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By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- For sale: one baseball team, slightly soiled.
Help wanted: one chief operating officer, experience preferred.
The most chaotic week in the chaotic history of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays continued Thursday. This time, the direction of the franchise has changed. Soon, the team will be under new management. Eventually, it also might be under new ownership.
The Rays, at the tender age of 4, are for sale, the St. Petersburg Times has learned. The owners of the team, whose working relationships have been strained, will announce as early as today that, for the right price, they are prepared to give someone else a try.
Until that happens, the Rays also are looking for someone new to run the day-to-day operations of the team. Although managing general partner Vince Naimoli will continue to serve as the designated "control person" for the league -- and will attend league meetings and vote for the team -- he will be less involved in the daily functions of the team. Instead, Naimoli, 62, will step back and the team will hire a chief operating officer as a buffer between Naimoli and the staff. If you are looking for a parallel of the type of person the Rays will seek, don't think of a general manager. Think more of Stan Kasten in Atlanta or Larry Lucchino in San Diego.
Given the recent contentiousness between Naimoli and his partners, who sought to have him removed as managing general partner, it is possible to see this as a compromise. In recent days, the offices of Major League Baseball have worked in concert with the Rays' owners to reach these decisions. Whether this is seen as Naimoli stepping gracefully aside or a successful coup can be debated.
The advantages for ownership are these: If the team is sold, then the partners could walk away and invest their original stakes in other ventures. And a new chief operating officer means someone else will be in charge of getting sponsors and suite leases to renew next year.
Even by Rays standards, the new positioning of Naimoli's hands -- off the operation of the team and held out toward purchasers -- is stunning news. More than anyone else, Naimoli brought baseball to St. Petersburg, and, despite his controversies, it will be difficult for many to imagine the team without him in front. What may be especially hard is to imagine Naimoli and his fellow owners, all locals, could be gone before their most prized minor leaguers make it to the big leagues.
As for the new owner, Tampa Bay might have to wait awhile. Baseball franchises can take months, sometimes years, to change hands. With the possibility of labor problems next year, and the apathy Tampa Bay has shown toward the team, the for-sale sign might be in Tropicana Field's front lawn for some time to come.
For some, the prospect of new ownership might be welcomed. For others, however, it is sure to bring nervousness. The lukewarm support of the Rays might seem to make it vulnerable even though, historically, baseball has not allowed teams to move to new cities. It is strange that Tampa Bay might find itself on the other side of the relocation issue from when it attempted to woo the Giants, White Sox, Mariners and others. Have economics changed enough to make commissioner Bud Selig change his views about relocation? Certainly, fans will begin to talk up the Rays in Washington, D.C., over the weekend.
What about contraction, the idea that baseball might reduce teams? Across the state, the Marlins seem ready to volunteer. The Rays, who have a lease, would be a more difficult proposition. Still, if baseball is going to have to purchase teams, those already for sale might be tempting.
It is difficult to estimate what the asking price might be for the Rays. The team itself will seek advice from investment bankers before setting one. When you consider the team's $130-million expansion fee, plus other costs, you could imagine a $200- to $225-million asking price. Something less than the $252-million contract the Rangers recently paid for Alex Rodriguez, certainly.
Why should the partners sell now? The disappointment of the season -- a horrible record, a fired manager, empty stands -- has to be a factor. So, too, does the publicity generated by the most recent flap between Naimoli and his partners. By putting the team up for sale now, perhaps an interested party could be lined up by the time the labor negotiations are concluded. Yes, it is possible to imagine the new ownership group could contain members of the current one.
Why should the team hire a chief operating officer now? There are those who have suggested the last few seasons have been difficult for Naimoli, an admitted workaholic. Whether he can turn loose of the Rays remains to be seen. A new chief operating officer might also put the team in better financial shape to be sold.
Regardless, the Rays are looking for two good people. One to run the team, one to buy it.