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Naimoli not thinking 'what if' with Giants

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


SAN FRANCISCO -- Vince Naimoli thought he was right.

And -- as anyone who has worked with, for, or near the Rays' domineering leader can tell you -- that's usually good enough.

But not this time.

It was the fall of 1992 when Naimoli burst on the Tampa Bay baseball scene with stunning news. He headed a group that had a deal -- "a signed contract," in case anyone had any doubt -- to buy the Giants and promptly move them to St. Petersburg.

Naimoli was sure enough the deal was done that ketches of Tampa Bay Giants uniforms sat in his office. But after months of delays forced by National League president Bill White, meetings and back-room dealing, NL owners on Nov. 10, 1992, refused to approve the move.

Instead they forced Bob Lurie to sell the team for less money to a group, headed by Peter Magowan, that would keep the team in San Francisco and, eventually, ensure its long-term success by building a spectacular new stadium.

Naimoli's group, with valuable assistance from Rick Dodge and others, moved on and in March 1995 won the expansion franchise that is the now the Rays.

Tuesday, with Naimoli in the stands at picturesque Pac Bell Park, the story comes to convergence: the team he owns vs. the team he thought he would own for the first time.

For Magowan, things seem to have worked out rather well. He has a contending team that features the biggest star in the game and regularly plays before packed houses at what is one of, if not the best, stadiums.

Even Naimoli admires what Magowan has done: "I have to compliment Peter and the Giants. Peter went out and got that fabulous stadium and he's got a wonderful team. He's really done a great job."

The Rays have none of that -- not the wins, not the stars, not the crowds -- but Naimoli says things worked out okay from his end too: "It's like my mother always said, 'Everything happens for the better.' "

For example, he says the talent in the San Francisco farm system wasn't very good at the time. Minor-league affiliates would have been mostly on the West Coast. There wouldn't have been the opportunity to build the organization from scratch.

But most important, he said, there would not have been time to make the significant improvements to what is now Tropicana Field.

"We could not possibly have done all the work we did here, all the things that $80-million was spent on to cure," Naimoli said. "We had 100 points of sale (for concessions), we now have 302. We had those narrow concourses.

"People would have been euphoric we got the Giants and they would have come here for the first year, then they would have said, 'Hey, by the way, we can't buy food.' We would have had a lot of unhappy fans."

Had the Giants been allowed to move, they would be playing their 10th season in St. Petersburg. They may not have signed Barry Bonds, but it's reasonable to think they would not have finished last each season, as the Rays have, and wouldn't be playing in a three-fourths empty ballpark each night.

Still, Naimoli claims no hard feelings.

"I guess now, in the year 2002, it turned out happy for us and it turned out happy for San Francisco," he said. "Ten years later, it's fine."

WHAT GOES UP: Catcher John Flaherty is featured in a helpful new instructional book Play Ball Like the Pros. Author Steven Krasner got 20 major-leaguers to explain specific elements of the game in a format young players easily can understand.

Flaherty's chapter deals with catching foul popups. His best advice:

"Always remember that a popup behind home plate in foul territory is going to come back toward the field because of the spin when it comes off the bat. To prepare for this, the catcher should turn his back to the field. That way he'll be better prepared to handle the spin on the ball, with an easier angle to make the catch."

HOO-RAYS: Manager Hal McRae used 52 lineups for the first 64 games, not one more than five times. ... The Rays shortened home batting practice from 60 minutes to 45 for a reason. "We were leaving too many hits in batting practice," McRae joked. ... Jared Sandberg missed all the air time he got on ESPN after homering twice in an inning Tuesday. He and new bride Julie don't have cable in their apartment.


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