The Rays’ original owner has died. Will the franchise live on in Tampa Bay? | Editorial

Vince Naimoliís tenacity brought Major League Baseball to the region. Where is the same determination to keep the Tampa Bay Rays?
Baseball's newest owner Vince Naimoli holds up Devil Rays team jersey in Palm Beach conference. Baer, Brian  |  Tampa Bay Times
Baseball's newest owner Vince Naimoli holds up Devil Rays team jersey in Palm Beach conference. Baer, Brian | Tampa Bay Times
Published August 26

As the original owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, Vince Naimoli deserves a permanent position on the team of visionaries who successfully pursued the dream of bringing Major League Baseball to our community. His tenacity led team owners to award him an expansion franchise in the 1990s after the region had been repeatedly exploited and brushed aside. Now it’s up to this generation of community leaders to secure the long-term future of a regional asset that took their predecessors decades to win.

Naimoli, who died Sunday night at 81, was not a particularly popular team owner. His errors in dealing with the public and the media are well-chronicled. But that same aggressiveness helped him emerge as the point man for St. Petersburg’s effort to get a franchise after multiple disappointments. His deal to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them here in 1992 was rejected by the owners, and his threats to sue MLB undoubtedly helped him win an expansion franchise in 1995 that began play as the Devil Rays in 1998. Would Tampa Bay be in the major leagues without Naimoli?

To be sure, Naimoli’s brashness and unfiltered opinions did not make him the ideal face of the Rays. But those same personality traits made him a force to be reckoned with in his relentless quest for a franchise. He also had the good sense about 15 years ago to give up control of the Rays to Stuart Sternberg, who has transformed the franchise into the model for baseball analytics and experimentation as it competes for a playoff spot with a payroll among baseball’s lowest.

Naimoli’s passing provides a moment to reflect on the decades of efforts to bring Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay. The Pinellas Sports Authority was formed in 1977 to build a stadium and acquire a team. St. Petersburg offered in 1982 to lease the site of Tropicana Field for a $1 a year. In Tampa, Frank Morsani led efforts in the 1980s to buy the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers and move them to the region. In 1986, the St. Petersburg City Council courageously voted to build Tropicana Field without any promise of securing a franchise. Such a gamble today would be unthinkable, but it paid off. That faith in the future and Naimoli’s ultimate success in getting the Rays contributed significantly to the rebirth of the city and elevated the national stature of the entire region.

Now the future of that singular achievement is more at risk than ever. To be kind, Tropicana Field is outdated and the Rays are obligated to play there only through 2027. A three-year window for the team to explore options in Tampa closed in December without an agreement. Sternberg has made it clear he is not interested in a permanent new home in St. Petersburg, but the Rays’ brainstorm to split home games between Montreal and Tampa Bay is less than ideal and seems like a long shot. St. Petersburg also needs to start redeveloping the Trop’s 85 acres without a stadium, but the Rays can block any progress and share in any development proceeds under the current deal.

The clock is ticking. The Rays are in the hunt for a wild card spot, yet attendance remains low and there is no aggressive effort from business leaders to keep the franchise. It took generations of determined community leaders to build the case that Tampa Bay belongs in the big leagues. It would be a shame if this generation fails to act with similar faith and vision to secure that legacy.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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