In his new book, author Jonah Keri covers the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays under the stewardship of two Goldman Sachs alums and a private equity banker, who in 2008 managed to do to the rest of the American League what some of their former colleagues were doing to the U.S. economy. Before their arrival, however, there was Vince Naimoli, the Rays' founding owner, a man too cheap for email.
The following is excerpted from The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.
One of the Devil Rays' biggest Naimolified public relations disasters involved the St. Petersburg High School band. The team invited the band to perform the national anthem—only to have the appearance canceled after band members were told at the last minute they would have to pay to get into the ballpark.
"Vince became his own worst enemy," said WTSP-TV reporter Mike Deeson. "He became a tragic figure, almost like a Shakespearean play. The hero who couldn't get out of his own way."
Most of Naimoli's PR disasters were driven by an obsession with money. These weren't your typical concerns over eight-figure player salaries either. Some of the stories about Naimoli's cheapness defy belief—until you hear the same tales told by former employee after former employee.
The most famous yarn involved his contempt for technology. Naimoli thought email was a fad. He insisted on reading and signing off on the smallest documents. Naimoli wouldn't buy Internet access and by extension wouldn't arrange for email for Devil Rays employees. Tom Whaley, director of corporate sales from February 1999 to December 2000, recalled the steps he had to take to convince clients he worked for the Devil Rays and could be trusted.
"I set up my own email account: WhaleRay@yahoo.com," Whaley chuckled. "I thought it would be three weeks and then I'd get rid of it and get a Devil Rays account. Never happened. I remember one conversation in particular with a national food company. The guy on the other end said he felt odd sending information to a private email account. 'Don't you have company email?' he kept asking me."
Naimoli's Internet boycott continued for several more years. As late as 2003, if a Devil Rays employee wanted to sell group tickets or negotiate sponsorships, he had to buy his own Internet access and send emails from DevilRaysDude99@aol.com. According to data compiled by Northwestern University's Media Management Center, 62.4% of U.S. households had Internet access in 2003. The vast majority of businesses with more than a few employees had access. Every team in baseball was wired. Every team but the Devil Rays.
Naimoli looked for all sorts of ways to squeeze an extra dollar. The Devil Rays' owner initially planned to name the upscale watching area behind home plate at the Trop the Clearwater Mattress Club. Aides talked him out of that name, convincing Naimoli that a local mattress chain was not an appropriate title sponsor for the team's elite seating area. The Devil Rays came up with a marginal upgrade, secured sponsorship from Kane's Furniture, and called the area the Kane's Club. Ticket-holders took an elevator down to their exclusive seats. When the doors opened, they revealed . . . couches. Yes, for the thousands of dollars you had to pay for the best seat in the house, your reward was a pitch from a furniture salesman in a cheap suit who thought you might be interested in a sofa.
Another factor working against Naimoli was his lack of experience with running a sports franchise. "He was used to doing business deals the way business guys do them behind closed doors," said Topkin. "They can be nut-cutters, they can be SOBs, and that can be a successful way to do business. But baseball was a public trust, in a community that was looking to embrace the person who brought the team here."
Naimoli's nut-cutting methods did occasionally work. When he needed financing for stadium improvements or other ventures, he would meet with multiple bankers and pit them against each other to get the best deal. When concessions operators approached him, he'd find a way to beat the price down as much as possible without chasing them away.
Naimoli's problem was that he never knew when to quit. His combination of ego, pride, combativeness, and obsession with getting the best deal led to requests that he believed should be honored but that others saw as ridiculous, if not insulting. He once sent a letter to the city of Tampa asking why he didn't have a free, reserved parking space at the airport. Meanwhile, Naimoli forced team employees to buy specially designed Rays license plates if they wanted to park in Tropicana Field's empty main parking lot on workdays . . . or else be forced to park much farther out and walk a quarter-mile to their offices. This was in stark contrast to his successor Stuart Sternberg, who offered two years of free parking to everyone at Tropicana Field as a token of goodwill . . . and a sop to everyone who suffered through the Naimoli years.
The coup de grâce was Naimoli's "personal and confidential" letter to Hillsborough County, in which he complained that a "pesky raccoon" was intimidating his wife and daughter at their sprawling estate.
"What I'd like to know is why," Naimoli wrote, "when I reportedly pay the highest or one of the highest property taxes in Hillsborough County and probably one of the largest supporters (mostly anonymous) of charities in our area—I can't get equal treatment on Raccoon Rabies Protection."
The night before the Rays' first home opener, local television news stations were planning to go live with reports. Mark Douglas, now a reporter for WFLA-TV Channel 8 in Tampa, recalled his colleagues setting up live location shots all over the stadium.
"We were all going live, it was a huge moment in sports history," Douglas recalled. "We'd been reporting that things weren't quite finished, and a few guardrails weren't up yet, that the roof had a small leak—in the grand scheme of things just a scramble to the finish, some small, last-minute construction stuff. Vince didn't like that. So he threw us all out."
A few years earlier, just before MLB was set to announce the winners of the second round of expansion, Mike Deeson, the WTSP reporter, got word that the Tampa Bay group would name its team the Devil Rays, a tidbit that hadn't been reported to that point. Deeson called John Higgins, the team's senior vice president and general counsel. How does the name "Devil Rays" sound, Deeson asked. Higgins went silent for ten seconds before telling the reporter not to run with that name or he'd embarrass himself. The long pause told Deeson he had the story right, and he ran with it. Naimoli was livid. When local and national media assembled at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach for the new franchise announcements, Naimoli tore into Deeson—in front of all his peers.
"He can stutter at times, but it was much worse back then," Deeson said. "He looked at me and yelled, 'Y-y-you had no right to do that. Y-y-you spoiled it for everybody!' All the old New York sportswriters were there. They just kept mocking him."
Those out-of-town writers would feel Naimoli's wrath too. In 2004, a visiting Baltimore reporter bought a small pizza at a Tropicana Field concession stand, then brought it back to his seat in the press box—standard practice. Naimoli tore the reporter a new one. "Bringing food into the press box is a health department violation," Naimoli shouted, again in front of a large group of other reporters. "And I'm not going to get fined for it!" The Devil Rays' owner threatened to revoke the reporter's credentials. Only a last-second intervention by Rick Vaughn, head of public relations throughout the team's existence, enabled the reporter to finish his assignment (and his pizza).
Naimoli's short fuse began to earn him comparisons to various hot-tempered public figures, even fictional ones. A St. Petersburg Times spoof depicted him as Tony Soprano. Naimoli flipped out. First, he pulled all Times papers and newspaper boxes from the Trop, severing ties—albeit briefly—with one of the region's biggest providers of Devil Rays coverage. He threatened to sue the Times. Then he contacted the American Italian Anti-Defamation League, seeking further recourse. Far smaller slights also set him off. When radio hosts criticized Naimoli, he'd often respond by calling the station immediately with a rebuttal. Eventually, reluctantly, he stopped that practice—only to have Vaughn continue to call on his behalf.
For all the abuse Naimoli heaped on local businesses, government, and the media, Devil Rays fans remained mostly unaffected—until the team implemented Draconian policies at the Trop. As attendance dwindled, some enterprising fans began looking for ways to sneak down to better seats. Management installed extra ushers all over the stadium, ordering them not only to prevent such seat upgrades but also to loudly chastise any fan who gave the slightest indication he was trying such a move. If the ushers opted to let a sneak-down slide, even in the ninth inning of a blowout game with 5,000 people in the stadium, they risked losing their jobs. Meanwhile, threatening signs dotted the stadium. Do not walk on the field, several signs warned, or you will face criminal prosecution and incarceration.
The Devil Rays also banned outside food. Many other teams had the same policy. But the way personnel enforced the rule, and who did the enforcing, was unique. Not surprisingly, ushers were the first line of defense against the scourge of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If they failed to detect the contraband, though, the Devil Rays had a backup plan: Detective Naimoli. The owner sat in the stands for most games, bringing him closer to the action, and to the fans. If he spotted a fan eating outside food, he'd walk over and ask where he entered the stadium. He would then call, find out who was manning that entrance, and have that person fired on the spot.
Naimoli's threats turned the D-Rays' stadium crew into unflinching supercops of snack prevention. A group of seniors hopped a bus to one game during that period. One couple within the group approached the stadium entrance, the wife in a wheelchair. Security found a bag of cashews on her and yanked them away. The elderly lady explained that she was diabetic and needed the nuts for her diet. The gate agent yelled back that no exceptions were tolerated. The husband jumped into the fray. After more arguing, the couple finally turned around, and the husband wheeled his wife back to the bus. There they sat for three and a half hours, until the game finally ended and the group returned. Local press got hold of the story. Some reporters might've sat on it, or at least downplayed it, under different circumstances. But this was Vince Naimoli. The story came out. Naimoli refused to apologize. By the franchise's fourth season, the fans had completely turned on the Devil Rays' owner. When the team held a send-off ceremony at the Trop for Cal Ripken in 2001, fans serenaded Naimoli with a chorus of boos.
"Someone with the Rays once said to me, 'I didn't think one person could keep five thousand fans out of the seats—until I met Vince,' " said Deeson.
From the book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. Copyright © 2011 by Jonah Keri. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Book-signing photo via the St. Petersburg Times.