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Rays still are on schedule to succeed

By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

As managing general partner, Vince Naimoli, 64, is the man in charge of the Rays. And he is in charge of even more of the team since the departure of chief operating officer John McHale Jr. Naimoli sat down with Times baseball writer Marc Topkin to discuss the team, the marketplace, the future and what's for dinner. Here are excerpts:

Q. As we're about to start the fifth season, are you pleased with the progress of the franchise?

A. We had a five-year plan when we started and we had a little divergence along the way (by adding high-priced veterans in 2000), but I think we're back on the plan. Perhaps our five-year plan was a little optimistic, perhaps it should have been five to six. But I think we are fairly well where we want to be right now.

We had some unseen things along the way. We had some pitchers like Matt White and Bobby Seay that in the early days always figured into the five-year plan and I know they're going to be outstanding major-leaguers but they're probably a little behind the five-year curve right now.

Q. Of the moves you made, is there one that you wish you could do over or not do?

A. That's a hard question to answer. We had some things that didn't work out, but we had some things that worked out great. If you look at Paul Wilson and Jason Tyner (acquired from the Mets for Bubba Trammell and Rick White), that was a very good one. In these things I don't think there's any general manager who's going to be 100 percent foolproof. You're going to have some pluses and minuses. If I had to grade Chuck LaMar right now, I'd say on balance he's ahead of the ledger on his trades.

Q. What would you say to people who didn't buy a ticket last year. Why should they do so this year?

A. I would say please come and sample the product. What you'll find is the venue is readily accessible, it's fan friendly, it's very affordable and it's family fun. And our studies show that 92 percent of the people who are first time attendees will come back again. So please sample the product.

Q. What are your personal expectations for this season?

A. I would never argue with our manager, and I think he's declared what his expectations are (a .500 season). I could do nothing but support him.

Q. Officially, you are the managing general partner of the team, and are considered the owner. But you also seem to be the team's No. 1 fan. How high do you get after a win, how low after a loss?

A. It really is something. When we win it is supreme elation. No matter what else is happening in life, on a day we win, you're elated. On a day you lose, even in spring training, you're very down, very despondent, and very distraught. And, unfortunately, I replay the games all the time.

Q. What do you think the image of the Rays is nationally?

A. I think we have room for improvement nationally. I think there have been some things written that are not entirely correct.

Some of the national media have said things about our field, and we find they haven't been at our field so we try and be positive and proactive and invite them to come and see it.

There was all this rumor on contraction, but as (MLB VP) Sandy Alderson has said, we were never one of the contraction potentials but some people in the national media saw it that way. There were some stories that were entirely fallacious about not meeting payroll, which didn't do our image any good, and it's discouraging because there was absolutely no substance to them. But as we get older and grow and as the team wins, I'm sure a lot of those stories will go by the wayside and we'll hear more and more positives.

Q. You've lived in this area for around 25 years, where do you think the Rays fit into the sports scene?

A. I think football is extremely popular in the state of Florida and there's no getting away from it. Football has a limited number of games, so the fan attentiveness is absolutely outstanding. We've been blessed to have outstanding football teams, pro and college, and I think that's a part of it.

But I think baseball has always been a staple in Florida with spring training, being as big as it is with the minor league teams. I think baseball has an important spot in the sports scene in Florida and I think it will continue to grow.

Q. But specifically, where do the Rays fit in with the Bucs, Lightning, Florida State, South Florida, Florida?

A. I'd rather not get into comparisons other than to say there are cycles in every business. And I think it's quite obvious when you have a winning team and a stellar product on the field your cycle is up and when you have a losing product your cycle is down.

Q. Are you working fewer hours now?

A. Um, yeah, I was. And I intend to get back to working less hours.

Q. So what are you down to, 80 hours a week? 90?

A. Yeah, probably. I don't know. But the staff handles a big part of the load.

Q. Okay, there's no game. What's a big night out for you and your wife, Lenda?

A. We have some favorite restaurants. My wife is more of a play-goer than I am so she enjoys doing that and I tag along. We do that from time to time. I think the thing we do most is just go out to dinner.

Q. Do you have a skill or a talent people don't know about you?

A. I'm good at grilling salmon. ... I used to play a lot of tennis and the story my wife always talks about is when I aced John Newcombe once and I aced Roscoe Tanner another time. But that was a long time ago.

Q. Do you have any hobbies?

A. Gardening, lawn work and collecting art. Baseball, of course, would be No. 1.

Q. Where do you see yourself and the franchise in 10 years?

A. Now or 10 years from now the thing I feel very good about is that a baseball team is a great economic engine for the community. With an economic impact of $250-million a year, with the jobs it creates, 10,000 primary, secondary, tertiary, but in addition to that, the team in many ways is also, I'm proud to say, a fine benefactor to the community. Between the team and Volume Services we probably provide about $3-million a year in goods, contributions and services to charitable and other groups in the area. When I first got into this I was given counsel that a baseball team is the biggest thing you can do for a community from an economic and social impact standpoint. So we want to win, we want to win a championship naturally, and you're measured by that, but I think you're measured by other things as well, and that's the social impact.

Q. And, back to the question, where do you see yourself in 10 years? Wearing a World Series ring?

A. I sure hope so. First of all you pray by the grace of God you're still going to be here in 10 years on this Earth. But, yes, I think the team is going to get better and better and I think we're going to have our day, or days, in the sun.

Q. There's been a lot written, and a lot you haven't agreed with, about your ownership group. Are there going to changes and will they be significant?

A. We have a fine group of owners, everyone has absolutely the best intent for the area, everyone is united in the fact that what they want is the best team possible on the field. But to answer your question you have to know personal circumstances of people. I know them as friends and I know them as investors, but I'm not intimate in personal knowledge of what their internal desires are. ... It seems there are always people out there who are interested in being involved in some small or large way in ownership of a baseball team.

Q. Do you have any plan to further reduce your role?

A. No. I thought the relationship with John McHale was an ideal relationship and I'd like to attain that again. With John not here and getting up to sponsorship signing time, I'm probably a little more involved than I would have been. And I really want to find someone to do that again.

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