Tampa Bay Area Should Long Remember Naimoli

by Gary Shelton on August 27, 2019 · 2 comments

in general

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

The roar is quiet now. Vince Naimoli is out of battle, out of words. The former owner of the Tampa Bay Rays has died, and really, there is just one thing to say to him.

Thank you.

You brought baseball to town.

 

Yes, he was a bully. If it is true that Vince was the best possible man to chase a team, he was the worst possible man to own one. He had grown up as a small businessman, tough and demanding, and he thought he could run a ballclub the same way. He was a bull in a China shop, blustering and bluffing his way through the days, as if St. Petersburg owed it to him to show up and cheer, and it didn’t.

But at his heart, Naimoli could be a kind man, a thoughtful man. Baseball fans never got to see enough of that side of Vince, possibly because of the sheer awkwardness of those early days.

I was with Vince when he walked out of the owner’s box for the final time. I watched as he reached up and clicked off the lights, then closed the door on his days. They weren’t very good on the field, and they weren’t good business off the field, and even Vince’s partners wanted to pull back financially before he did.

But, by golly, he brought the bats. That’s worth something on the list of Tampa Bay sports personalties making an impact.

Oh, he could be crusty. Someone once wrote him a letter, and he had his people research to see if the guy bought season tickets. He spent one pregame with his binoculars trained on the stands, trying to find the guy. As far as I know, he never did, but he was braced for a confrontation. Vince was always braced for a confrontation.

One day, I was driving along when the cell phone rang. It was Vince. That morning, I had written something suggesting certain free agents the Rays should purse, including the line “it’s not my money, but…” I mentioned that Vince had stepped on a lot of toes in his time.

So Vince called, and he started by saying “I don’t care if you tell us where we should spend our money, but that stuff about me stepping on toes just isn’t true.” I almost drove into the ditch.

“Vince, how can you say that? You walk on toes as matter of course.”

“Yeah? Tell me one instance.”

“How about Dillard’s?” I said, bringing up the situation where the department store had started to sell gear before it was supposed to. Vince went so nuts that Dillard’s decided to stop carrying Rays’ gear.

“Well, they were wrong,” he said.

“Yeah, but you nuked them. You could have handled that with a bit of diplomacy.”

“Well, we’re trying to talk to them, but they won’t call us back.”

“See! They won’t even call you back. That’s some heavy stepping on toes,” Vince.”

Another time, Vince was irate at an article that Marc Topkin wrote. He was casting different members of the Rays as actors, and when he got to Vince, he chose Sopranos’ actor James Gandolfini. Vince went crazy, because Gandolfini was playing a mobster in his TV show. But Topkin had picked him because of a similarity in their looks.

So Vince stacked all the Times’ newspaper boxes in the hall where the fans couldn’t find them. The trouble was, the Rays’ ownership had an agreement with the Times. They received money to sell the newspaper there. So when the paper sent in its check, it was minus one game.

The newspaper boxes were back out the next night.

One day, I ran into Vince at the airport. I was flying to see the Rays, and he was on business. But he reached into his pocket and he tore off an upgrade coupon that would get me into first class. I told him I couldn’t accept it. But he said that was silly, and he went on and on until I finally took it.

Later, I ran into general manager Chuck LaMar, who was incredulous. The Rays own staff didn’t get those upgrade coupons. They all flew as cheap as Vince could find tickets.

I had a former eye doctor who did the Rays’ vision exams … for free. He was forced to buy a season ticket for the privilege.

Then there was the night I thought it would be an interesting column to sit next to Vince and watch a game. He had an owner’s box, but on this night, he sat in grandstands, keeping score, watching intently.  I sat there for nine innings, talking baseball, watching the game. He never once bought a peanut or a bottle of water, and it felt rude for me to do so. So we sat there, our mouths as dry as the pitching mound.

He retired once, then un-retired. He hinted to me once that he was prepared to keep spending, but his partners had had enough.

And so it went. Every day was a battle. I always described Vince as a guy who wanted to be a good guy, but life had made him a sports owner instead.

But, hey, other men tried to bring baseball to St. Pete, and other men failed.

Vince pulled it off. He bought the uniforms, and he opened the door.

Good thing, that.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Beller August 27, 2019 at 6:52 am

Sounds like you had a special relationship with the man, Gary. Tough to lose friends isn’t it? Thanks for sharing these stories of the man it seemed as if few people really liked but those of us that love baseball owe a great amount of gratitude for bringing the Rays to this market.

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Gary Shelton August 27, 2019 at 7:46 am

I don’t want to misrepresent myself. Vince was nice to me, but we butted heads. He never asked me to dinner. But like you, I appreciated that he brought baseball.

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