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Naimoli handing over Rays reins

WHAT’S NEXT?: Current partners expected to retain ownership as new chief officer runs team.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Vince Naimoli, left, deserves credit for bringing baseball to the Tampa Bay area, but it is time for a change that brings new purpose and direction to the Rays.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Vince Naimoli still has an office, a suite and even a title with the Devil Rays. What he no longer has is power.

Days after news surfaced that his partners wanted him out as managing general partner, Naimoli announced Friday he was stepping back. It was a bloodless coup, but it nonetheless claimed Naimoli as a casualty.

He will continue to represent the team in league matters and holds the title of team chairman, but he will relinquish his power as managing general partner. Naimoli will become one of six general partners who hold voting interest shares in the franchise.

A chief operating officer will be hired to assume Naimoli's role as the day-to-day handler of the team's affairs. Detroit Tigers executive John McHale is considered the team's top choice.

The team also announced Friday that it would retain an investment banker to explore "strategic alternatives, including the possible sale of the team."

While it is likely the team will be put on the open market to solicit bids that could determine the franchise's value, business and civic leaders said they expect the current ownership group to retain control.

"I would think the partners will continue to remain involved," said Rick Dodge, assistant Pinellas County administrator for economic development, who was St. Petersburg's point man in the quest for baseball. "I would expect you will see decisions made in the next 60 to 90 days that show a strong direction and approach that will have an impact both on the balance sheet and in the ballpark."

As they have done in the past, the ownership group's general partners, Bob Basham, Mark Bostick, Dan Doyle, the Griffin family trust and Chris Sullivan, remained silent on Friday. Their actions, however, seemed to speak loudly.

Naimoli has insisted in the past that he could not be removed as managing general partner and has rebuffed suggestions that he might be replaced. His abrupt departure comes within hours of an apparent meeting in New York between a member of the general partners and baseball executives.

Major League Baseball appears to have acted as a negotiator between Naimoli and the other general partners, although Naimoli denies this.

Ignoring the coincidental timing of the announcement, Naimoli said he has planned on hiring a chief operating officer for years and thought the franchise was in strong enough shape to make the move now. Naimoli, 63, also cited the grind of 18-hour work days and said his health is a concern.

"When my brother Ray passed away two years ago, I took an assessment and I said to myself, "I guess we're not all immortal,' " he said. "There are some things I'd like to do in my life that I simply don't have time to do any more."

Naimoli said he has a great relationship with the other general partners.

"Have we had discourse and disagreements in meetings? Absolutely," Naimoli said. "I've never been involved in any company where somebody comes to a meeting and says, "That's fine, I'm leaving.' We've gotten some very good ideas from our partners in meetings. There are some points where we've agreed and some points where we've agreed to disagree. But at the end of the day, everyone has always saluted the flag."

Major League Baseball has been largely mum on the Rays ownership issue, although a statement from commissioner Bud Selig was released Friday. The statement points out that Naimoli still will be considered the "control person" designated to represent the team with the league.

"Major League Baseball is pleased with these moves to strengthen the Tampa Bay franchise for the benefit of the club and the community," the statement read. "It is particularly important to us that Vince Naimoli, who is a highly regarded and well-respected member of the baseball family, will continue to remain in a leadership role as the baseball control person.

"Vince deserves enormous credit for bringing major league baseball to the Tampa Bay area. While he has encountered some difficulty, as has everyone who has ever run a major league franchise, he has handled the situation with dignity, intelligence and class."

Even though he is stepping down as managing general partner, Naimoli retains his ownership share in the team. He will now share control of the team with the five other general partners. The general partners are believed to own roughly equal shares of the team in the 12 percent to 18 percent range.

The partners will collectively decide the team's philosophies and goals and leave it to the chief operating officer to implement them.

McHale, 52, has held a similar position with the Tigers as president and chief executive officer since 1995. A lawyer with degrees from Boston College and Georgetown, McHale has previously been an executive with the Rockies.

McHale declined to comment on the Rays job when contacted Friday night at Comerica Park in Detroit. Naimoli is expected to fly to Detroit today where the Rays are playing the Tigers.

Although initial news reports were that the team was up for sale, Naimoli said that characterization is premature.

He indicated that the investment banker would likely seek potential buyers and the general partners could then decide whether or not to sell their shares. Naimoli said sale talks would not be limited to local investors and he said the team could not seek guarantees from potential owners that they would keep the team in the Tampa Bay area.

"I and all my great partners are residents of this area and we've done our very best to bring enterprise to this area," Naimoli said. "We're not selling the team to move it. I can't tell you if the team is sold, and I've got to emphasize if the team is sold, I can't tell you what a future buyer might do because we're out of the equation. But that is not our intent."

City officials say there is no escape clause in the team's lease, which runs for another 26 years, and any new owner would assume the lease.

Baseball's ownership committee would also have to approve any group that intends to move a franchise, a scenario that has not occurred in 29 years.

Other possibilities for the Rays ownership group include taking on additional investors or buying out each other's shares.

Either way, Naimoli said it is likely to be a long process and not particularly unusual.

"This is one of the happier days of my life," said Naimoli, who wore a short sleeve print shirt to the news conference. "I got up this morning and said, "We're going to have this press conference. I'll put on my shirt and tie.' Then I said, "No I don't have to wear a shirt and tie. We're going to have a COO who has to wear the shirt and tie now.'

"It's an evolution. It's an evolution I'm really happy with."

- Staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

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