Vince Naimoli, a pugnacious businessman who helped bring major league baseball to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area but whose team, the Tampa Ray Devil Rays, never had a winning season when he was the owner, died on Sunday in an assisted living facility in Lutz, Fla., near Tampa. He was 81.
His wife, Lenda (Hill) Naimoli, said the cause was complications of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder.
Mr. Naimoli (pronounced nay-MO-lee) nearly succeeded in establishing a Major League Baseball franchise in the area in 1992, when he led an attempt to buy and relocate the San Francisco Giants to what is now known as Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. But National League owners rejected the move.
He achieved his goal in 1995 when baseball expanded to 30 teams, adding the Devil Rays to the American League and the Arizona Diamondbacks to the National.
“It’s been a path of 10,000 steps, 10,000 phone calls, 10,000 frustrations,” Mr. Naimoli said soon after Major League Baseball’s expansion vote. “But we’re also at the beginning of a new path, a fun path.”
The path did not end up being so much fun.
Expansion teams rarely succeed quickly. But the Florida Marlins, who joined the National League in 1993, won the World Series in their fifth season, and the Mets, a longtime symbol of ineptitude, won the 1969 World Series after seven miserable seasons.
“I’ve always kidded around in my speeches that we had the Mets as a model,” Mr. Naimoli was quoted as saying by The New York Times in 1997. “Our objective is to be as competitive as we can as quickly as we can.”
It was not to be. The Devil Rays finished their inaugural season, 1998, with a 63-99 record. Under Mr. Naimoli, they won as few as 55 games (in 2002) and never more than 70 (in 2004).
By comparison, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who started play during the same season, won 100 games in 1999 and the World Series against the Yankees two years later.
Mr. Naimoli’s teams often had some of baseball’s lowest payrolls, which frustrated fans, players and Lou Piniella, during his three losing seasons as manager.
“If they lost,” Mrs. Naimoli said by phone, “nobody on the team plane was allowed to giggle.”
But losing was not the only way the Devil Rays made headlines. Mr. Naimoli’s combative personality led him into feuds with fans, the local chamber of commerce, Dillard’s Department Stores and a Mets scout, whom he threatened with a lifetime ban from Tropicana Field for using the bathroom in his private suite without permission.
In 2004, a group of investors including Stuart Sternberg bought 48 percent of the team, but Mr. Naimoli remained in control as its managing general partner. Near the end of the 2005 season, an editorial in The Tampa Bay Times implored Mr. Naimoli to step aside.
“The very traits that helped Naimoli secure a franchise contributed to his failure to build a successful team on the field or in the stands,” the editorial said, adding that he “kept a tight grip on his wallet, refusing to increase the payroll even as the team turned a profit.”
They were early adopters of using analytics to make on-field decisions; hired an unconventional manager, Joe Maddon; cultivated players wo could play more than one position and benefited from the contributions of players, like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, who had been drafted under Mr. Naimoli’s ownership.
They made it to the 2008 World Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, and they have proved to be a strong opponent to division rivals like the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, although their payrolls have remained modest. Nevertheless, the Rays struggled to fill their domed stadium, much as they did under Mr. Naimoli, who still owned a piece of the team at his death.
Vincent Joseph Naimoli was born on Sept. 16, 1937, in Paterson, N.J. His parents were Italian immigrants: His father, Ralph, was a mechanic who worked in the New York City subways, and his mother, Margaret (Calabrese) Naimoli, was a homemaker.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1959, Mr. Naimoli earned a master’s in mechanical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and an M.B.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.
He started his business career in the aluminum can factories of Continental Group, where he rose from plant manager to vice president, and then moved to executive positions at the Allegheny Beverage Company and the Jim Walter Corporation, a homebuilder.
In 1983, he was part of an investment group with the former Treasury secretary William E. Simon that acquired Anchor Glass Container in a leveraged buyout. They snapped up competitors and slashed costs.
“Woe be to someone who was caught Xeroxing something on only one side of the paper,” Richard Dawson, a former Anchor Glass counsel, told The Tampa Bay Times in 1992.
Mr. Naimoli left Anchor Glass, where he was chairman and chief executive, when it was acquired in 1989 by Vitro S.A., a Mexican company. He received a reported $20 million golden parachute.
He subsequently started Anchor Industries, a firm in Tampa — no connection to Anchor Glass — that specialized in acquiring companies and turning them around.
His work at Anchor Glass and Anchor Industries gave him the hometown prominence to pursue a baseball franchise, which had been a longtime goal in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Naimoli is survived by his daughters, Christine and Dr. Lindsey Naimoli, Tory Ann Jarvis and Alyson Dorfman; five grandsons; and his sister, Jill Naimoli Kane. A previous marriage ended in divorce.
After leaving the Rays, Mr. Naimoli largely devoted his time to philanthropic work, much of it at the schools he had attended and at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida.
Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.
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