Vince Naimoli, original owner of Tampa Bay Rays, dead at 81

Vincent J. Naimoli, who brought major league baseball to west-central Florida and was the original owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, died Sunday night after a long illness. The businessman was 81.

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A cause of death was not given, but Naimoli had publicly acknowledged a battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurological disease, WFLA reported.

In a statement, the Rays said the franchise was "deeply saddened" to learn of Naimoli's death.

"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," the team said.

Naimoli sold a large share of the team to a group led by New York investor Stuart Sternberg in May 2004, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Sternberg, who took over as managing general partner of the franchise from Naimoli in October 2005, said in a statement his predecessor was "instrumental" in bringing baseball to Tampa Bay.

"I am forever grateful that he entrusted me with the franchise in 2005," Sternberg said. "It was my pleasure to have worked with Vince and to have been his partner."

Naimoli was awarded the Tampa Bay baseball franchise on March 9, 1995, WTSP reported. He named the franchise the Devil Rays and the team began play in 1998. The team name was later shortened to Rays when Sternberg took control of the day-to-day operations of the team.

Naimoli grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and founded the Anchor Glass Container Company, moving it to Tampa before selling it. He took his aggressive business principles in running a baseball franchise, ruffling feathers along the way. Despite the team's lack of success, Naimoli never wavered in his tactics.

Vince was relentless. Absolutely relentless," John Higgins, the first team employee Naimoli hired, told the Times in a 2015 interview. "He was hard-charging and tenacious by nature. That's just who he was. He was never one to sit back and reflect, or have deep, interpersonal conversations. He was a fighter, a hard-nosed dealmaker."

The Rays said the team plans to wear a jersey patch for the rest of the 2019 season to honor Naimoli, WTSP reported.