida. Members of the Major League Expansion Committee announced Naimoli’s team would be one of two new expansion teams approved for baseball. The new team will begin playing in the 1998 season. (COLOR KEY: Background is blue.) AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read DOUG COLLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

Vince Naimoli, the man who brought Major League Baseball to the Gulf Coast of Florida as the founding owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, has died after a long illness. He was 81.

Naimoli deserves credit for many years of working to get baseball to the Tampa Bay area, first with the near-purchase of the San Francisco Giants, which he planned to move to Florida in the early 1990s. When that deal was rejected by Major League Baseball Naimoli was awarded with the expansion Rays in 1995 and the team began play in 1998.

While Naimoli was successful in getting a team, he was unfortunately not successful in running it. The Devil Rays, later renamed the Rays, were bad even for an expansion team during his tenure as owner, winning 70 games only once and, more significantly, doing very little to build the fan base or goodwill in the local community, primarily because of decisions Naimoli made as an owner. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times has a thorough accounting of that -- including the time he Naimoli invited a high school marching band to play the National Anthem only to have them back out when he expected each member of the pan to pay admission to the game. Or how his employees did not have Internet access as late as 2003. Yes, 2003.

He was equally lacking on the baseball side, often attracting talented people like Lou Piniella but refusing to step aside and run the club and taking on an owner/operator role that (a) has not been successful in baseball for many, many decades; and (b) was not a role Naimoli was suited for. History is history, though, and eventually Naimoli sold his controlling interest in the team to Stuart Sternberg who, unlike Naimoli, has put together an excellent baseball operations department that has often overcome the inherent structural issues facing that particular team in that particular stadium in that particular location.

Naimoli is survived by his wife, four daughters and several grandchildren.

UPDATE: Rob Manfred has issued a statement about Naimoli’s passing:

“Vince Naimoli was the driving force behind the efforts that brought a Major League Club to the Tampa Bay region. Vince believed deeply in the market and overcame significant obstacles to secure a Major League franchise. The Rays’ many winning seasons under Stu Sternberg would not have been possible without Vince’s longstanding devotion to this cause leading up to a successful expansion bid in 1995.

“Vince was also a generous figure who cared deeply about his community and education, including his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, and universities in the Tampa area and his native New Jersey. On behalf of all of us at Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Vince’s wife Lenda and their entire family.”

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