TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Vince Naimoli, the original owner of the Tampa Bay Rays who ended the region's long pursuit to land a major league team, has died. He was 81.
He died Sunday night, nearly five years after being diagnosed with an uncommon brain disorder, the team said Monday. His wife, Lenda, said he was surrounded by family and friends during his last days.
The Tampa businessman was part of unsuccessful bids to purchase and relocate the Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants. But in 1995 he finally got an American League expansion franchise that began play as the Devil Rays in 1998.
"His success in landing the then Devil Rays changed the region's sports landscape forever," the team said in a statement read. "In addition to his distinguished business and baseball careers, his family's philanthropic efforts in the community will be felt for generations."
Naimoli sold the club to a group led by current Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg in 2004 and relinquished control after the 2005 season. Three years later, the perennial last-place team adopted new colors and shortened their nickname to Rays before making an improbable run to the World Series. The club never won more than 70 games during Naimoli's time as managing general partner.
"Vince Naimoli was instrumental in bringing baseball to Tampa Bay,'" Sternberg said. "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."
Commissioner Rob Manfred said Naimoli "overcame significant obstacles" and was the "driving force" behind the effort to bring an MLB team to the area.
"The Rays' many winning seasons under Stu Sternberg would not have been possible without Vince's longstanding devotion to this cause," Manfred said in a statement.
Naimoli's aggressive and sometimes abrasive management style often put him at odds with local business and civic leaders while also fueling a perception he was more interested in making money than winning. He returned to Tropicana Field to throw out the first pitch for the 2015 season opener, but was rarely seen in public after that.
The Rays will wear a uniform patch in his honor for the rest of the season. The team also plans to recognize him before Friday night's home game against Cleveland.
Funeral arrangements are pending.