SBJ/Nov. 18-24, 2013/In Depth

The Building Manager: Rick Nafe

Vice president of operations and facilities, Tropicana Field

In his 33 years of facility management, Rick Nafe has hosted two Super Bowls (and served as a consultant on behalf of the NFL on nine others), the NCAA Final Four and the World Series, been the point man on the development of three professional sports venues (and currently trying for a fourth), and secured long-term leases for those buildings.

But the Miami native has learned that no matter how hard you try, you can’t plan for everything. Such was the case 24 hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in 1991.

“George Toma — the ‘Sod God’ — comes into my office and says, ‘We have to replace the logo,’” Nafe said.
“They’d been painting the 25th anniversary shield for about two weeks. There’d been a heavy dew and somebody during the New York Giants walkthrough that morning had walked through the shield and made it look almost three-dimensional.”

Repainting wasn’t an option. Nafe needed to find high-grade Bermuda grass to replace that portion of the field.
“I raced over to the Yankees’ minor league complex, because I knew that’s the turf they had, but theirs wasn’t root-bound far enough,” Nafe said. “We needed to dig that turf 14 inches deep so it wouldn’t move during the game.
The only place we could find with the right grass was the University of Tampa’s soccer field.”

While Toma’s crew dug out the middle of the Super Bowl field, Nafe’s crew worked at the soccer field with
Nafe, center, celebrates as Tropicana Field wins an Energy Bowl award from the Stadium Managers Association in recognition of the stadium’s energy efficiency initiatives.
Photo by: Tampa Bay Rays
flashlights, bolt cutters and shovels, “like gravediggers.”

“Somewhere around 1 a.m. we had the new turf in, George’s crew repainted the logo, and no one was the wiser. If my guys hadn’t been so tired I would have brought the shield to the soccer field.”

Not every solution is as fixable, however. The toughest point in Nafe’s career came in 1998, less than two years after the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays then-owner Vince Naimoli hired him as $85 million in renovations were under way at the ThunderDome (now Tropicana Field).

“The building had been awarded the NCAA men’s basketball 1998 regional and 1999 Final Four,” Nafe said. “We were probably 50 percent under construction in March of 1998. The inside was basketball-ready, but the entrance that would take in about 70 percent of the fans wasn’t. We had 30 straight days of monsoons. It flooded out the entrance and the press area.

“I finally had to have a press conference explaining to everyone that there were four sites for the regionals and one of them happens to be a construction site. Everywhere you turned, nothing was right.”

Weather aside, the regionals went off without a hitch, and two weeks later the ThunderDome reopened on time, with all the public areas completed, for the Rays’ inaugural game. A decade later it was the site of what Nafe says is one of his fondest memories as a stadium manager: hosting the 2008 World Series.

“My office overlooks left field, and ESPN set up their desk right there. So Chris Berman, John Kruk and all their baseball guys were right there outside my window. The whole thing was just such a fantastic experience.”

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