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Devil Rays 1995-2005: What went wrong?
It isn't, 'Who will replace Vince?' Just, 'When?'
For all Stuart Sternberg has going for him, the thing that might ensure his success is simple: He's not Vince Naimoli.
By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 6, 2005
The Devil Rays grabbed powerful righthander Jeff Niemann in the first round of the June draft, and picked up hard-throwing lefty Scott Kazmir in a July trade.
But their most important acquisition of 2004 may prove to be a 45-year-old who hasn't played in an organized game since high school.
Stuart Sternberg, an extremely successful Wall Street investor, heads a group that bought 48 percent of the team last May for about $60-million and plans to eventually replace managing general partner Vince Naimoli as the man in charge.
"I think it's going to help," said area businessman Gary Markel, one of the team's limited partners. "I think it will help not only financially, in that he's willing to put in some additional funds, but that it will help image-wise. Obviously for the past five, six years Vince, rightfully or wrongfully, has taken a hammering in the press and in the public. Having new blood come in might be good."
Sternberg thus far has kept a low-profile, but has had an impact on the franchise by buying out other top members of the ownership group who had been worn out, and tapped out, by the team's struggles and internal conflicts with Naimoli.
He has also effected some other changes, such as adding key strategic staff, increasing the emphasis on information gathering, making improvements to Tropicana Field and leading the effort to sign young players to long-term deals.
Sternberg is young, rich, innovative, energetic and smart, among other traits. But some say the best thing about him for the future of the Devil Rays is simply that he is different.
"I think maybe we did need a new investment group involved, maybe one that's more singular and maybe is willing to put more cash resources up," said Sarasota businessman Bill Griffin, one of the general partners who sold out. "We need a fresh ownership group to carry the ball. ... It was tough right up to the end with us because, frankly, we were just worn out with it."
Sternberg made hundreds of millions on Wall Street, but he doesn't plan to dramatically change the Rays into big spenders. In his introductory media sessions, he spoke of building through player development, growing the payroll gradually and making it a priority to keep the team together.
"I don't anticipate going into the free-agent market blasting out signing guys left and right any time soon," he said in May. "The resources this team has got are going to be put toward the young players and their development."
Baseball officials said they have heard good things about Sternberg.
"It's always hard to quantify ownership situations," commissioner Bud Selig said. "I know he is very determined and very interested and Vince seems to be happy with the arrangements. Hopefully they are on the right track and it will all work out well."
Sternberg, who lives in New York, made it clear that he is confident the team can be successful in the Tampa Bay market if run properly and that he plans to be around for a long time.
What's not clear - at least not publicly - is when and how he will take over.
Sternberg has refrained from public comment since the introductory media sessions, made only a few brief appearances in the area and has generally distanced himself from the current team administration.
The question is whether he is doing that in deference to Naimoli or because he doesn't want to be associated with the team's past failures. (Sternberg declined to be interviewed for this story, but is planning a mid-March visit.)
In May, Sternberg said there would be a "gradual transition that will take some number of years" - more than one and less than 10. The most common speculation is for after the 2006 season.
Naimoli, however, said last month that there is no firm date or plan in place. He pointed out that Sternberg said in May that Naimoli could stick around as long as he wants. Naimoli added that, while he would like to give up responsibility for day-to-day operations, he doesn't feel he can yet.
Essentially, he didn't sound like he was ready to put the team in Sternberg's hands.
"It is a public trust and I have to feel comfortable with someone administering a public trust," Naimoli said. "And, you know, when we did this originally, it was for the good of the area, and I just want to feel like (turning over the team) is for the good of the area."
LIVES: Rye, N.Y.
FAMILY: Wife, Lisa; four children 14 and younger
PERSONAL: Born and raised in Brooklyn. ... Attended St. John's. ... Grew up rooting for Dodgers and Mets. ... Coached son's youth-league team. ... Huge Bruce Springsteen fan.
PROFESSIONAL: Partner at Wall Street trading firm Spear, Leeds & Kellogg. ... Made a reported $300-million to $400-million when firm was sold in September. ... Was a managing director at Goldman Sachs. ... Retired in 2002.