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Rays opt for quiet, not clarity

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 15, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- So the Devil Rays have hired an investment banker to help them explore the possibility of selling the team.

The question is, are you buying it?

Not the team, but the notion. Are the ownership group's general partners looking to sell, or are they plotting to buy each other out? Are they seeking investors from the outside, or an inside track to power? Furthermore, are they willing to let Esteban Yan close the deal?

This is today's frustration. You might recognize it from yesterday's rumored frustration and tomorrow's planned frustration. The reason it is so difficult to embrace this franchise is because it refuses to be up front with its intentions.

In April, the Rays announced Vince Naimoli was stepping down as managing general partner and the team would be placed on the open market. In May, Naimoli reasserted his control. In July, he said he will not sell his share of the team. In August, an investment banker was hired to broker a possible sale. Throughout it all, are the persistent rumors of in-fighting among the ownership group's general partners.

And in the distance, a banjo plays.

Is this our destiny? To provide a laugh track for the rest of America as baseball's version of the inbred cast of Deliverance? To be a bunch of rubes trying to run a major-league team with Gomer in the suite and Goober taking tickets?

Who needs contraction when this franchise seems perfectly capable of running itself out of business? What are we supposed to make of Monday's announcement that investment banking heavyweight JP Morgan has been hired to establish an "optimal" direction for the franchise? Would that direction be northeast (toward Washington) or west (toward Las Vegas)?

The Rays maintain JP Morgan's involvement is simply the fulfillment of the announcement made in April that the team might seek outside buyers. Yet the Rays already have rebuffed sale inquiries and Naimoli has plainly stated his controlling share of the team is not for sale.

It would help if the Rays clarified their position, but they have opted for silence. A cynic might even suggest Monday's JP Morgan announcement was carefully timed to avoid discussion of the issue.

After having been home for seven consecutive days, the Rays waited until the team departed for New York to issue a news release at 7 p.m. Reporters who covered Monday's afternoon game had left Tropicana Field and the community's attention was focused on the Buccaneers preseason opener, which was an hour from kickoff.

On Tuesday, Naimoli and chief operating officer John McHale declined to discuss the topic. And the general partners haven't been heard from since the introduction of the Bloomin' Onion.

Because of their silence, we are left to concoct possible scenarios for JP Morgan's involvement.

What if, along with seeking potential buyers, the investment banker also is establishing a monetary value for the team? A value that could set the price should the general partners want to buy out Naimoli, or vice versa.

Buying Naimoli's share would require an assist from commissioner Bud Selig because Naimoli seems more inclined to crash the plane rather than accept a golden parachute. Civic leaders have whispered that Selig has been enlisted to remove Naimoli from power. The general partners have passed on the opportunity to dispute that characterization.

If, on the other hand, Naimoli remains in charge, the general partners appear inclined to cut their losses and sell their shares.

The problem is that none of the principals is rushing forward to illuminate this dark melodrama. The general partners apparently are bound by a past agreement that made Naimoli the group's only spokesman. And, defying all evidence to the contrary, Naimoli has maintained that relationships with his partners are not only hunky, but also dory.

So we are left with the unappetizing game of deciding which rumor to believe. Do we trust Naimoli, a man seemingly less compassionate and more paranoid than Richard Nixon? Or do we trust the unseen partners with the undecipherable messages they are prone to send?

Either way, the future remains clouded.

Naimoli has shown no signs of stepping aside quietly, which means the partners essentially tell Selig to choose. Either him, or us.

Meanwhile, as usual in a family battle, the little ones suffer.

In this case, it is the fans. After waiting two decades for major-league baseball, Tampa Bay instead has gotten something akin to pro wrestling.

As we squirm in our seats -- the few of us actually at Tropicana Field -- the rest of the country stifles a grin.

Maybe someday soon, we can tell the rest of the world how we overcame this mess. How we survived when no one thought it possible. How we became major league, years after the fact.

Until then, tell 'em Gomer says "Hey!"

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