This year, the Tampa Bay Rays celebrate the team’s 20th anniversary. It’s a milestone for sure, but still a very young franchise when you consider the game was invented 180 years ago.
I mean think about it, the bay area spent more than 20 years just trying to get a team. That’s something that might never have happened without Vince Naimoli, a man who knew how to give as good as he got.
For the first time in a long time, the man who made the Rays talks with us about his team then and now.
It remains a remarkable accomplishment. Vince Naimoli acquired the Major League Baseball franchise in 1995 and by 1998 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays began play at Tropicana Field. He says when he thinks back on those early days it makes him feel good.
The founding owner of the Rays will turn 81 years old in September. Naimoli is losing his speech and his body is beginning to fail. He was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy in 2014.
His devoted wife Lenda, of 37 years, told me Vince won’t be getting better. He now lives in the Lodges, an assisted-living facility in north Tampa. Despite his deteriorating condition, Naimoli still enjoys reminiscing about the Rays and thinking about the team’s future.
The team shortened the name from Devil Rays to Rays for the 2008 season, which Naimoli said he prefers and he still wears the 2008 World Series ring with pride. However, some memories are bitter.
When I brought up some of the things critics said and wrote about him, he said, “It hurts.”
He was often described as cheap, a bully and blamed for seven consecutive losing seasons. He took some of those comments personally.
He admits to some public relations failures, but when asked if he got the respect he deserved he said, “No, I don’t get enough credit for bringing the team to Tampa Bay.” He says his biggest regret is not spending more money to improve the team.
“I would have had a bigger payroll in the early years”, he said.
Just as he needed a bigger pay roll then. Naimoli says the Rays need a new stadium now.
“It’s time for a new ballpark, Tampa is the right spot,” he said.
Naimoli believes the proposed Ybor City site is a good one. Traffic and parking around will be a challenge but he says financing is the biggest issue. Leaders will need to step up and sacrifice like he once did.
What he doesn’t want to see is the team he fought so hard to secure pack up and move to another city, like Montreal which lost the Expos when the team relocated to Washington, D.C. after the 2004 season and became the Nationals.
Vince Naimoli’s life story is impressive.
He grew up poor in Paterson, New Jersey, and had a very successful corporate career, creating the fortune 500 Anchor Glass Container Company and moving it to Tampa, before selling it.
He’s also donated millions to charity. He gave $1 million recently to the University of South Florida athletic department and he donated $5 million to the University of Tampa for the new Lacrosse field.
However, when asked how he wants to be remembered, Naimoli said I want to be remembered for this, “I brought baseball to Tampa Bay.”
That he did, and it will forever secure his place in Tampa Bay baseball history as the man who made the Rays.
8-SIGNIFICANT DATES TO REMEMBER FOR RAYS FANS
- March 9, 1995: Tampa Bay Devil Rays become an expansion team.
- October 3, 1996: The Rays and Tropicana Dole Beverages announce agreement to rename the Thunderdome.
- October 7, 1996: Official groundbreaking for $63 million renovation of Tropicana Field.
- November 7 1997: Larry Rothschild named the first Rays Manager.
- March 31, 1998: The Rays begin play at Tropicana losing to the Detroit Tigers 11-6 in first major league game. It remains the largest crowd in Rays history – 45,369.
- April 1, 1998: Rays win for the first time, 11-8 over Detroit. Cuban ace Rolando Arrojo is the winner in his major league debut.
- June 21, 1998: Raymond, the team’s mascot debuts.
- October 22, 2008: Rays host Phillies in their first World Series game.