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Thursday, October 6, 2005
Sternberg takes over Rays, fires GM LaMar

Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- New York investor Stuart Sternberg took control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from founding owner Vince Naimoli on Thursday, promising better days ahead for a franchise that's finished last in seven of its eight seasons.

The first order of business was to fire general manager Chuck LaMar, who had been with the franchise since its inception. Assistant GM Scott Proefrock and player personnel director Cam Bonifay also were dismissed.

"The time has come for dramatic change for this organization," Sternberg said, vowing to make the necessary corrections, on and off the field, to improve the team.

Sternberg, who becomes principal owner, appointed Matthew Silverman team president.

The moves follow the departure of manager Lou Piniella, who sought a buyout with one season remaining on his contract after criticizing the ownership group led by Sternberg for being more concerned about the future than trying to win now.

The ouster of Naimoli, who retains 15 percent ownership and becomes chairman, and LaMar had been expected for weeks. Sternberg did not announce a timetable for hiring a new manager and general manager.

"The timing is not as important as getting the right people," Sternberg said.

The club announced a buyout with Piniella before last weekend's season-ending series against Baltimore, and LaMar began cleaning out his office at Tropicana Field well before Sunday's finale.

Naimoli led a determined campaign that wound up with Tampa Bay being awarded an expansion franchise in 1995, however his stint as managing general partner was marred by numerous public relations blunders and he quickly became the man most associated with the Devil Rays' futility.

Still, most of the responsibility for the team's difficulties on the field rested with LaMar, the only GM the club has had.

Even though the team had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball for much of his tenure, LaMar did not do a good job of spending on the occasions Naimoli did loosen the purse strings to acquire talent.

Wilson Alvarez, Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Vinny Castilla and Robbie Alomar were among the high-profile players LaMar brought in, but none had the impact that the general manager envisioned.

"I apologize to the ... fans for not producing the championship team that they deserve and take full responsibility for this organization's not achieving that goal," LaMar said.

In eight seasons under LaMar, Tampa Bay went 518-775 and finished last in the AL East seven times. The Devil Rays were 67-95 this season, a year after winning a franchise-best 70.

Sternberg headed a group that acquired about 50 percent of the Devil Rays in May 2004. He originally had an agreement to take control from Naimoli in January 2007 but was willing to pay the managing general partner to step aside early.

"I can't speak to the arrangement I have with Mr. Naimoli," Sternberg said when asked about a report that the former managing general partner may have received an extra $4 million to $6 million to accelerate the timetable.

The Devil Rays began the 2005 season with a payroll of just over $29 million. After a horrible first half, the team went 39-34 after the All-Star break with a young lineup that figures to get better with more experience.

Sternberg said the payroll will increase, but would not speculate on how much.

"There are teams that spend quite a bit of money and don't have much success," he said. "There are teams that spend a bit less and have a lot of success. We just want to have success."

The new owner promised to evaluate the organization from "head to toe" and waste no time making improvements. The Devil Rays were last in the majors in attendance this season, and making the club more fan-friendly and community-oriented are goals.

"We will spend time, we will spend money, we will spend energy," to create a better atmosphere for fans, players and employees, Sternberg said.

Parking at Tropicana Field will be free during the 2006 season, and the owner plans to spread his message to fans and community organizations through an advertising campaign based on the team's "Under Construction" slogan.

"It's not good enough any more -- and maybe it was 20, 30, 40 years ago -- to say: 'Hey we're a baseball team, come out and see us play.' ... You've got to give people a reason to come,' Sternberg said. "And most importantly, you've got to give them a reason to come back."