tampabay.com

Rays makeover starts at top

Stuart Sternberg introduces himself as the team's new boss, promising change . . . and, notably, success.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 7, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays will be different under Stuart Sternberg.

Parking will be free next season. Relationships throughout the area will be repaired and maintained. Tropicana Field will be cleaned and renovated. The front office will be restructured with an emphasis on communication. Changes will be considered in all facets of the organization, including the team's name.

Having paid Vince Naimoli around $15-million to give up control of the Devil Rays, Sternberg didn't have all the answers Thursday on his first day in charge.

He said there was no timetable for replacing fired general manager Chuck LaMar and hiring a field manager. He also said that the team's player payroll will go up, but wasn't sure how much, and that the ticket pricing structure will be simplified, although he didn't know if the prices would increase or decrease.

But Sternberg made two themes abundantly clear:

He is going to do things.

And he's going to do them right.

"The time has come for dramatic change to this organization," Sternberg said. "We will spend time, we will spend money, we will spend energy to create a dramatically improved experience for our fans, for our players ... and for our employees."

Naimoli, who led the effort to land the expansion franchise in 1995 and had a controversy-filled reign, relinquished his title of managing general partner to become chairman. He did not attend Thursday's announcement at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, but said in a statement he plans to remain involved "in an advisory capacity for many, many years" and will retain his 15 percent ownership stake.

Sternberg, who heads a group of six investors that bought about 50 percent of the team in May 2004, took the title of principal owner and will control and operate the franchise. He paid heavily for the privilege, however, giving Naimoli about $15-million to relinquish control of the team, including $4-million to $5-million to move up the transition from January 2007.

Matt Silverman, a 29-year-old Harvard graduate, was named team president and will oversee daily operations. Sternberg said a decision on how to replace LaMar has not been made, but it is likely the Rays will adopt an nontraditional structure and that Andrew Friedman, a 28-year-old associate, will play "a significant, significant" role. Other top team officials are expected to keep their jobs.

"I'm not going to be held to existing constraints on the way an organization has been run in the past," Sternberg said.

Standing in front of a new "Under Construction" logo that will be the basis of an advertising campaign, Sternberg, a 46-year-old who retired after making millions as a Wall Street investor, said the successes he and his partners have had in other businesses will make the Rays a success.

"We have gone through many, many times building many businesses, and we do not fail at those businesses," Sternberg said.

"We know how to build a winning organization. We know how to follow through on a winning organization. And we will not accept anything but a winning organization. ... Not just what happens on the field, but most importantly how we relate to the community and how we are perceived all throughout this region."

Playing to what was definitely a home crowd, Sternberg's comments were warmly received by Rays players, Major League Baseball officials and area leaders.

"This gives us a lot of hope," Rays pitcher Doug Waechter said. "Just the way the guy was talking. He's a successful businessman. He's not going to put his money into something that's going to fail. He really sounds like he knows what he wants to do."

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement he is impressed with Sternberg's "acumen and enthusiasm." And MLB vice president John McHale Jr., who worked briefly for the Rays, said officials are confident Sternberg will do well.

"He's obviously somebody who understands value and has proven that before, and I think he's impressed the commissioner because he has some fresh ways of thinking about how baseball clubs ought to be run," McHale said from New York.

Under Naimoli, the Rays struggled on and off the field, usually ranking at or near the bottom of the standings and the attendance lists. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said he is confident Sternberg is "absolutely committed" to making the franchise a success.

"I think he's going to reach out and talk to folks and get a lot of input from the community," Baker said. "He's going to reach out to folks wherever he sees a need. He knows that getting the community behind him is a very viable part of making this franchise successful."

Naimoli had a reputation for alienating segments of the community - fans, business leaders and civic officials. While Sternberg was careful to not criticize the past, he made a point of saying it won't be that way anymore.

"I'm acutely aware that this organization needs to demonstrate to all the communities and businesses in this entire region that this is a Major League Baseball franchise and will be treated as such," Sternberg said. "I'd like to say the relationship we're going to have is going to be dramatically improved and positive."

He has some other interesting ideas, too.

The decision to make parking free, and announce it on his first day, certainly created some good will in the community. So did the energetic and inspiring 40-minute meeting he held with team employees early Thursday, where each was given a stack of business cards with the new logo and told their input would be not only be welcomed, but solicited.

He overnighted letters to each player, has a letter to season-ticket holders in the works and shipped packages of promotional material - including hard hats - to media members.

Other fan-friendly moves, like simplifying the ticket price structure and improving the stadium, are likely to follow.

"It's going to be a dramatically and - I would hope - improved and certainly different atmosphere," Sternberg said.

He said he hopes the franchise is one day considered a "beacon" for the Tampa Bay community and that area residents will be proud of Tropicana Field.

"A baseball team can go a long way toward lifting the spirits of an area, and I would like us to be there," he said.

Sternberg said he thinks the team has promise and the players are growing together. While he said the payroll will go up from a major-league low $29-million, a large increase is unlikely. Sternberg said he believes in steady, but not necessarily slow, growth.

He said he would like to see the Rays "win now" and "win down the road," but wasn't sure how quickly the Rays could do so.

"There are teams that spend quite a bit of money and don't have much success," he said. "There are teams that spend quite a bit less and have a lot of success.

"We just want to have success."