SBJ/October 10 - 16, 2005/Other News

Sternberg starts Devil Rays refurb

The massive job of rebuilding the organization and brand of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays began last week with the ascension of New York investor Stuart Sternberg to managing general partner. He wasted no time putting his stamp on the club.

Sternberg, 46, quickly began his era by firing general manager Chuck LaMar and three other senior baseball operations executives, offering free parking to all Devil Rays home games in team-owned lots, promoting 29-year-old Matthew Silverman to team president and pledging a systemic overhaul of the organization and its soured relationship with greater Tampa.

“I think what foremost needs to happen is forging a real connection with this community so that people here feel vested in this organization and its performance,” Sternberg said. “Everything here is under review. If there’s a way we can fix what ails this club we want to do it.”

Sternberg replaces the unpopular Vince Naimoli, who succeeded in a long effort to bring baseball to the Tampa Bay area but lost at least 90 games in each of the franchise’s first eight seasons and alienated large sections of the central Florida business community. The final season of the Naimoli era ended with the club sporting another last-place finish, Major League Baseball’s lowest payroll at $29.4 million and a league-worst attendance of 14,052 a game.

Naimoli, 68, originally was set to stay as the club’s control person until January 2007 as part of a May 2004 deal in which Sternberg bought 48 percent of team equity for a reported $60 million. But Naimoli is estimated to have received another $20 million to relinquish control early.

Naimoli will remain an adviser to the Devil Rays and maintain a 15 percent stake in the club. Sternberg becomes MLB’s third-youngest lead owner after Pittsburgh’s Kevin McClatchy and Charlie Monfort in Colorado.

Despite Sternberg’s youth, enthusiasm and energy, a formidable task awaits. The club is saddled with one of baseball’s least popular stadiums in the Tropicana Dome, a deeply disaffected fan base and the burden of having baseball’s two economic titans, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, in its division.

Seeking a new stadium is not a priority, Sternberg said, but a nickname and uniform change could be in the works.

“Our marketers are going to look very carefully at that,” he said. “If the name is viewed to be a detriment to fans coming to the ballpark, we’ll look to change it.”

The free parking, conversely, is a quicker and cheaper fix similar to Arte Moreno lowering beer prices for the then-Anaheim Angels in his early days owning the club. Removing the parking fees, $10 a car in 2005, likely will cost the Devil Rays several million dollars in 2006, but could yield back much more in fan good will.

“We want to remove any impediment to fans coming to Tropicana Field,” Sternberg said.

Sternberg, who grew up in Brooklyn as a New York Mets fan, made much of his fortune in options trading, and helped lead Spear, Leeds & Kellogg, a securities firm purchased by Goldman Sachs in 2000. Sternberg stayed with the company, working under the Goldman Sachs umbrella, for another two years. He has been a private investor since then, spending significant chunks of time in Tampa.

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