1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Opening Day program, March 31, 1998 (COURTESY OF THE TAMPA BAY RAYS)

Tampa Bay Rays team ownership history

This article was written by Steve Rennie

This article was published in the Team Ownership History Project

1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays Opening Day program, March 31, 1998 (COURTESY OF THE TAMPA BAY RAYS)

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Opening Day program from March 31, 1998. (Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays)

Nestled along Florida’s Gulf Coast, St. Petersburg exudes a charm that has captivated both residents and visitors for decades. However, beneath its sun-soaked exterior lies a history enriched by the sport that has captured the hearts of many: baseball. From its modest beginnings on neighborhood sandlots to its pivotal role as a hub for spring training and culminating in the present-day triumphs of the Tampa Bay Rays on the field, the story of baseball in St. Petersburg is one of resilience, community, and a profound connection to the national pastime.

The origins of baseball in the St. Petersburg area can be traced back to the latter half of the 19th century, when veterans returning to Florida after the Civil War reintroduced the game that they had learned during quiet moments amid battles. Various towns started organizing teams to engage in friendly competitions. In 1892, Tampa established its own team during the inaugural but short-lived Florida State League. These contests laid the foundation for a deep-rooted sporting tradition. As the city gradually grew and matured, so too did its passion for the game.1

The baseball fervor in St. Petersburg gave rise to the semipro Saints in 1902, who eventually grew into a minor-league team in the Florida State League before folding in 1928. Rekindling this spirit nearly two decades later, a resurgent club under the same name injected new life into the city’s baseball landscape, playing in the Florida International League and the Florida State League. This team underwent two more name changes—first to the Cardinals, and later the Devil Rays following a brief affiliation with Major League Baseball’s expansion franchise—before ceasing operations after the 2000 season.2

The starting point for baseball’s prominence in St. Petersburg came in the early 20th century when the city embraced its role as a spring training destination. The favorable climate and idyllic setting made it an ideal location for big-league clubs to escape the harsh northern winters and prepare for the upcoming season. The first team to recognize St. Petersburg’s potential was the St. Louis Browns, who conducted their spring training in the city in 1914. This marked the beginning of a new era, as more teams followed suit, seeking optimal training conditions.3

The influx of major league teams during spring training not only brought excitement to St. Petersburg but also invigorated the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, and local businesses thrived as fans flocked to the area to catch a glimpse of their favorite players and teams. Icons such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson left an indelible mark on the city’s baseball legacy. Amidst this rich history, the idea of bringing an MLB team to St. Petersburg faced its fair share of challenges.4

While the city had proven its ability to support baseball at various levels, the major leagues were an entirely different proposition. The primary obstacle was securing a stadium capable of accommodating a big-league franchise. Al Lang Field, the waterfront stadium named after a former mayor and avid supporter of baseball, became the epicenter of spring training activities. Yet, despite its cherished historical significance, the 7,227-seat stadium lacked the size, modern amenities and infrastructure necessary for an MLB team.5

Efforts to address this issue gained traction in the early 1980s when the St. Petersburg City Council offered 66 acres of downtown land to the Pinellas Sports Authority—created by state legislators in 1977 and given powers to finance and build a domed stadium—for $1 per year. Construction on what would become the Florida Suncoast Dome began in late 1986, and the groundbreaking ceremony saw over 9,000 enthusiastic supporters wielding miniature shovels inscribed with the motto “I Dig the Stadium.”6

Construction was finished in 1990, but the one missing piece was a team.

The city came tantalizingly close on several occasions. In 1988, a potential move of the Chicago White Sox to the city seemed imminent, prompting Illinois state legislators to approve a publicly financed stadium proposal at the eleventh hour, ensuring the team remained in the Windy City. Other clubs—including the Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and Oakland A’s—wielded the prospect of relocating to St. Petersburg as a bargaining chip to land new stadium deals. Despite being a top contender for a 1993 season expansion team, St. Petersburg was overlooked as Major League Baseball granted franchises to Miami and Denver. Then, in 1992, National League owners rejected Tampa businessman Vince Naimoli’s bid to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them to St. Petersburg. This refusal sparked a flurry of legal actions against both San Francisco’s municipal authorities and Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption.7 (Click here for the San Francisco side of the story.)

In 1994, Major League Baseball once again turned its sights towards expansion, revealing plans to add a pair of new teams to start play in 1998. St. Petersburg and Phoenix emerged as the clear favorites among the four finalist ownership groups, which also included Northern Virginia and Orlando. One of the factors working in favor of St. Petersburg’s bid was that the city already had a stadium ready for a prospective team—the Florida Suncoast Dome—later renamed the ThunderDome before eventually becoming Tropicana Field. Today, the Trop routinely finds itself ranked as one of the league’s worst ballparks, owing to its less-than-ideal location by an interstate and its gloomy, warehouse-like aesthetics.8

Naimoli—a New Jersey native who made his fortune buying struggling companies and then steering them to profitability by aggressively cutting costs and selling off assets—led St. Petersburg’s expansion push. His Tampa Bay roots traced back to the late 1970s when he became senior vice president at a major homebuilder in the region, Jim Walter Corp. He left that job in 1981 to join Ohio-based Anchor Hocking Corp. as a senior vice president in the packaging division. Two years later, he and a group of investors raised $77 million to split off the ailing Anchor Glass Container Corp. division from Anchor Hocking. Naimoli relocated the business to Tampa, and became its chairman, president and CEO. He immediately started trimming expenses. “He looked in every nook and cranny to try and find savings,” said Richard Dawson, a former corporate counsel of Anchor Glass, in a 1992 interview. “Woe be to someone who was caught Xeroxing something on only one side of the paper.” The company went public in 1986, and for a time it was Tampa Bay’s only Fortune 500 company. But it was heavily indebted and hemorrhaging money. In 1989, a Mexican manufacturing company called Vitro S. A. launched a hostile takeover bid for Anchor Glass. When the dust settled, Naimoli walked away with around $20 million. He got involved with a few smaller business ventures in the area before joining the effort to bring a major league team to the Tampa Bay region.9

Despite its frontrunner status, St. Petersburg’s expansion bid encountered a significant hurdle when the league abruptly raised the expansion fee from $110 million to $130 million, while also demanding that the expansion teams forfeit their entitlement to $5 million annually from baseball’s central fund for the first five years. Naimoli was incensed that the league had changed its terms at the eleventh hour. Despite this unexpected twist, and with the clock ticking on the expansion announcement, Naimoli agreed to the league’s demands. In the early months of 1995, at long last, St. Petersburg finally got its team.10

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born.

Naimoli assumed the role of the managing general partner of the ownership group, which also featured five general partners: Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, co-founders of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain; Mark Bostick, CEO of Comcar Industries; Dan Doyle, President and CEO of Danka Industries; and Bill Griffin, former chair of Sarasota’s RISCORP Management Services. Collectively, these general partners owned 62.5 percent of the Devil Rays, while Naimoli held a 16 percent stake. Additionally, several limited partners were involved, including Florida Progress Corp., a utility holding company headquartered in St. Petersburg; Lance Ringhaver, owner and chairman of Ringhaver Equipment Co. and Ring Power Co.; P.J. Benton, a local businesswoman who previously owned two McDonald’s franchises; Gus Stavros, a local entrepreneur known for his philanthropic efforts; Gary Markel, a prominent figure in local real estate development and dining establishments; New York-based businessman Robert Kleinert; Mel Danker, a North Carolina entrepreneur; and Claude Focardi, owner of Great Bay Distributing—an Anheuser-Busch distributor in the region.11


Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs on a 1998 Devil Rays’ poster. Both players grew up in the Tampa area (Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays)

Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs on a 1998 Devil Rays poster. Both players grew up in the Tampa area. (Courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays)


Taking to the field for the first time in 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays faced the challenge of translating off-field efforts into on-field success. The team encountered initial struggles, often finding themselves at the bottom of the league standings. Though the roster of this era boasted notable players such as Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, and Jose Canseco, victories remained scarce, leading to managerial changes.

The team’s financial difficulties, compounded by their lack of success on the field, gave rise to tensions between Naimoli and the rest of the ownership group. In 2001, reports emerged that this disagreement might even endanger the team’s ability to pay its players and staff. It was a tumultuous spring during which Naimoli initially declared his intention to step down from his role as managing general partner, only to later reinstate himself as managing partner and CEO a few weeks later. This move coincided with the team’s hiring of John McHale Jr., a veteran MLB executive, as Chief Operating Officer. McHale lasted less than a year, as internal conflicts among the owners persisted. During the summer of 2001, the Devil Rays hired investment banking firm JP Morgan to oversee the potential sale of the team.12

Throughout his ownership tenure, Naimoli hardly endeared himself to the local community. From demanding a substantial $750,000 fee to feature the team’s logo on a visitor’s guide, to insisting a local department store pay for the privilege of selling team merchandise—a move that backfired as the store removed Devil Rays’ products from its shelves—his interactions were often contentious. Engaging in legal battles, Naimoli sued over a $38,571 tax bill and took a confrontational stance during discussions with civic authorities, even implying the possibility of relocating the team if stadium attendance didn’t improve. The team sued Danka Business Systems in February 1999, citing outstanding payments. This lawsuit came several months after Devil Rays’ general partner Dan Doyle, who still retained a minority stake in the team, had parted ways with Danka, the company he co-founded. Reacting strongly to a newspaper’s playful casting suggestions for a team-themed movie—in which he would be played by James Gandolfini, renowned for his portrayal of a mob boss in the HBO series “The Sopranos”—Naimoli ordered the relocation of St. Petersburg Times newspaper racks from the fan concourse to the loading dock, reportedly violating a multimillion-dollar marketing agreement. His decision to charge sponsors extra for displaying signage at Tropicana Field, contingent upon the Devil Rays’ ability to attract 4 million fans in its debut season, ended up souring relationships when the team fell short of this target.13

With the city and fans of the Devil Rays yearning for change, the conditions were ripe for a new owner to step in.14

Stuart Sternberg was a hedge fund manager from New York and a lifelong Mets fan who had made his fortune on Wall Street. After retiring as a partner at Goldman Sachs, Sternberg shifted his focus to buying a baseball team. Though unsuccessful in his attempt to acquire a stake in the Mets in 2002, a different opportunity presented itself in St. Petersburg. At the time, Sternberg had no direct connection to the Tampa Bay area. At first, he was lukewarm to his bankers’ suggestion that he buy into the Devil Rays. “I was like, ‘oh, the Devil Rays? They’re pretty bad.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but look, you’ll speak to them and maybe you’ll see something.’ So I did, I sat down with them, and I saw immediately that it could have been a real good opportunity,” he later told the Associated Press. In May 2004, Sternberg purchased a 48 percent stake in the Devil Rays for $65 million. Naimoli retained 15 percent, and the limited partners held the remaining 37 percent. Sternberg’s role as managing partner was slated to begin in January 2007. However, eager to put his own stamp on the team, Sternberg paid Naimoli a reported $5 million in October 2005 to take over as controlling owner.15

One of Sternberg’s first orders of business was to drop the word ‘Devil’ from the team’s nickname. The newly christened Rays also got a makeover, with navy blue and light blue replacing green and black as the team’s primary colours.16

Sternberg also installed a more analytically-driven front office, bringing in Matt Silverman—who helped orchestrate his purchase of the Rays—from Goldman Sachs, and Andrew Friedman from the private equity firm MidMark Capital, as his top lieutenants. Joe Maddon was later hired as the team’s manager, serving from 2006 until 2014. Friedman would eventually depart to become President of Baseball Operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Silverman remains the Rays’ co-president, along with Brian Auld.

The team’s brain trust under Sternberg elevated the Rays into one of the league’s most consistently well-run franchises, reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020. But one lingering issue they faced was the stadium situation. The team spent more than a decade trying to get a new stadium built, exploring options in both St. Petersburg or Tampa. Locked into a lease at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season, the team’s struggle with low attendance remained a drag on the league’s revenue-sharing initiative, putting pressure on Sternberg to do something to stem the losses. Commissioner Rob Manfred repeatedly said the league would only consider another round of expansion after the Oakland Athletics—who now plan to move to Las Vegas and build a $1.5-billion, 30,000-seat ballpark with a retractable roof on the Strip—and the Rays build new stadiums. “I think there is urgency with respect to Tampa Bay,” Manfred said after the quarterly owners meetings in June 2022. “I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again, there needs to be a resolution in the Tampa Bay region for the Rays. Obviously, the end of that lease is a hard deadline. But you need to take into account that stadiums take a little bit of time to build, right?” During that same news conference, Manfred also didn’t shy away from stoking fears about a possible relocation if the Rays couldn’t get a stadium deal done. “I think a great man once said all good things must end at some point,” he said. “Right now, we’re focused on Tampa Bay.”17

With pressure mounting, Sternberg continued to explore stadium options—including a creative, though ultimately rejected, scheme that would have seen the club split its season between St. Petersburg and Montreal, which had been without a major league team since Expos left for Washington in 2004.18

In recent years, a new wave of legal complications surfaced. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Sternberg by a group of the team’s minority partners. These lawsuits claimed that Sternberg had enriched himself in an improper and hidden manner. One of the allegations was that he had transferred operational control of the MLB franchise to an entity he controlled, named “Rays Baseball Club.” The Rays have issued a statement, claiming the lawsuits are “baseless.”19

Additionally, the team’s ownership arrangement became clearer from documents submitted to the Pinellas County court. In this setup, the MacDougald Family Limited Partnership held 1.331 percent ownership, the Stephen Mitchell Waters 2020 MLB Irrevocable Trust Agreement had 0.4 percent ownership, Stephen Waters as an individual retained 0.7166 percent ownership, Gary Markel owned 2.1465 percent, and Robert Kleinert had a 5.002 percent ownership stake.20

The lawsuits haven’t diminished the enthusiasm of potential buyers. In May 2023, it was reported that local businessman Dan Doyle Jr.—son of former general partner Dan Doyle—was interested in buying the team. A month later, it surfaced that that hedge fund founder Trip Miller was working to rally a group of investors to acquire the Rays for $1.85 billion. In response to these reports, Sternberg has stated his intention to build a ballpark in Tampa Bay and continue as the owner of the Rays.21

Their long search for a new home seems to have finally ended. In September 2023, the Rays announced plans to build a new, 30,000-seat domed stadium near Tropicana Field at a cost of $1.3 billion, which would open for the 2028 season. The Rays are expected to receive around $600 million in public funds from the City of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, and the team will contribute another $700 million, which they expect to raise through private financing or by selling equity in the team to investors. Rays co-president Brian Auld expressed optimism that the new ballpark and planned entertainment district surrounding it will bring more fans out to watch the Rays. “I think the big message is that we’re keeping the team in Tampa Bay for generations to come,” he said. “I think this is gonna be our fourth stadium announcement, but this is the only one that’s had a concrete financing plan behind it. The message that we’re really trying to put out there is that St. Pete and Pinellas County specifically has grown up so much around us. We believe this new ballpark can really help us drive attendance.”22

While the journey of baseball in St. Petersburg has been marked by challenges, triumphs, and ongoing debates, one thing remains certain: the sport’s deep roots in the city continue to shape its identity. From its humble beginnings on sandlots to becoming a spring training hub, baseball has ingrained itself in the fabric of St. Petersburg. With a new stadium finally on the horizon, the coming years hold the potential for a revitalized era of baseball in St. Petersburg—one that honors its rich history while embracing the challenges and opportunities of the modern game.

Last revised: November 27, 2023



1 A.M. de Quesada, Baseball in Tampa Bay (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2000), 7; Will Michaels. The Making of St. Petersburg (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2010), 125-126.

2 Jonah Keri, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (New York: Ballantine Books, 2011), 18.

3 Rick Vaughn, 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape a City (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2022), 35-37.

4 Vaughn, 17-22.

5 Vaughn, 88-93.

6 Keri, 19; “Tropicana Field,” Tampa Bay Times, November 10, 2007. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/2007/11/10/tropicana-field/. Accessed August 17, 2023.

7 Keri, 15-28.

8 Associated Press, “Committee Discusses Expansion,” February 25, 1995.

9 Marc Topkin, “Original Rays Franchise Owner Vince Naimoli Dies at Age 81,” Tampa Bay Times, August 26, 2019. https://www.tampabay.com/sports/rays/2019/08/26/original-rays-franchise-owner-vince-naimoli-dies-at-age-81/. Accessed September 6, 2023. Marlene Sokol, “His Success Is the Story of a Decade: The ’80s,” Tampa Bay Times, August 8, 1992. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1992/08/08/his-success-is-the-story-of-a-decade-the-80s/. Accessed September 6, 2023.

10 Keri, 29-30.

11 Marc Topkin, “The Rays Ownership Group,” Tampa Bay Times, March 31, 1998. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1998/03/31/the-rays-ownership-group/. Accessed August 18, 2023; Dick Scanlon, “For Rays, New Owners, Same Boss,” The Ledger, January 29, 2004. https://www.theledger.com/story/news/2004/01/30/for-rays-new-owners-same-boss/26097165007/. Accessed August 18, 2023.

12 “D-Rays Deny Financial Woes,” Salina Journal, May 13, 2001: C6; Keri, 46; “T.B. Hired JP Morgan to Handle Possible Sale,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 14, 2001: B3.

13 “Devil Rays React to Spoof Story by Moving Newspaper Racks,” Salina Journal, April 12, 2000; Keri, 36-38; Jeff Harrington. “Rays Cry Foul as Danka Shirks Suite Deal,” Tampa Bay Times, February 26, 1999. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1999/02/26/rays-cry-foul-as-danka-shirks-suite-deal/. Accessed August 18, 2023; Ameet Sachdev, “Doyle Leaves Troubled Danka,” Tampa Bay Times, October 24, 1998,  https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1998/10/24/doyle-leaves-troubled-danka/. Accessed August 18, 2023.

14 Topkin, “Original Rays Franchise Owner Vince Naimoli Dies at Age 81.”

15 Associated Press, “No More Bronx Cheers for Tampa Bay Rays,” September 26, 2008; Keri, 86-87.

16 Associated Press, “‘Devil’ No Longer in Tampa,” November 9, 2007.

17 John Kekis (Associated Press), “Major League Baseball to Expand Instant Replay in 2014,” August 16, 2013; Marc Topkin, “MLB Commissioner Says ‘Time Has Come’ for Rays Stadium Solution,” Tampa Bay Times, June 16, 2022,  https://www.tampabay.com/sports/rays/2022/06/16/mlb-commissioner-says-time-has-come-for-rays-stadium-solution/. Accessed September 6, 2023.

18 Associated Press, “Rays Say Split-Season Plan with Montreal Rejected by MLB,” January 20, 2022. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2022/01/20/rays-say-split-season-plan-with-montreal-rejected-by-mlb/49677925/. Accessed August 18, 2023.

19 Thomas Barrabi, “Tampa Bay Rays Owner Stu Sternberg Sued for Alleged ‘Fraudulent Transfer’ of Team Control,” New York Post, June 29, 2022.  https://nypost.com/2022/06/29/tampa-bay-rays-owner-stu-sternberg-sued-for-alleged-fraudulent-transfer-of-team-control/. Accessed August 18, 2023; “Rays Release Statement About Lawsuit,” MLB.com, July 8, 2022. https://www.mlb.com/news/tampa-bay-rays-statement-on-lawsuit. Accessed August 18, 2023.

20 The MacDougald Family Limited Partnership, LLLP v. Rays Baseball Club, LLC, Case No. 22-003119-CI, Filing #152280652, in the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Pinellas County, Florida, Civil Division.

21 Erik Cagle. “Art of the Deal: M&A-Minded DEX Imaging Sets Sights on Reaching $750 Million,” ENX Magazine, February 25, 2023. https://www.enxmag.com/twii/dealer-spotlight/2023/02/art-of-the-deal-ma-minded-dex-imaging-sets-sights-on-reaching-750-million/. Accessed August 18, 2023.

22 Lindsey Adler. “Tampa Bay Rays Will Build Another Dome—This Time, With Windows,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2023. https://www.wsj.com/sports/baseball/tampa-bay-rays-new-stadium-15f47429. Date accessed: September 19, 2023.