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The Lease: Naimoli handing over Rays reins

THE LEASE: Experts say the Rays' contract keeps them at Tropicana Field even if they are sold.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- The way Vince Naimoli sees it, his baseball franchise is like a car. No way could he sell it and require that it never leave its parking space.

But independent lawyers who reviewed the Devil Rays contract with City Hall say this car has to stay parked at Tropicana Field another 26 years.

The day after news broke that the Devil Rays may be put up for sale, team chairman Naimoli promised to "do my darndest" to keep the team in Tampa Bay. Still, Naimoli would not rule out new owners sending the franchise packing.

"If the team is sold, I can't tell you what a future buyer might do," he said.

A quarter-inch contract drafted in 1995 by lawyers for the city and the team owners might do just that, however. The "Agreement For The Use, Management And Operation Of The Domed Stadium," lays out the obligations of the city and ballclub until 2027 -- including an insistence that all its home games be played at Tropicana Field.

Contracts are broken every day, of course, and this one does not explicitly require that new owners abide by its terms.

But three lawyers who reviewed the document Friday concluded the city's interest in keeping the team is well-protected. Barring bankruptcy, Naimoli and his partners would have a heck of a time convincing a Pinellas County judge to allow a move without substantial penalties.

Under the contract, the current owners could be liable for all the bond debt on the stadium -- now about $144-million, just $6-million shy of the Forbes magazine estimate of the value of the franchise -- if they defaulted on their lease agreement.

Indeed, St. Petersburg lawyer Jim Martin said Naimoli was stepping close to a contract breach by saying Friday he would even entertain selling the team to someone who might move it. The contract bars anyone from the team directly or indirectly entering negotiations "for use of any facility other than the Dome for the home games of the franchise."

Martin said city officials could seek a court injunction to halt any potential negotiations with buyers who wouldn't guarantee to keep the team in St. Petersburg.

"The conservative approach would be early intervention," said Martin, who regularly gives Florida Bar lectures on contract law and as a City Council member in 1983 voted to build the stadium. "If (Naimoli's) statement is that he can't guarantee a new owner isn't going to move the team, then I think there's a problem. They have a contract that says they will cause the franchise to play all its home games in the Dome."

In 1983, New York City took fast legal action when the Yankees phoned City Hall to say the team's opening series five months away might be played in Denver because stadium renovations might not be complete. A state trial court issued an injunction against the team, noting that its lease with the city, like that of the Rays, required all home games be played at Yankee Stadium.

John Higgins, the Rays senior vice president who helped write the contract, said he hadn't reviewed it lately and could not comment on the potential contractual repercussions of a sale.

City officials were careful not to rattle sabers Friday and struck conciliatory tones.

City Attorney John Wolfe said he has no plans to recommend legal action. With Naimoli on Friday lauding the stadium and the demographics of the area for baseball, Wolfe said, plans to move the team appear unlikely.

"We will be in contact with the Devil Rays, and if there is a prospect of a new ownership group, and we would certainly want to be cooperative with them," Wolfe said.

Mayor Rick Baker said it's wise for the team to hire an investment banker to investigate a possible sale or other options right now.

"That's a business decision to make, and I hope it will result in the continued strength of the team," he said.

A mergers and acquisitions lawyer himself, Baker said he thinks the Rays have no choice but play at Tropicana Field for the next 26 seasons, no matter who owns them.

"I feel comfortable with the city's position," Baker said. "We have a long-term lease. I don't really want to speculate about whether someone would try to break a lease."

The contract does not bar the sale of the franchise or of any interest in it.

St. Petersburg lawyers Scott Brainard and Brian Deeb said if they were representing the current team owners and eyeing a potential franchise move, they would try to pin the city with breach of contract. Under the contract, for example, the city is responsible for things such as completing agreed upon capital improvements and off-site traffic control.

"Without being able to show the city is in material breach, I don't know how they would be able to say (to a judge) with a straight face that they should be let out of this agreement," Brainard said.

On Friday, though, Naimoli said the team and the city have worked well together and that he knew of no areas where the city was failing to comply with its contract with the team.

City Council member Bill Foster came to hear Naimoli at Tropicana Field on Friday. Despite the current ownership group facing potentially huge liabilities if the team leaves Tropicana Field, Foster was "antsy" after listening to Naimoli.

"He could have said things to make me feel better," Foster said. "I wish he hadn't used the analogy of selling a car. Cars are on wheels and easily mobile."

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