tampabay.com

What went wrong?

It began with a whirl of enthusiasm and expectations. Ten years later, the Devil Rays' luster appears lost.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 6, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The line began to form on Thursday night, and by the time the Devil Rays put tickets for their inaugural season on sale that Saturday morning, it stretched more than four blocks from the stadium.

It was a festive scene, complete with player autographs, free snacks and managing general partner Vince Naimoli, who had visions of selling out the entire season, raving about the turnout. There was reason for his optimism, given the success of previous expansion teams and the enthusiasm Tampa Bay fans supposedly had after a decades-long quest for a team.

Tickets for opening day were gone within minutes. Business was steady all day. With only about 16,000 seats to sell for each game (29,000 had been set aside for season tickets and day-of-game sales), Naimoli predicted at least 20 games would be sold out that day.

But when team officials gathered in the ticket office that December 1997 afternoon, the totals weren't what they expected. Nor were the nervous looks on their faces.

The historic opener was their only sellout - and it would be six years before they got another.

Despite a 20-year courtship, Tampa Bay's honeymoon with baseball turned out to be a one-night stand.

Wednesday is the 10-year anniversary of the awarding of the Major League franchise to Tampa Bay, but there is little to celebrate. After seven seasons, the Devil Rays have been losers on the field, failures at the gate, and criticized by business publications, baseball experts and their own fans as prime examples of how an organization should not be run.

"There is no question," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, "they have struggled more than any of us would have believed."

So, what went wrong?

Plenty.

* Major League Baseball put the new owners in a financial hole before the team ever took the field, raising the expansion fee to an unprecedented $130-million and forcing them to forfeit millions in national TV revenue at a time when the overall costs of competing were soaring. The financial wherewithal of the Tampa Bay ownership group was immediately challenged, and has been a persistent concern.

* While the Rays stocked their inaugural roster with veteran players, they fielded too many rookies in key management positions. The owner, Naimoli, had never owned a sports team; the general manager, Chuck LaMar, had never been a general manager; the manager, Larry Rothschild, had never managed. Of the six department-leading vice presidents on the 1998 staff, only one had done his same job before.

* The promising Tampa Bay baseball market turned out to be something of a mirage. Projections for massive fan support turned out to be overly optimistic, as the Rays have ranked at or near the bottom of the league in attendance the past six seasons. They struggle to cross the regional barriers that define the area and to connect with transient fans who preferred to stick with their successful "home" team. In a recent Times survey, less than 30 percent of Tampa Bay area baseball fans named the Devil Rays their favorite team.

* In compiling one of the worst cumulative seven-year records (451-680) of any expansion team, their plan for building has changed repeatedly and many of their high-profile, big-dollar player acquisitions have been huge busts, whether through bad scouting, bad decisions or bad luck. They handed $10.2-million to a 1996 high-school phenom, Matt White, who has yet to pitch in the major leagues because of injuries; gave a $12.5-million, two-year deal to an oft-injured veteran, Juan Guzman, who lasted five outs in his first game and never pitched again; and paid $82-million in multiyear deals to supposed stars Wilson Alvarez, Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn, who were all released. Their 1997 trade of future All-Star outfielder Bobby Abreu for pedestrian shortstop Kevin Stocker is still ridiculed.

* Tropicana Field was nearly 10 years old by the time the Rays moved in, and proved to be a cheaply built, generic, multipurpose stadium rather than a new vibrant, retro-style ballpark that would become a fan destination. The Rays spent $35-million to enlarge the facility and enhance the experience but couldn't - and still can't - dispel its poor reputation, nor the perception that its downtown St. Petersburg location is inconvenient.

* Armed with an apparently ironclad contract, Naimoli has been, and continues to be, the face of the franchise, which may not be a good thing. The same hard-nosed, bulldog style that earned him praise for acquiring the team has not played well in public, and his controversial actions have often reflected negatively on the team and, according to a former partner, hurt sales efforts. What seemed a stellar ownership group of successful Tampa Bay area businessmen fell victim to philosophical differences and in-fighting, with five of the six general partners (all but Naimoli) selling their shares last May to New York investor Stuart Sternberg. And the dysfunction made its way to the field as the Rays head into their fourth consecutive season of having the smallest payroll in the major leagues.

High hopes

Members of the Major League Baseball expansion committee had some concerns about the Tampa Bay area. They debated such key issues as the stadium design and location, wondered if a National League team might be more popular, and discussed whether the revenue and attendance projections were overly optimistic.

But when the final decision was announced March 9, 1995, they strolled out of the plush Palm Beach Breakers Hotel confident they had made the right choice.

"Everything about Tampa Bay was absolutely perfect," former Braves president Stan Kasten said that day. "They have an outstanding group of owners. I'm 100 percent convinced they will have a jewel of an organization on the field as well as in the front office."

Ten years later, committee chairman John Harrington, a former Red Sox executive, maintains the decision to put a team in the Tampa Bay area was not a mistake.

But, he acknowledges, "I'm disappointed in their performance."

"Very, very disappointed," said Phillies chairman Bill Giles, another committee member.

Of the last four expansion teams, the Rays are the only one to not have a winning record (or a postseason appearance) in any of their first seven seasons. They have drawn the fewest fans. And, despite stadium issues in Miami and financial concerns in Arizona and Colorado, they may have the least certain future.

Forbes magazine labeled the Rays the "most horrific" franchise of the modern era and the "worst-managed organization" in baseball. Sports Illustrated called them the "worst run franchise in the game." The Sporting News pronounced them in need of "a new owner, a new general manager and a new ballpark in a new city."

They have been the subject of contraction speculation, rumors of financial ruin and punchlines by late-night TV hosts.

Their best hitter, Aubrey Huff, has referred to them as "basically a joke." One of their former general partners, Bill Griffin, says ownership is like "managing a war with too little resources." And one of their current investors, Gary Markel, says he isn't excited about the upcoming season because "we're going to get killed."

It starts and stops at the top

There are as many reasons as there are excuses for the franchise's poor performance. But the consensus is that responsibility ultimately lies with the ownership group headed by Naimoli.

"The success or failure of a baseball franchise," said Peter Bavasi, a longtime baseball and sports marketing expert who was once part of the Tampa Bay effort, "can be traced directly and only to its ownership."

Naimoli, 67, doesn't play the games, make all the personnel decisions, dictate the entire business plan, or even own the biggest piece of the team. But he makes it clear he is absolutely in control.

Virtually nothing can be done in the organization without his approval, and his reach seems to extend everywhere. Unlike owners of most other teams, he sits in on sales and scouting meetings, flies on the team plane, visits the clubhouse and press box, and occasionally goes on the road to watch the organization's minor-league teams. Even his critics marvel at his tirelessness.

"You know, Harry Truman said it right," Naimoli said, " "The buck stops here.' "

Naimoli had been successful in his other business ventures, most notably as a corporate turnaround specialist who was known for slashing costs and occasionally jobs. He was used to being in charge, and he ensured that would be the case with the Devil Rays, structuring a contract that essentially keeps him on the job as long as he wants it.

But he wasn't used to the high-profile world of running a sports team, where one knee-jerk reaction or off-hand comment can become a defining issue. After joining the Tampa Bay baseball effort in 1992, he went from being a relatively anonymous businessman to one of the most visible and accessible owners in all sports.

The transition was not necessarily smooth as tactics and techniques he used in private business didn't always translate well.

"In baseball, you're in the public focus all the time," Naimoli said. "And no one has ever trained someone. There is no book to become an owner of a professional sports franchise."

If anything, the Rays might be considered a textbook example of how not to run a team. Consider Naimoli's repeated run-ins with business and civic leaders, media and others. A reputation for cost-cutting and unfriendly customer service. A constantly revised timetable to make the team competitive. Inflexible policies such as not allowing food to be brought into the stadium and requiring potential vendors to purchase season tickets for the right to do business. Poorly thought-out decision-making, such as announcing a price increase the week before putting tickets on sale.

Further, Naimoli declined repeated suggestions to hire someone with experience - as most other organizations have - to run the team, preferring to handle the day-to-day duties himself, which he still does. With the steering of commissioner Selig, that role was filled briefly - and capably - by John McHale Jr. in 2001-02, but when he left after 10 months, Naimoli reassumed full command and said he has no plans to step back any time soon.

That may be news to Sternberg, the new investor who is rumored to be aiming for a transition after the 2006 season.

Learning to delegate

Some observers say Naimoli's intentions are good and his motives pure, but his inexperience in the public eye caused him problems and his abrasive and brusque manner made them worse.

And those are his supporters.

"He just hates that they're not winning and he gets very frustrated by that," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "I know personally that he takes it personally the fact that other people make fun and condemn him for what's going on. I realize that a number of things have happened that if he could take it back, he would do it."

Naimoli insists he has learned to do things differently, including delegating responsibility.

An example? He said it used to be that when he heard something critical on the radio he would immediately call in to set the record straight. Now he calls public relations vice president Rick Vaughn and has him call.

Others maintain Naimoli is the problem. He interferes in too many areas, they say, like forbidding players he considered fan favorites, like original Rays Rolando Arrojo and Quinton McCracken, to be traded. And he alienates too many people, who then take their allegiance, and their money, elsewhere.

In the Times survey, Naimoli was named the No. 1 reason for the team's struggles by nearly a 5-1 margin over LaMar.

"There are people around who don't like him," said Tanyon Sturtze, a former Rays pitcher who still lives in the area. "And they're not going to come out and support him and put money in his pocket."

Griffin, one of the partners who sold out to Sternberg, said Naimoli wants to succeed, works hard at it and is probably judged unfairly - but his efforts have hurt the team.

"Sometimes, Vince has been his own worst enemy," said Griffin, a Sarasota businessman. "I hope he's out mending fences. He did some damage that likely affected sponsorships and sky boxes. I understand when he gets upset with a business for not supporting (the team) or leaving. He takes it pretty personal. ... Could he use somebody to walk around with him and say, "Vince, let's do it a little bit differently?' That person existed. That's what McHale did, and he was very effective. Vince could use that person."

Owners don't have to be nice to be successful. George Steinbrenner and Malcolm Glazer don't exactly elicit thoughts of warm fuzzies. Nor do they have to be popular. How many people in the Tampa Bay area have ever talked to the Lightning's Bill Davidson?

But Naimoli, according to marketing guru Mike Veeck, lacks the savvy to lead a franchise that needs to overcome its lack of success with an emphasis on being customer friendly and accommodating.

"You need not to have Vince as the front man," said Veeck, who worked for the Rays in 1998-99. "Vince is very colorful, but he is not warm and cuddly. ... He's awkward. He'd like to be one of the folks, but he's the boss. He's not really certain how to connect."

Plus, Veeck said, Naimoli needs to surround himself with stronger people.

"Vince needs some guys to look him in the eye and say, "I don't think so, Vince.' That's a pretty straightforward answer. Vince needs to get rid of some yes men. ... The reason (for the team's struggles) isn't Vince Naimoli. It's his managerial style. Maybe he's more comfortable with guys who tell him yes."

Good fans, not owners

Having too many yes men wasn't a problem within the original ownership group.

Naimoli, at one time, was hailed throughout the area as the difference-maker, the dogged businessman who found the way to close the deal for a team that others had pursued unsuccessfully for decades.

He seemed to assemble an all-star supporting cast, an ownership group featuring general partners with local ties, deep pockets and impressive resumes - Outback co-founders Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, Danka's Dan Doyle, Comcar's Mark Bostick and Riscorp's Griffin.

But their previous accomplishments didn't necessarily make them good baseball owners. Some were big fans, but they had no experience with the idiosyncrasies of running a sports team. They got quickly frustrated by the lopsided realities of baseball's economic system. And they didn't necessarily adapt well to sitting at the side of the table rather than the head, leading to a clash of egos and ideologies.

"There were personal differences between the Outback guys and Vince mainly, and things just deteriorated," said Markel, a limited partner.

With costs and expenses higher than anticipated and revenues below projections, the owners struggled for solutions, which led to more problems.

"We were all second-guessing what needed to happen," Griffin said. "And you get five or six Type-A personality entrepreneurs and we all want to have a say."

There wasn't much they could do except, of course, put in more money.

With the 1994 World Series canceled and players still on strike, baseball's owners sat at the March 1995 expansion meeting determined to wring whatever they could from their soon-to-be new partners. They raised the overall price so much - from $95-million in the previous expansion to $130-million, plus forfeiture of $5-million of national TV money for the first five years - that Naimoli and Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo considered walking away.

By the time the Rays began play in 1998, the game's soaring salary structure made the cost of doing business - or at least doing it well enough to be competitive - considerably greater.

"The price to win outstripped the resources available to a lot of clubs and a lot of communities," said McHale, now an MLB vice president. "And I think that happened even as the Tampa Bay club was putting the franchise together."

Said Colangelo: "It was a little onerous on the front end, which caused financial stress from the get-go."

The hope was that the Tampa Bay market, with its supposedly great demographics and baseball-starved fans, would provide overwhelming support.

But there appeared to be at least two serious miscalculations. Attendance projections, based on what happened previously in Denver and South Florida, were too high. And a marketing theme of "We're here, and the doors and ticket windows are open," didn't work.

While the March 1998 opening game drew a sellout crowd of 45,369 on what Naimoli called "a day of celebration," there were 15,000 unsold tickets the next night.

The two previous expansion teams enjoyed extended support in their first seasons, the Marlins drawing more than 3-million and the Rockies nearly 4.5-million. But the Rays were quickly faced with reality, and it often came looking like empty blue seats.

Not only did they not sell out another game in their first season, they drew more than 35,000 only 20 other times and finished with a season total of 2.5-million, well below Naimoli's projected 3.2-million.

When the 1999 opener didn't come close to selling out and crowds quickly dropped below the 20,000 mark regularly, the owners realized they had to do something.

Some, including Basham and Sullivan, thought they should abandon their plan of building slowly with young players and instead spend more money to put a better team on the field, figuring more wins would lead to more fans and more revenue. It was a strategy that worked in other places, including Seattle, where a Lou Piniella-managed Mariners team so captivated the community with a 1995 playoff run that a new stadium was built and the threat of the team leaving disappeared.

"It goes to show you that if you invest money wisely, there are good returns," Piniella said.

Bad by comparison

The Rays didn't have the same experience.

LaMar was given a one-year payroll increase from $37-million to more than $60-million in 2000, but, in what was considered a bad free-agent year, didn't spend it particularly well.

Guzman pitched in one game before getting hurt, and neither of the new big-name hitters - Castilla and Vaughn - put up particularly impressive numbers. The Rays didn't win any more games or draw any more fans in 2000 than 1999, and they immediately changed directions again and began slashing payroll. Because they deferred some of the salaries, they are still paying for those mistakes. This year, for example, they owe former players $10-million - the equivalent of one-third of their current payroll.

Maybe they should have spent more money, trying to buy a championship as the Marlins did in 1997. Maybe they should have been more creative. Or more patient, waiting for a better free-agent market the following offseason.

Other teams have found ways to succeed. In 2000, two teams with smaller payrolls than the Rays won division titles - the Chicago White Sox ($35.7-million) and Oakland A's ($30.4-million) - and five others had winning records. More recently, the Minnesota Twins and A's have been regular contenders, and the Marlins 2003 World Series winners, with payrolls in the $50-million range.

Of more concern within the Rays' executive offices, their expansion brethren, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired an experienced staff, were on a fast track to success. The Diamondbacks reached the playoffs three times in their first five seasons and, even though they went deep into debt to do so, won the 2001 World Series.

"I think maybe Tampa had a knee-jerk reaction to some of the things we were doing and that put them off course," Colangelo said.

The cracks in the Tampa Bay ownership group eventually widened. Basham and Sullivan stopped coming to games. Rumors of insurgence and mutiny abounded, though Naimoli insisted there were no problems.

"There was a lot of tension because some of these players didn't work out," Griffin said. "And tension spoils judgment."

The hiring of McHale was viewed as a major accomplishment because he was supposed to soothe feelings and provide stable leadership. The usually conservative Naimoli even appeared at a press conference in a Hawaiian shirt and made it sound like he was ready to step back, if not aside.

But McHale left 10 months later for a top-level job with Major League Baseball and the unhappy partners realized Naimoli wasn't going anywhere. And there wasn't anything they could do about it because of the way they set up the partnership - an apparently ironclad agreement that gives Naimoli control no matter how much of the team he owns (about 15 percent) and a management contract that automatically renews annually. "It's perpetual," he said. "It just goes on."

Naimoli won, and the other partners gave up, selling their shares last May for about $60-million to Sternberg, a New York investor who so far has kept a low profile.

"Ownership unhappiness is never productive," McHale said. "It doesn't particularly matter who is right or wrong, or if there is a right or wrong. If they are not seeing things the same way, the operation of the ballclub suffers. ... All in all, it's a better situation that there is a harmonious ownership group now."

Griffin, a lifelong baseball fan whose son, John-Ford, plays for the Blue Jays, was asked how it felt to sell his share of the team. "Relieved," he said.

None of the other former partners have been willing to talk about their experience. Sullivan, via e-mail, said: "I have nothing positive to add and would prefer to find ways behind the scenes to deal with this very difficult situation."

Sternberg also declined to be interviewed.

The numbers games

Daily conversations about other teams usually involve great players or dramatic plays. But much of the talk around the Rays has to do with money.

About a league-low $30-million payroll. About whether they are properly spending the resources they do have. About Naimoli's reputation for being penurious.

"There is not a more frugal, penny-pinching, penny-counting person in baseball than Vince," Griffin said. "And you've got to have a guy like that."

Because the Rays are a private partnership, few financial details are available. The team dismisses outside analyses that attempt to estimate revenues or determine franchise value (such as Forbes, which says the value of the Rays has dropped from $225-million in 1999 to $152-million in 2004). And economists in turn dismiss numbers released occasionally by MLB, saying they are skewed to make it look like teams are struggling.

About all Rays officials will say is that they break even because any surplus is immediately reinvested in the team.

Naimoli contends that the payroll is a product of attendance and revenue - that they can't spend more until they make more. Others, including Piniella, suggest they again try it the other way, spending the money to field a team fans want to see.

"I think probably what happened here is that we spent the $60-some-million and it didn't work and they said, "Oh my God, we've got to reel it in,' " Piniella said.

But McHale said a team payroll of about $30-million is appropriate, even though Tampa Bay ranks overall near the middle of MLB markets.

"Regrettably, it is the result of a combination of their performance and their position in the market the last three, four years and what they can afford to spend," he said. "We have new debt-service rules and certain other rules and regulations clubs have to abide by, and the Devil Rays spending is consistent with their obligations in those areas."

In addition to negotiating rich new television and Internet deals, MLB has moved to help teams such as the Rays by increasing the amount of revenue that is shared by clubs.

But with the Rays reportedly getting around $20-million a year and spending barely more than that on their major-league payroll, some have questioned whether they are following league requirements that a team use shared money to "improve its performance on the field."

Naimoli insists they are, just not all on payroll. He cites an overall annual baseball operations budget of nearly $75-million - including a $14-million commitment to player development and scouting - which has led to a well-respected group of top minor-league prospects - along with funds needed to sign draft picks, pay incentive bonuses and pay off deferred salaries.

MLB officials, claiming to have checks and balances in place to prevent such abuse, say Naimoli is right.

"Everywhere I go, fans say their franchise should be spending more," said Selig, the commissioner. "The Tampa club has spent a lot of money on player development and a lot of money on baseball operations. There is a time in life when it's time to spend at the major-league level, and that time hasn't been up to now. As the team gets better, I have every feeling and belief they will spend when the time is right."

The question, of course, is when.

Naimoli and Sternberg have indicated a plan for slow and steady growth, planning moderate payroll increases (such as the $7-million or so hike since last season), while planning to keep and develop their top young players and staying away from big-dollar free agents.

But if they are going to win, LaMar said, they are going to have to raise the payroll significantly, enough to pay their own stars and add a few needed pieces. Piniella, whose contract expires after the 2006 season, would like to see them try it sometime soon.

"A club like ours, with the young players we have, if we had a payroll in the $50-million range, we could make some noise in this division," he said.

But other Rays officials say that in their high-stakes divisional neighborhood, where the Yankees will spend more than $200-million and the Red Sox will be close to that, they can't afford to make a difference.

"If we go out spend another $20(-million) to $30-million in the division we're in with Boston, the Yankees and Baltimore, we'll end up winning about five more games," said Markel. "That's not putting any more people in the stands, but it affects the bottom line.

"Everyone calls Vince and everyone else a cheapskate for not putting in more money, but how much more can you put in? I don't think you can put in enough until baseball changes its ways."

As usual with the Rays, money is what matters.

"When a club doesn't do well, it invariably comes back to the owner," McHale said. "No matter how hard he works, no matter how competitive and intense he is, he can't manufacture resources."

Seeing it through

There is some debate among sports marketing experts and baseball officials about what the Devil Rays have to do to make things right.

Winning, more than anything else, can captivate a community, swell the fan base, and minimize all other deficiencies. How many more Lightning fans were there in June than in January of its Stanley Cup season? Whether through smart planning or good luck, a winning Devil Rays team would provide a true evaluation of the market.

A new, more attractive stadium closer to the area's population center will be a popular topic of conversation. Selig raised the issue in June - before he ever watched his first game at Tropicana Field.

Or it may take a change in ownership, as much for intangibles as the specifics, much like what happened with the Bucs and Lightning. Sternberg initially may not spend a lot more money, but he is deep-pocketed, creative, innovative - and different.

Despite all that has gone wrong over all this time, however, Naimoli remains confident the team can live up to the 10-year-old expectations and be successful under his leadership.

"And," he said, "I absolutely want to see it through."

Times staff writers Damian Cristodero, Louis Hau and Dave Scheiber and Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

BY THE NUMBERS

0 - winning records since starting play in 1998.

.399 - winning percentage in first seven seasons (451 wins, 680 losses)

28 - percent of Tampa Bay area baseball fans in Times poll who consider Rays their favorite team

29 - rank (out of 30 teams) in attendance three of the past four years.

30 - rank in payroll the past three years.