November 22, 2014

Editor's Page

Eye on the Ball

Mark R. Howard | 3/1/2006

Mark Howard
Once, while walking to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game, I found myself behind a man and his young son who were also en route to the game. I overheard the two talking, and it became clear they lived in the Bay area. But the father wore a sweatshirt with the Cleveland Indians logo. And I heard him tell his son that while they were fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they'd be rooting for the Indians against the home-team Rays that day.

The boy was a little curious about the calculus that produced his father's pretzeled allegiances: "Why don't we like the Devil Rays, Daddy?"

Daddy had a tough time parsing out an answer; his eventual explanation basically boiled down to "because that's the way it is'' -- the nuclear bomb of discussion-enders that parents detonate whenever the need for efficiency overcomes patience. The boy was confused, but the phenomenon is old hat to anyone who's involved in community-building in Florida, whether it concerns philanthropy, a Neighborhood Watch group or a sports franchise. People may move here, but getting them to transplant their core, heartfelt allegiances from "back home" is often a tricky proposition.

Nowhere is this more true than with baseball. For all the new teams, changes in the two leagues and changes in the game itself, a sense of history and tradition still permeates baseball and tends to anchor fans' loyalty to the team where they first engaged the sport. While a football season is a series of events, a baseball season is a story. And the Indians fan, despite his move to the Tampa Bay area, obviously hadn't quite picked up the Rays' book.

The bad news for Major League Baseball in Florida is that its two teams have, until recently, been run by people who've been better at writing some parts of the narrative than others. The Marlins won two world championships and have been competitive on the field but have made other missteps that may be fatal. Their relationship with south Florida is such a shambles that the team could end up soon in Charlotte, N.C., or Las Vegas.

The good news is that the Devil Rays, competitive neither at the gate nor on the diamond since they began play in 1998, have new management that seems to understand, well, how to manage. Moving to the background is Vince Naimoli, the former managing general partner who did yeoman's work in getting the team but then put a last-place product on the field and gave fans a bargain-basement experience in the stadium.

New principal owner Stuart Sternberg is a very smart man who made a lot of money on Wall Street taking advantage of opportunities that others didn't maximize. Part of his style is giving capable young people plenty of responsibility: Running the Rays overall operations for Sternberg is a former colleague at Goldman Sachs, Matt Silverman. Running the baseball operation -- with mentoring from former Houston Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker -- is another equity firm veteran, Andrew Friedman.

Friedman and Silverman, for the moment, are short on gray hair. Both are under 30. They're personable and smart without being cocky. They're students of the game, the sports industry and management. Sternberg bought his share in the team two years before he formally took over, and Silverman, in waiting, used the time to visit executives from other teams and conduct his own informal best-practices analysis. He acknowledges being a little star-struck initially at things like interviewing one of his baseball idols who was seeking a job with the Rays but says "the pinch-me factor is over."

So far, with Sternberg riding quiet herd from his home in New York, the new group is making smart moves in an effort that's equal parts turnaround and startup. Silverman says the first step was to "harvest ideas" from longtime employees, most of whom have been retained, and to repair the organization's internal communications. The team's baseball staff, Friedman says, was operating on a different set of assumptions about payroll, wins and losses than the business staff. "We had to get the two sides operating in concert," he says.

As the team has gone about finding big corporate sponsors, it's moved aggressively to repair its relationship with the local business community and fans. Next year, parking will be free. Fans will be able to bring some of their own food and drink into the stadium. With an economics degree from Harvard, Silverman can count balls and strikes, but he also understands that coming to the park involves considerations like whether the seats and bathrooms are clean. The team has hired executives from Procter & Gamble and Disney World to spruce up the ballpark itself and create a better experience for fans, with a particular focus on training stadium staff in customer service. Silverman describes the "moment-of-truth" concept well-known to resort and theme park operators: "The dad buys his son an ice cream cone, and on the way back to their seats the ice cream falls on the floor. We want our stadium employees to feel empowered to buy that kid another ice cream. That's the moment of truth that determines whether a visitor comes away with a good or a negative impression."

All the right business moves, of course, will only go so far if Jesus Colome keeps throwing fat fastballs that other teams launch over the wall. The Rays have locked up a couple of their most promising stars and have a couple more in the pipeline, but they're still a ways from the kind of talent and consistent performance it takes to get to the World Series.

To the new management group's credit, it hasn't overpromised in that regard as it's focused on re-engaging fans. But as there should be each spring, there's hope. And perhaps most promising, Sternberg-Silverman-Friedman seem to have an eye-on-the-ball understanding of the role a team can play in community-building. "Here in Tampa Bay," says Silverman, "there aren't that many hallmark institutions. That's what we want to be -- we can become one of those institutions in an area that needs it."

Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Editor's column, Around Florida

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