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Business leaders remember the first owner of the Tampa Bay Rays

Margie Manning

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Tropicana Field

Friends, business associates and sports fans are remembering the late Vince Naimoli, the original owner and CEO of the Tampa Bay Rays, as both inspirational and gruff, both generous and tight-fisted.

Vincent Naimoli

David Feaster, a veteran St. Petersburg banker who recently retired from Republic Bank, remembers Naimoli as a man who accomplished what no one else had been able to do — bring Major League Baseball to the Tampa-St. Pete area.

Naimoli died Sunday night at the age of 81. He had been diagnosed with an uncommon brain disorder five years ago, according to the New York Times.

“I think his memory should be nothing but a fond memory of the man who had the tenacity and diligence to bring a team here,” said Feaster. “This is high-stakes business negotiations. That was Vince’s gift. That’s what he did. He bought companies, turned them around and sold them. There are different skills sets in buying a company versus running a company. Vince had the skill set to buy it.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who currently is talking to the Rays about the future of the franchise in St. Petersburg, said:  “Everyone seems to have a Vince Naimoli story, but to us in St. Pete, what matters most is that he made us a Major League Baseball city. He recognized the potential in us and delivered.”

Feaster, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident, first met Naimoli while working with the Chamber of Commerce to convince Major League Baseball that St. Pete was a “major league town.”

The league awarded the franchise for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays to an ownership group led by Naimoli in 1995, and the team began playing in 1998.

“After Vince got the team, he asked me and others to start the Clutch Hitters, a group that sold season tickets and sponsorships,” Feaster said. “Vince was always very nice to me. He always called me by my name. He was a very important man and I was a young guy and I never forgot that. He was very polite.”

Feaster also recalled Naimoli as being devoted to the community.

“In my opinion, he truly felt he was buying an asset for the community and he expected the community to support him,” Feaster said. “He probably could have done it a little gentler.”

Feaster credits Naimoli with hiring John Higgins, the Rays’ first employee, who remains the team’s senior vice president of administration and general counsel, as well as Rick Vaughn, who was vice president of communications until he resigned in 2016. Vaughn brought professional Major League Baseball PR tactics and procedures to the team, Feaster said.

Naimoli’s success in landing the then-Devil Rays “changed the region’s sports landscape forever,” according to a statement from the Tampa Bay Rays, and a post on Twitter.

“Vince Naimoli was instrumental in bringing baseball to Tampa Bay. I am forever grateful that he entrusted me with the franchise in 2005. It was my pleasure to have worked with Vince and to have been his partner,” said Stu Sternberg, current principal owner of the Rays.

Naimoli believed deeply in the market and overcame significant obstacles to secure a Major League franchise, said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Vince was also a generous figure who cared deeply about his community and education, including his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, and universities in the Tampa area and his native New Jersey.”

Naimoli was the namesake of University of Tampa’s Naimoli Institute for Business Strategy, and chairman emeritus of the UT board of trustees. He was instrumental in UT’s growth from a small, struggling, regional institution to the model, international university it is today, a press release from the university said.

He also was a Trustee Emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he received an MBA in 1964.

“Vince served FDU with great dedication and integrity,” Christopher Capuano, Fairleigh Dickinson University president, said in a statement. “He was a loyal and generous alumnus. As a trustee, he brought invaluable business experience and tremendous passion for education. He inspired his friends and colleagues in so many ways, and was always there for students in need. We will miss him greatly but his legacy will surely live on.”

Naimoli was known for his thrifty ways, according to Wikipedia, but also for philanthropy. He was the recipient of the first “Bridging the Bay” award in 1996, recognizing him as the individual who has done the most to unite the citizens of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Wikipedia said.

Noted sportscaster and area resident Dick Vitale posted his own thoughts on Naimoli on Twitter.

The Rays said the team will honor Naimoli with a commemorative patch on their jerseys for the rest of the 2019 season.

There also will be a pregame recognition before the Rays’ next game at Tropicana Field, this Friday against the Cleveland Indians. Details of the ceremony will be announced later.

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