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Shake-up needed, business leaders say

They hope that new leadership will energize the Devil Rays franchise.

By JEFF HARRINGTON and MARK ALBRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


Tampa Bay area leaders in business and tourism had mixed reactions to the prospect of a Rays sale -- and of a reduced role for Vince Naimoli.

Some are happy to see less of Naimoli, whose abrasive style has alienated some inside and outside the organization. Others said the Rays' problems won't disappear even if Naimoli does.

But a common view, even among supporters of the besieged managing general partner, was that a shake-up is just what was needed.

"Big corporations that are publicly tarnished, and sports teams, often change managers and change coaches -- all to show it's a new day," said former Gov. Bob Martinez, chairman of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "It creates new talk, new excitement. All of that calls for a new spring."

Jim Ogden, a St. Petersburg lawyer and season-ticket holder since the team's first season, said the Rays can be energized by new leadership.

"There's kind of a community perception that people are almost embarrassed to say they go to the games," he said. "And the place is like a mausoleum. It wouldn't take much to improve it. Some exciting baseball would help."

As a hands-on manager and the only chief the Rays have known, Naimoli has had brushes with the business community.

During one recent speech, he chided corporate leaders for not buying enough tickets, even singling out the Hyatt Regency Westshore hotel, which happened to be hosting the March lunch for chamber members. His remarks were met with an uneasy silence.

In a news conference Friday, Naimoli downplayed any management problems as few compared with his successes.

Clearly, however, some harbor ill will.

"This can do nothing but improve the situation," said Daryl Seaton, president and chief executive of SeaWake Resorts, which runs properties in Clearwater Beach, Crystal River and Melbourne. "Naimoli had alienated the business community. I cannot get away with saying those sorts of things in my business."

Seaton dropped his season tickets after the first year. "Frankly, I just got tired of Vince," he said.

Lou Plasencia, chairman of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau in Tampa, said the Rays need leaders who can "court fans and nurture a relationship."

Under Naimoli, he said, "they have done a great job of chastising the business community instead of asking for support. All it's been so far is ... a hand out and a slap in the face."

But Bud Zipin, a member of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council and part owner of a St. Pete Beach Travelodge, said: "Naimoli isn't the problem. I don't care who the owner is as long as the team stays here and they improve their record on the field.

"I know he's had some troubles getting along with the local business community, but if the team doesn't improve on the field, the franchise won't succeed anywhere."

Still, Zipin had his differences with Naimoli. He bought season tickets the first year but let them lapse because he couldn't see home plate from his first-tier seats.

Naimoli called him to see why he wouldn't renew, even offering better seats. Naimoli also invited him to watch a game from the owners' suite. But Zipin didn't buy the replacement season-ticket seats. "The seats were better, but they expected me to pay $800 more for them even though they were in the same tier as the ones I was giving up. I was a little ticked."

Martinez, who works at the Carlton Fields law firm, said Naimoli doesn't always get credit for the ways he helps the community.

At the University of Tampa, Martinez said, fellow board member Naimoli was efficient, charitable and adept at raising money.

Regardless of one's personal feelings about Naimoli, Martinez said, it is only smart business to support the Rays in their time of need to avoid a "ripple effect" on the community.

"Any time a major high-visibility company leaves town or doesn't do well, it leaves a pall over the entire area," Martinez said. "Once they start knocking on you and not let you up for air, you can't recover."

Martinez's philosophy: "Let's do some resuscitation."

- Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report.

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