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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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The Rays' hottest prospect? Silverman
The team's new president is a longtime student of the game, a Harvard graduate and a former whiz of Wall Street. And pretty soon, he'll be 30.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published October 30, 2005
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Rays President Matt Silverman sees his age as an advantage. "With youth comes lots of energy and I have plenty of that."
ST. PETERSBURG - The bookshelf inside Matt Silverman's spacious, still sparsely decorated office at Tropicana Field holds clues about the young new president of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
An autographed Ryne Sandberg rookie card recalls the countless afternoons he raced home from grade school in Dallas, ready to watch his beloved Cubs on Chicago superstation WGN.
A decorative baseball with a view of the Manhattan subway system hints at the life he later lived as a Wall Street financial whiz. And the collection of team media guides points to the high-profile path he has traveled the past month, becoming at age 29 the youngest team president in Major League Baseball.
But the biggest clue of all is an old ball, inscribed simply with "8/4/1983."
Silverman was 7, attending one of his first big-league games - Red Sox vs. Rangers - with his best friend and the boy's father. They were walking to the concession area in Arlington Stadium when a commotion unfolded.
"I remember I was on the concourse level and the ball came up from behind home plate, and bounced off a number of people's hands and it came right toward me," he says. "I just picked it up."
It was first sign that Silverman had a special knack for being in the right place at the right time. And the ball has been bouncing his way ever since.
Many Tampa Bay area fans had never heard of Matt Silverman until New York financial investor Stuart Sternberg stepped into the spotlight as the new principal owner of the Rays on Oct. 6.
Now, his name is entwined with the daily workings of a franchise that has been steeped in a tradition of losing for all of its 10 seasons.
Whether that changes will depend, in part, on Silverman, who in 1998 graduated cum laude with an economics degree from Harvard; has written some 60,000 words of a novel that's on indefinite hold; records Law & Order on his DVR to watch in his spare time; hasn't yet mastered the stove in his new South Tampa townhouse so, in true bachelor fashion, relies heavily on microwave cuisine and fast food; and, most important, has the full trust of Sternberg.
"I couldn't have more confidence in anybody else at this point in my life to run a business on a day-to-day basis," says Sternberg, 46. "His sensibilities are pristine. His willingness to work is unparalleled. His thoughts and compassion are A-plus. It's like a dream to me to have Matt come down here."
Actually, Silverman has lived in town and been a part of the franchise for the past two years. He arrived in low-profile fashion after Sternberg's purchase of a majority share of the team in 2004, and played a vital role for Sternberg during his gradual takeover of the franchise reins from Vince Naimoli.
Silverman first served as the team's director of strategic planning, then as vice president of planning and development. In short, his job was to act as a vital on-location link to Sternberg in New York, to study every aspect of the operation, and to assist his boss during the long transition period to power.
Without Silverman, Sternberg would have balked.
"Matt worked on the purchase, it was the two of us," Sternberg says. "I said to Matt, "I'm not doing this unless you're going to go down there on the ground and oversee the thing.' When people say, "Well, he's 29' - he was 26 at the time, so to me, he's a veteran at this point. I have so much confidence in him and what he's going to bring to bear down here."
On a recent afternoon, Silverman, at home in his office with a panoramic view of the ballpark, has just returned from St. Petersburg's Campbell Park neighborhood. He unveiled a plan to renovate youth ball fields throughout the area - starting with Oliver Field, named after former Negro Leagues pitcher James F. Oliver. It is an effort to repair community relationships damaged by Naimoli.
He has more interviews scheduled in the search for a successor to manager Lou Piniella, fix-ups inside the Trop to get under way, and endless meetings filling his long work days overseeing the entire organization.
"When I drive up to the stadium each morning," he says, "that's when it hits me - the privilege and the responsibility to help create what can be of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays."
"Smart as a tree-full of owls'
Silverman grew up with deep roots in the Big D, part of a large and cohesive Jewish community.
His great-grandfather founded a family hat manufacturing and embroidery business. Both his parents were born in Dallas. His father, Ira, became an attorney; his mother, Ellen, and an aunt started a medical business focusing on echocardiograms for premature babies.
They had two kids - Matt and younger sister Julie, now a med student at the University of Chicago.
As a young sports fan, Silverman enjoyed plenty of good football - SMU, Texas (where both of Silverman's parents attended), and the Cowboys. The Rangers, meanwhile, were often frustrating. Silverman's grandfather took him to his first baseball game at age 4.
"I have this memory of how he caught a foul ball, which I own to this day," Silverman says. "The story is that he was able not to spill his Dr. Pepper and catch the ball at the same time."
But the Cubs, not the Rangers, pulled in young Matt. Starting at 6, he would come home from school and turn on the TV to catch the team's day games. One of his fondest memories is the pilgrimage he made at 10 with his grandfather and dad to Wrigley Field. And they would travel each year to the Astrodome to watch the Cubs play Houston.
Silverman was a Little League pitcher and infielder, and was a backup player at the private high school he attended, St. Mark's School of Texas.
"He wasn't first team, but he played some of the games and when he didn't, I'd see him sitting there with a clipboard keeping score," his father says.
Academically, Silverman's interests were in literature and writing. He was a standout student who served as class president as a sophomore and junior, and vice president of the student body as a senior.
"I remember when he ran for class president the second year," recalls his mother, "and I said to him, "Why don't you give someone else a chance?' And he said to me, "Because I know I'll do the best job.' People really trusted him. He's always been very thoughtful and someone who really cares about others."
Silverman was accepted at all the colleges to which he applied, Stanford and Brown among them, but Harvard won out. Studying finance was not on his mind, yet an intro to theoretical economics class changed everything. Silverman excelled in economics and, after graduating, went to work with Goldman Sachs in the firm's real estate finance division.
While at Goldman Sachs, he and a fellow Texan named Jim Hime co-founded a real estate software company that used the Web to aid large real estate transactions. The project showed immense promise and Silverman served as CFO of the new firm while also doing his regular work. But like many Internet startups, the company went under after the stock market began a downturn in March 2000.
Despite the setback, Hime was impressed by Silverman's style and intelligence. "The first time I saw Matt, I wondered what they were doing, you know, bringing this teenager to this meeting," he says. "But he quickly disabused me of any notions along those lines. He's as smart as a tree-full of owls.
"And I mean that in two ways. From a business perspective, he has one of the finest minds for finance I have ever seen. There's nobody who can take apart some financial statements or cash-flow projections and get to the bottom of 'em faster and better. But that's secondary to his people smarts. For his age and stage of life, he has wisdom way beyond his years when it comes to dealing with people."
Hime recalls Silverman's calm in the storm:
"Matt's nerves were always of steel and his ability to handle people in difficult situations never ceased to amaze me. My guess is when it comes to dealing with baseball officials, who've been around, he'll hold his own - and some of the other fellas, too."
Though it failed, the software project helped shape Silverman's growth as an executive and led to a new friendship - and new direction in life.
After closing the company, he began looking for other opportunities at Goldman Sachs and landed a spot on an advisory group for the firm. He was assigned to work on acquisitions with a diehard Dodgers-turned-Mets fan, Stu Sternberg.
"I went to his office to say hello," Silverman says. "He had numerous artifacts, pictures of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and we just started talking baseball."
They worked together for about nine months, acquiring 10 different companies from small to large. After that, Silverman was re-assigned and Sternberg retired six months later, but their friendship grew stronger. Indeed, Silverman came to Sternberg looking for advice three years ago - he was thinking of leaving Goldman Sachs to write a novel, a father-son tale woven around baseball.
"He was very, very supportive, and we decided that once I completed that experiment of sorts, we'd figure out a way to work together," Silverman says.
His novel began to take shape, and so did Sternberg's baseball ownership aspirations. As the possibilities picked up steam, Silverman was drawn in. "It became too intriguing and time-consuming," he says. So the book was shelved. For now.
There undoubtedly will be those who question whether someone under 30 has the time-honed baseball experience to do the job. But in some ways, Silverman is part of a management youth movement, including Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, 28, and Boston general manager Theo Epstein, who also was 28 when he got the job in 2002.
"My age can be an advantage," Silverman says. "There's the facility with technology and ability to process lots of information. I've had that experience. I'm of the same age as many of the players, so there may be a more personal relationship that can develop. With youth comes lots of energy and I have plenty of that. And I don't have the same level of commitments yet in my life that others do."
To relax and think, he jogs, with his iPod heavy on Springsteen, Joel and classic rock. And he is planning to learn how to use his stove before his mother, sister and grandmother visit for Thanksgiving.
In December, Silverman will visit his father - his parents are divorced - at the winter meetings. By coincidence, they are being held in Dallas, where it all began.
AGE/BIRTHDATE: 29; May 20, 1976
TITLE: President, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
EDUCATION: Harvard University, bachelor's in economics
FAVORITE TEAM GROWING UP: Chicago Cubs
PREVIOUS JOBS: Director of strategic planning, vice president of planning and development for Rays; worked at Goldman Sachs' Merchant Banking Division and Firmwide Strategy Group in New York, focusing on a variety of merger and acquisition opportunities.