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Rays coup was months in the making

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It was a secret war fought in plain view of thousands of Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans.

A battle for power that stretched from boardrooms in the bay area to Major League Baseball offices in New York and ended with an armistice disguised as a news conference Friday at Tropicana Field in which Vince Naimoli announced he was no longer in charge of the franchise.

Precise details of how the ownership group's general partners forced Naimoli out are hard to come by. The partners have uniformly held their silence and Naimoli insists the decision was his.

However, based on months of conversations with officials involved in and around the franchise, a portrait of the scene can be drawn.

It might have seemed like the end came suddenly last week, but the mutiny had been plotted months before.

The deal accepted by Naimoli -- to step aside as managing general partner to take a largely figurehead position as team chairman -- was broached by the partners late last year. When Naimoli refused, the battle began.

From all indications, the general partners starved the franchise in order to force Naimoli's hand. Calls for cash supposedly went unanswered and bills began piling up. The work force at Tropicana Field was severely cut and the baseball operations staff was told to cut player payroll.

With season ticket sales and attendance continuing to drop, revenues were tightening. Lenders would not extend credit without the general partners agreeing to sign off on it.

Naimoli said Friday that the team's finances were fine, but business associates say the team was having trouble paying debts. Some companies were insisting they be paid before delivering goods. Team officials had their mobile phones turned off because of unpaid bills and some companies were refusing the Rays business until their debts were paid. One creditor was owed more than $100,000 and considered himself one of the lucky ones.

The timing of the maneuver was critical to the ownership group because five-year sponsorship and luxury suite deals are due to expire after the 2002 season. The club will begin negotiating for renewals in the near future and the partners felt Naimoli needed to be out of the picture.

Naimoli acknowledges he might have made "three or four miscues" in the business community, but said he hears largely positive feedback.

But that's not the perception in the business community. The people he was supposed to be wooing instead felt as if they were being bullied.

"An (unpopular owner) may not keep people out of the stands," said Mike Veeck, one of four marketing chiefs the Rays have had in their existance. "But it might keep some board rooms away, and that is just as important."

The dissatisfaction with Naimoli was not limited to public relations gaffes. There is general agreement within the organization that Naimoli micro-managed the franchise -- to the point that he knew the names of people who did not renew season ticket subscriptions -- and did not let his executives do the jobs they were hired to do.

He was prone to knee-jerk reactions instead of implementing strategies and giving them time to work.

General manager Chuck LaMar has accepted the blame for last season's disastrous spending spree that doubled the team's payroll but failed to produce a single victory more than the year before.

Others say, however, that LaMar had preferred to increase the payroll in smaller increments with an eye toward contending in 2002 when the farm system was fully developed. It was Naimoli who insisted the team needed to boost attendance by bringing in high-priced veterans.

Whether the criticism was justified or exaggerated, the stage was set for a showdown when Naimoli declined to willingly step aside.

Naimoli flew to New York early last week and met with baseball officials. He said he routinely has meetings with MLB executives because he sits on seven committees.

A trip to New York by one of the general partners later in the week was anything but routine. Apparently enlisting the help of Paul Beeston, the chief operating officer for Major League Baseball, a case was made to have Naimoli removed as managing general partner.

Calls were made to Naimoli and, a day later, he announced he was stepping back to become team chairman and a chief operating officer would be hired.

Throughout the ordeal, the team's general partners (Bob Basham, Mark Bostick, Dan Doyle, the Griffin family trust and Chris Sullivan) have not uttered a public word. The original partnership agreement has confidentiality clauses that allow Naimoli, alone, to speak for the franchise.

The partners have adhered to that policy out of fear that Naimoli could sue if the confidentiality agreement was broken.

Under the new management structure, policies will be set by the partners, like a board of directors, and the chief operating officer will be given goals to meet. Naimoli has the title of chairman and will be the contact person for Major League Baseball, but the chief operating officer apparently will report to Bostick.

Lost in the machinations of the palace coup is that there might not be a major league franchise to fight over were it not for Naimoli.

After a dozen years of near-misses in Tampa Bay, it was Naimoli's dogged pursuit that finally brought major league baseball to the area.

One official described Naimoli as the blood-and-guts general who was willing to shout, cajole and fight to win the war for a team.

Unfortunately, once the war was won, his skills were no longer necessary.

And, now, neither is his presence.

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