Vince, we have to talk. It's just not working out. The honeymoon was great, but that was seven years ago. It's time to, y'know, have the discussion. Divorce, Vince. What do they call it? Irreconcilable differences? That about sums it up. This relationship is simply beyond repair. You've tried, it's true. You're committed. But Vince, you're stubborn and you're controlling and you have this way of putting your foot in your mouth and, well, you have a temper. And the kids aren't all that happy with you. If you really loved all this, like you say you do, you'd walk away and make room for someone new.
Vincent J. Naimoli, 67, managing general partner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the man who pushed St. Petersburg's long and frustrating quest for Major League Baseball over the top, has, by most any measure, made a colossal mess of it. His team is nearing the end of its seventh consecutive losing campaign, although it was enlivened by a midseason hot streak that gave local fans a taste of what it could be like to back a winning baseball club. After years of steady decline, crowds at Tropicana Field increased slightly this year, up about 3,000 per game to 16,648 (as of Aug. 21, when the team surpassed last year's total attendance). But the Rays still drew the lowest numbers in the American League.
"Leadership starts at the top," says J.P. Peterson, sports anchor for WFLA-Ch. 8. "The team will never go anywhere as long as Vince is in there. He's holding the team hostage."
In April, Forbes magazine called the Devil Rays, "the most horrific baseball franchise of the modern era." Two years earlier, the business journal found that the team was losing value, saying it was "the worst-managed organization in baseball."
The Devil Rays, although peppered with young talent at a few key positions, operate on the lowest payroll in the majors, a paltry $23 million compared to the league average of around $70 million.
In September, the Rays' highest paid (and consistently best) player, Aubrey Huff, publicly complained about the padlock on ownership's wallet. His comments earned him a big cheer from the home crowd during the next game. Late in the season, when the New York Mets dumped manager Art Howe, the rabid NYC media hailed Rays skipper Lou Piniella as the man to take over. Piniella professed embarrassment over the attention, but used the opportunity to chide the Rays' front office to goose the payroll. "I'd like to see the organization get after it a little more," Piniella told the St. Petersburg Times. "It's nice to talk about the future all the time, but I'm 61 years old and I'd like an opportunity to win again."
Naimoli countered the Big Apple's courtship by saying that, by golly, Lou's under contract. (It runs through 2006.) And he said he'd raise payroll to over $30 million. (Pundits maintain it will take at least that much to keep the existing sub-.500 team intact.)
"Lou is getting frustrated to the point, I believe, that he may be fed up with the Devil Rays' approach to spending money," says Ken Rosenthal, senior baseball writer for The Sporting News. "Lou desperately wants to win. If he departs, fed up with the whole situation, that would be the most damning thing on Naimoli yet."
The Naimoli regime didn't just recently go bad. The owner's tenure has been fraught with tough times, close calls and controversy. There was the great contraction scare of '02, when it was widely speculated that the Rays would be dissolved. There was the big bankruptcy rumor of '01, when word circulated that the Rays would not be able to finish the season. There was the Hawaiian shirt moment that same year, when Naimoli held a press conference dressed aloha-style and said he was off to catch some rays while someone else ran the Rays. He quickly crept back into power, though, and less than a year later was fully in charge.
Naimoli, who owns about 16 percent of the team, reportedly has an ironclad contract that keeps him in control. The commissioner could remove him in "the best interests of baseball," but such a drastic ploy has been reserved for hopeless disasters like former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. This year, the Rays' other general partners, long said to be at loggerheads with Naimoli, sold their stakes to New York financier Stuart Sternberg, who now owns 48 percent of the Devil Rays. Insiders strongly contend that it was a move orchestrated by Major League Baseball. Sternberg is Naimoli's heir apparent (both declined to comment for this story), but no timetable has been set for his move into the big office.