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Coolest jersey ever: the original Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Etched in a rainbow gradient, underscored by a slithery sea creature, the name struck fear into Florida’s church ladies.

Vince Naimoli, owner of the “Tampa Bay Devil Rays”
The late Vince Naimoli, original owner of the “Tampa Bay Devil Rays” gave us our first-ever look at his new team’s jersey on March 9, 1995 in Palm Beach, Fla.
Photo by DOUG COLLIER/AFP via Getty Images

This week, Outsports joined SB Nation in celebrating as well as deriding the sports jerseys, uniforms and kits that have made us proud, embarrassed and given us reasons to wonder, “what on earth were you thinking?” Today, managing editor Dawn Ennis recalls the only uniform she loved more than the many worn by her beloved New York Mets.

It was a typical hot sunny afternoon in Tampa, Fla., as I sat at my desk just a short walk from Tampa Stadium, the Big Sombrero, home of the Buccaneers. Just five minutes before 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 9th, 1995, the television station where I worked interrupted the holiest of holies, the soap operas, to bring viewers a live report from Palm Beach.

I was the station’s 11 p.m. producer, and so I had time to stop working on the stories for that night’s newscast and watch history unfold. We had clunky, old-style 13-inch TVs scattered throughout the newsroom, including at my third of the “producers pod.”

“All My Children” was about to begin on WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate that was known at that time as 28 Tampa Bay News, and here we were, daring to break into the last few minutes of “The City.” But we did so to show Vince Naimoli stand at a lectern and announce over the microphone that Major League Baseball had formally approved an expansion team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

This was a huge deal for Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Thousands of people took the day off from work just to celebrate the MLB finally granting me and my two million neighbors our own team, after at least five failed attempts. There was even “a deal in principle” to bring the San Francisco Giants to Tampa Bay in 1992.

Less than a decade later, I’d experience déjà vu, when the Patriots supposedly were going to relocate to Hartford.

As DRaysBay.com’s staff writer Adam Sanford chronicled in his excellent 2019 post about the history of the team and its uniforms, we already knew the name “Devil Rays” had been chosen, following a protracted search that was ultimately a public relations disaster.

“God help us,” David Moore, a local insurance adjuster, told Sun Sentinel reporter E.A. Torriero that day in 1995. “Imagine: kids running around the neighborhoods with horns on and making like devils or some stinging fish. What was anybody thinking when they came up with that name?”

Christian groups reportedly were outraged that the team would associate itself with a Satanic-sounding creature. Torriero reported parents had vowed it would be a cold day in hell before they’d let their kids wear Devil Ray shirts and caps.

But the magic of television changed their minds. One peek at that black, green and purple logo, the rainbow gradient lettering and the long-tailed devil ray swimming across the snow white jersey that Naimoli held up to the cameras, and fans made a bee-line to stores.

St. Petersburg Times, March 9, 1995

Torriero wrote at the time that department stores like J.C. Penney sold everything marked Devil Rays in sight. I myself still have my cap, stashed away in a closet with several others I collected over the years.

The St. Pete Times even issued a special edition heralding the announcement, which despite the celebrations, still meant a long, three-year wait for actual baseball.

Naimoli’s sneak peek was meant to tide over fans until November 2, 1995, when we got our first look at the actual home and away uniforms in a fashion show of sorts at the nearly-new Florida Aquarium downtown. Something stunk, said the critics, and it wasn’t the fish.

“Hated” is the word Sanford used.

“It was a mess, the kind of logo that even the most ironic, retro-loving hipster would struggle to wear today,” wrote Jonah Keri in his book about the Rays, Extra 2%.

Tampa radio personality Tedd Webb, left, sports the away uniform as model Alex Kallebo wears the home uniform of the new Tampa Bay Devil Rays at unveiling ceremonies at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, Nov. 2, 1995. The jerseys are traditional button front. The team name and accents will feature a blend of the team colors—light and dark blue, green, yellow, purple, and black.
AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove

Well, you can’t please everyone. I thought they were the coolest jerseys I’d ever seen, especially because of the rainbow lettering! But nobody was asking a closeted TV news producer, especially not one who angered her sports team on a regular basis by shortchanging them their allotted time because she stuffed too much news into her newscasts; “The Over Producer,” was my well-earned nickname (Sorry, Mike, Drew and Kyle). Oh, but I digress.

The long wait was almost over in December 1997, when fans finally got a chance to buy a ticket to a Tampa Bay major league baseball game. Opening day seats sold out in 17 minutes! Unfortunately, by then, I had left town for New York City.

But those fortunate fans finally saw actual Devil Rays players take the field — well, the astroturf — on March 31, 1998. This inaugural opening day was rebroadcast just last month, since there’s no actual baseball to watch given the coronavirus pandemic. Spoiler alert: Not only did the Devil Rays lose to the Detroit Tigers, they got shellacked, 11-6.

Playing for the Devil Rays was a terrible way for Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff to end their once glorious careers. At least Wilson Alvarez survived that awful period to pitch for the Dodgers a few more years. Oh, and P.S., there’s good news from Tampa today about Boggs: the Hall of Famer tested negative for the coronavirus. My apologies; I digress again. Maybe now you see why I never saved enough time for sports.

So, after three disastrous seasons, the original uniforms were banished in favor of vests, which looked to me more like smocks. Black and purple gave way to green starting in 2001. Gone also was the word “Devil,” even though the ray remained.

But ultimately, new ownership ditched not only the “Devil Rays” name in 2007, but the fish motif as well, rebranding as “Rays” with a sunburst in place of that dark dweller of the deep Gulf of Mexico waters.

World Series: Tampa Bay Rays v Philadelphia Phillies, Game 5
Rocco Baldelli #5 and Jason Bartlett #8 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrate after Baldelli scored on a solo home run in the top of the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during game five of the 2008 MLB World Series on October 29, 2008 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 4-3, to win the World Series.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

And whaddayaknow, 2008 was the first winning season for the reborn Rays, winning the pennant that year over the Red Sox and playing in the World Series for the very first time. The New York Times asked, was it because the team dropped the “devil” from its name?

No, seriously, they really did ask. A theologian made a brilliant deduction: he credited the Rays with having “a great team” and “a great manager.” Really now?

Well, not so great, since the Phillies won, 4 games to 1.

Since then, the Rays uniform has evolved into a more staid and standard [boring] look. But true fans, like Sanford and me, would not let the team forget its history. And management realized, throwback uniforms are a moneymaker! So the team started to trot out the old unis a few times throughout the season. Even celebrity sports heroes like Odell Beckham, Jr., embraced the rainbow in one batting practice gone viral in 2018.

No matter what they wear, of course, it must be stated that the Rays still play in the shittiest arena in the major leagues, despite tens of millions of dollars in renovations. Tropicana Field makes my beloved Shea Stadium look like it was the Taj Mahal, and not that crappy casino that Donald Trump once owned in Atlantic City.

We may someday see the Rays swim up to Montreal, but for now we have to wait for a sign that some form of baseball will return this summer, somewhere, somehow.

Until then, I will look back at a team that underperformed on the diamond, but set themselves apart, and did not hesitate to be bold, to be different, to disregard criticism in favor of a unique fashion statement.

Maybe that’s just the devil in me.

What are some of your favorite jerseys, iconic or forgotten? Share yours in the comments below!

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Wilson Alvarez
Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ Wilson Alvarez delivers the first pitch in team history against Detroit Tigers batter Brian Hunter Tuesday afternoon, March 31, 1998 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
AP Photo/Steve Nesius

Click here to read more by Adam Sanford (whose name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story, my apologies!) about the Devil Rays and Tampa Bay Rays history and their uniforms at DRaysBay.com