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Will hard-earned good will leave town with McHale?

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Side by side they stood, each praising the other.

So you watched as John McHale prepared to leave and Vince Naimoli plotted a return and you wondered about the permeable nature of personalities.

Is it possible that dignity is contagious?

This is today's hope. That 10 months was enough time, at least, for McHale's influence to have taken hold within the Rays' power structure.

When it comes to significant accomplishments, there is no single milestone you can point to as the high note of McHale's brief stay in Tampa Bay.

During his watch, the team had its first 100-loss season. The most recognizable players were ditched in the wake of a shrinking payroll. Attendance continued a sad version of consumer downsizing.

And, yet, these were the glory days.

For the first time in forever it was not embarrassing to claim allegiance to the Rays. They may not have been heavyweights, but they no longer were punch lines. No public blunders. No humiliating, foot-in-mouth gaffes.

They had a direction and, thankfully, it was not aimed toward an empty stadium in Washington.

McHale's legacy will not be the player he helped acquire or the manager he helped to hire. Instead, it will be the calm he inspired.

With McHale, we had less bluster and more bow ties. Now, as he prepares to pack up his office, we wonder how much of that impact will be left behind.

"John opened my eyes," Naimoli said. "When he first came here, he laid out a whole bunch of things as CEO that I should be doing and wasn't. I don't want to deviate from that."

The party line is that the franchise is on solid footing. Expenditures now are closer to revenues, backstabbing is considered gauche and there are no Bryan Rekar uniforms within the city limits.

The reality is not quite so simple. The Rays say a new executive will be hired in McHale's place, but there is no assurance the role will carry the same authority.

Along with finally confirming McHale's departure to the commissioner's office Thursday, the Rays announced the team no longer is on the open market.

That means Naimoli, and the merry mimes who make up his ownership group, will be running the show for the foreseeable future.

Naimoli said we will not revert to the days when he was micromanaging the entire organization, but do not be surprised if the managing general partner takes this opportunity to reassert his influence.

McHale's replacement may very well assume the day-to-day business operations of the franchise. Which would conveniently leave Naimoli to oversee general manager Chuck LaMar and the baseball decisions.

Feel free to take a deep breath.

Naimoli's bank account suggests he is a marvel in the business world, but the Rays were not exactly a model of stability when he was running the show.

Think back to the days immediately preceding McHale's arrival.

There were widespread reports Naimoli and the general partners were involved in a power struggle (which Naimoli still refutes). There were business leaders suggesting the club had serious cash flow problems (which Naimoli has always denied). An investment banker was hired to investigate the possible sale of the team (which Naimoli suggests was never a serious issue).

Those issues faded into oblivion while McHale was in charge. Maybe they were bogus, as Naimoli insists. Or maybe McHale made them disappear.

Either way, the Rays cannot afford a return to that silly stage.

You do not have to believe in contraction to envision a Devil Rays demise. Relocation or bankruptcy would work just as well.

The team and the commissioner's office can talk all they like about how the Rays are ahead of eight or nine teams when it comes to local revenues, but those revenues are not guaranteed forever.

Contracts for sponsorships, suites and broadcast rights must be renewed. The Rays already have lost thousands of season-ticket holders. Who's to say the corporate and broadcast customers will not abandon the team as well?

McHale had less than a full year on the job, and it may have been the second-most important year in franchise history.

The most important is coming up.

Are the Rays going to continue to inspire confidence in the community with their deeds, or are they heading back to the days of public confrontations and private sniping?

Even while losing their 100 games last season, a younger and less jaded group of players seemed to create a stronger bond with fans. All it took was enthusiasm and an honest effort.

The same holds true for upper management.

Tampa Bay does not need a pennant in 2002.

Just enthusiasm and honesty.

And maybe a little dignity.

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