Rays Under New Management – Finally

Much has been made of the splashy debut of the bedeviled Rays’ new ownership team. For openers, Stuart Sternberg, 47, and his gee-Whiz Kids — 29-year-old team president Matt Silverman and 28-year-old director of baseball development Andrew Friedman — dominated a news cycle that included the return of the Lightning and an undefeated jumpstart by the Bucs.

They cleaned out the Stygian Stables of Chuck LaMar & Co. and announced free parking at Tropicana Field for all Rays’ games. They promised to spruce up the Trop, update computers and — in a conceptual breakthrough — generally do things in a “major league” way. Obviously image and good will matter. Talk about a “Hit Show.”

They even issued new business cards – embossed with an “Under Construction” logo – but sans any old-paradigm titles.

And with “chairman emeritus” Vince Naimoli bought off and booted upstairs beyond the catwalks, it was all PR coup, all the time.

Naimoli’s legacy

And speaking of the bumbling, grumbling, gaffe-prone Naimoli, the vincible one got off easy. He pocketed an eight-figure check and picked up a handful of hosannas for having brought major league baseball to the Tampa Bay market. He earned neither.

Sometimes you add by subtracting. He’ll now be paid not to meddle, insult or embarrass – not unlike paying Greg Vaughn not to play and LaMar not to general manage.

But as for being the patron saint of baseball’s expansion to this market, let’s not get carried away. Baseball was coming here anyway; the timing was imminent. The demographics, media heft, favorable geography and baseball tradition were not to be denied in perpetuity. Also unalterably changing: the Tampa Bay area’s perennial status as leverage for other franchises to legally extort new stadiums from their home cities – such as Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

And don’t forget Naimoli wasn’t the only prospective owner in the local hunt. Just the one with the biggest personal down side. Had there been no Naimoli group, the franchise arguably would have been awarded to the one headed by Tampa businessman Frank Morsani. That Major League Baseball didn’t choose Morsani in the first place is a reminder that implausibly short-sighted decisions didn’t begin with see-no-evil steroid policies.

That would have meant a real baseball stadium in the real epicenter of the Tampa Bay market – Tampa. And by sheer default, it would have to have been a better-run operation.

Winning approach

Unless you are a traditional metro market up North, where attending baseball games is part of the culture, winning is pretty much the only way to draw significant interest and sizable crowds. That axiom is particularly applicable here — given the uninviting dome depot, the skewed St. Petersburg location, out-of-town baseball allegiances and the myriad of outdoor pursuits available to Floridians.

If ever there was a time for “best practices”-enamored, smart young people – in the mold of Oakland GM Billy Beane, Boston GM Theo Epstein and Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro — to take their shot, it is right now, right here. Generation Wrecks has already had its chance.

Next season is still six months away, but the Rays will come into it on a winning streak. And on a “construction” schedule that is both short and long term.

Look for Sternberg to hire a savvy general manager, add payroll intelligently and create an organizational culture that treats fans as paying customers with other discretionary-dollar options.

Then comes the really heavy lifting.

This market is a unique challenge, but it not an exception to the ultimate bottom-line rule. Build a winner — and they will come. And then they will come back. Whether the home team is called the Rays, the Devil Rays, the Sting Rays, the Gamma Rays, the Aldo Rays, the Johnny Rays or the Bob and Rays.

What’s important is that the old regime is now the Ex-Rays.

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