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Rays partner may spur new energy

The team's potential new investor won't wrest control from Vince Naimoli, but he may be a fan in the front office.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published January 30, 2004

[Times photo, 2001: Michael Rondou]
Regardless of how much of the team Stuart Sternberg buys, Vince Naimoli, right, will remain the managing partner.
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Buyer: financial whiz who loves baseball

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Much about deal, and what it means, is a mystery

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New investor? Great, as long as he won't move the team

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Gary Shelton: New blood could be boon for Rays
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ST. PETERSBURG - Vince Naimoli will still be in charge of the Devil Rays if Stuart Sternberg's offer to buy a large stake in the team goes through.

But that doesn't mean things won't be different.

Sternberg's offer to purchase 48 percent of the team by buying out the other five general partners for an undisclosed sum could be completed within six weeks.

And while none of the involved parties had much to say Thursday, a picture emerged of Sternberg that could be appealing to Tampa Bay baseball fans - a willing investor who is young, successful, intelligent, rich and eager to learn the business of baseball.

"And," his mother, Beverly, said, "he's such a nice boy."

Sternberg, who grew up in New York following the Dodgers and Mets, politely declined Thursday night to discuss any specifics of the deal, his plans, or even his background - though he did allow that he is "a big baseball fan."

"I don't have much to say to give you a comment," he said. "We're still in discussion. This is quite a bit premature. When the time is right (I'll have something to say). ... I don't want to jeopardize anything. ... Nothing is imminent."

Sternberg, 44, leads a group of investors who have signed a letter of intent to buy the shares of five locally based original general partners - Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, Mark Bostick, Dan Doyle and Bill Griffin's family trust.

Under the Rays complicated partnership structure, Sternberg would end up with about 48 percent of the franchise, with Naimoli holding around 15 percent. Of the general partnership - the partners who have a voice in the management of the team - Sternberg would own approximately 77 percent and Naimoli 23 percent.

Even if Sternberg were to buy additional shares from limited partners and increase his holdings in excess of 50 percent, Naimoli would remain in charge. That's because he is the designated "control person" with Major League Baseball, a role that is specified in the team's partnership agreement and with MLB and that would be carried over in the Sternberg deal.

With the team valued at $145-million by Forbes magazine - which some baseball officials say is low - Sternberg and his group could be investing $69-million or more.

There has been some question about why Sternberg would want to invest that much money without getting control, but a top Major League Baseball official said that it was not necessarily unusual.

"Baseball team transactions are constituted in a multitude of different ways," said MLB executive vice president John McHale, who formerly worked for the Rays. "People involved are motivated by a large variety of interests and I wouldn't jump to conclusions to characterize it as unusual."

Others see it differently.

"Most people want to acquire a controlling interest when they make a major investment in a company," said Bob Leffler, whose ad agency worked previously for the Rays. "But it's my conviction that Mr. Naimoli is firmly in control, and always has been, and will be until he doesn't want to be."

Sternberg does not have an option to buy out or replace Naimoli, but it is possible he views the Rays as a good investment opportunity. They have a promising young team, a low payroll, a favorable labor agreement and have made a profit over the past two years. One possibility is that he plans to spend several years learning the business and take over when Naimoli decides to step down.

He has plans to spend time watching the team in spring training and traveling on the season-opening trip to Japan, and he may establish a residence in the Tampa Bay area.

Sternberg's purchase does not necessarily mean the Rays are going to suddenly become big spenders and dramatically increase what recently has been the lowest payroll in the major leagues.

But it could still be good news for Tampa Bay fans that Naimoli has a partner who is described as excited about being involved rather than partners whose interest, and checkbooks, seem to have gone elsewhere.

"I think people acting in the interests of what's in the best interest of baseball in the bay area is a good thing," McHale said.

Sternberg was an executive with a New York options trading firm and was one of several executives to make millions when the firm was sold in September 2000. He essentially retired, according to his mother, and apparently concentrates on investments with a knack for knowing when to buy and when to sell.

For example, he made a large investment in the Ballantyne of Omaha company, which manufactures motion picture projection equipment, and within six months the stock went up from 50 cents to nearly $3 a share.

"He must see value good. He doesn't do it for fun, he does it for money. And he has plenty of it," Ballantyne chief financial officer Brad French said.

"There were about four guys who made a couple hundred million bucks (when the trading firm was sold) and I believe he was one of them. These guys parted with like $300- to $400-million apiece. My understanding is they got bought out and he just has a pile of cash in the corner."

Sternberg has been talking with the Rays for months, but would not say how he first got involved. It may have been through J.P. Morgan, the investment firm the team hired in April 2001 to explore sale options. Several of the Rays limited partners work and live in the New York area as well.

"This isn't something that just came up yesterday," Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "This has been in the works for a while, and talked about for a while. I was just waiting to see if something actually materialized, and it did. I wasn't surprised by it at all."

There have been rumors for years about discord among the general partners, including a failed attempt several years ago to oust Naimoli, though relations appeared to be better lately.

Naimoli usually would assert that all parties were happy, and the partners would routinely refuse to discuss their relationship. That was the case again Thursday, when none of the five could be reached for comment.

Rays officials also declined comment. "If and when we have something to announce," team vice president Rick Vaughn said, "we will announce it."

Once the deal between the five partners, the team and Sternberg is complete, it has to be checked out and approved by MLB officials, but is not subject to a vote of owners because control of the team is not changing hands.

When it does become official, Sternberg may find himself in a whole new ball game. Speaking from her Brooklyn home, Beverly Sternberg said her son didn't necessarily like the spotlight.

"This is very exciting and good for him, but he's trying to keep it low key," she said. "He's a smart kid, a good kid, but he's very low-key. Let me put it that way."

Sternberg's parents, Beverly and Sam, own and operate a decorative pillow business in Brooklyn. Their son turned a summer apprenticeship on the trading floor into hundreds of millions, living in a $2.7-million home in Rye, N.Y with his wife, Lisa, and four kids. Now he has a chance to turn his childhood love of baseball - first the Dodgers, then the Mets, but "No Yankees, never Yankees," his mother said - into his highest profile investment yet.

"He's wonderful," Beverly Sternberg said. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm his mother. You ask whoever worked with him. He's very good to his family. He's crazy about his kids. He's a good father. He's a very caring person. What should I tell you?"

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writers Scott Barancik, Louis Hau and Tom Jones contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 30, 2004, 01:32:11]

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