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Original Tampa Bay Rays Owner, Philanthropist Vince Naimoli Dies

Vince Naimoli, the original owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, died at 81.
Vince Naimoli, the original owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, died at 81.

Original Tampa Bay Rays owner Vince Naimoli has died at 81.

The team said Monday he died Sunday nearly five years after being diagnosed with an uncommon brain disorder.

“The Tampa Bay Rays are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former owner and CEO, Vince Naimoli," according to a team statement released Monday. "Vince was unyielding in his pursuit of a Major League Baseball franchise for Tampa Bay, and his success in landing the then Devil Rays changed the region’s sports landscape forever.

"In addition to his distinguished business and baseball careers, his family’s philanthropic efforts in the community will be felt for generations. We are grateful for his leadership and whish his family peace during this difficult time."

Naimoli was infamous for his bristling personality and cost-cutting executive style, from requiring that all photocopies be double-sided to refusing to purchase email service for team employees because he thought it was a passing fad. As the team struggled under his ownership, more negative headlines about the owner emerged.

His legacy?

"I would say it's complicated," said Joe Henderson, who first met Naimoli as a sports columnist at the Tampa Tribune newspaper and who now writes for FloridaPolitics.com. "And it is with Vince. He had a lot of people that by the time he moved out of ownership of the baseball team were happy to see him go. But we do owe Vince a debt of thanks. And not just for baseball."

Naimoli was a strong area philanthropist, donating millions to the University of Tampa and other regional causes, as well as his alma mater, Notre Dame. 

The Tampa businessman had been part of unsuccessful bids to purchase and relocate the Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants. But he landed an American League expansion franchise in 1995 that began play as the Devil Rays in 1998.

Naimoli ended the Tampa Bay region's two-decade long pursuit to join Major League Baseball. He sold the club to a group led by current Rays principal Stuart Sternberg in 2004 and relinquished control after the 2005 season.

“Vince Naimoli was instrumental in bringing baseball to Tampa Bay,” Sternberg said in a statement released by the team on Monday. “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.

Naimoli was often at odds with local business and civic leaders and fueled a perception he was more interested in making money than winning. The club never won more than 70 games during his time there. It made an improbable run to the 2008 World Series.

For Henderson, Naimoli's legacy will be that of a game-changer for Tampa Bay.

"He was unique," Henderson said. "I'll say that I've never met a sports owner quite like him, but I'm genuinely sorry that that it came to this for him, because he deserved, I think maybe, to enjoy life a little bit more. I'm not sure he ever got to do that."

WUSF staff writer Wayne Garcia contributed to this report.