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Devil Rays Fans Want to Fire Team's Owner

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005 12:23 PM

Can fans really fire an owner?

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays sit on the bottom of the American League East today, just as they have for much of their eight-year existence. Given that they've won just three road games, have few players who could truly be called Major League and are suffocating in baseball's most luxurious division with a payroll that is last in the league, there is little chance their fate will change anytime soon.

So why not fire the owner?

This thought occurred to 35-year-old Mike Farnham of Bradenton, Fla., as he listened to sports radio one day last month. On the air, the host had launched into what has become a daily rant about the Devil Rays Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli and his small-spending ways.

"I thought, 'There has to be something that can be done,'" Farnham says.

That night, Farnham, who is a part-time web page designer went home to his computer and invented vincemustgo.com, a website dedicated to the immediate removal of the Devil Rays owner. When it was done, he called up the radio station, alerted the newspapers only to discover someone else had the same exact idea.

Suddenly the information superhighway was clogged with Naimoli antagonists. There was Farnham's site and another called oustnaimoli.com.

"The idea is to get rid of Vince and for a second ownership group to step up and do something," Farnham says. "We're not asking for the Yankees' payroll but if you double it (from about $28 million) to $50 or 60 million that would at least make us competitive. If Vince doesn't go then the ultimate goal should be to get him to spend more money."

There is precedent for internet uprisings in Florida. A couple of years ago, several sites popped up demanding the removal of University of Florida football coach Ron Zook. It became a public relations nightmare for Zook who was eventually fired two years into the job. But Zook was a coach and coaches can be fired. Naimoli is an owner, one who cries poverty in a stadium filled with empty blue seats. Firing an owner is not as simple as firing a coach.

Much of the fan's anger stems from the fact that the team apparently makes money. In fact, according to a Forbes magazine estimate, it was more profitable than any team in baseball other than the Orioles, who the magazine figured had brought in $34 million in operating income. After receiving $20 million in luxury tax payouts, the Rays took in $27 million in operating income Forbes said. The team has disputed this number saying the Forbes estimates have proven historically inaccurate.

Nonetheless, the numbers have done nothing to help Naimoli's cause with the fans.

"It's sad to be honest," says Dustin Staggers, the 23-year-old creator of oustnaimoli.com. "It's sad that baseball doesn't do something about it. Anybody would be better right now. It's our ninth season and 70 wins is our best option."

It's not as if there isn't a potential replacement. Last year a Wall Street investor named Stuart Sternberg bought 48 percent of the team and has made it clear he expects to purchase more shares in the coming years until eventually he will control the team itself. Sternberg is seen as something of a savior to Devil Rays fans, a white knight who can salvage the Rays from their financial gloom.

But Sternberg will not buy the rest of the team tomorrow. He's barely been around the club this year. The best estimates are that he won't make his final investment until sometime after next season.

Which leaves Tampa Bay fans with at least two more years of Vince.

To protest this possibility, Staggers has planned and promoted a walkout for tomorrow night's game with the Mariners. Fans who want to participate are asked to wear white T-shirts and then after the first out of the seventh inning, they are supposed to head for the aisles chanting "we want Stu." After the first out of the bottom of the inning they will return.

"We want to do it after the inning starts so we don't get mixed up with people standing up to get a beer or something," Staggers says.

While people have been supportive Staggers has no idea who will show up. For a team that routinely draws crowds of about 10,000 there might not be enough people in the stands to muster any kind of protest. And it's highly unlikely that a group of fans heading to the exits is going to force Vince Naimoli to sell his team.

But who knows? Maybe 25,000 people will show and flood the aisles in a sea of white. In which case a filled stadium might actually be a better protest than 30,000 empty seats.

email: carpenterl@washpost.com

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