tampabay.com

Sternberg's ballgame

A day in the life of Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is busy but easygoing and also, first and foremost, about his family.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published May 30, 2006


NEW YORK- He, obviously, has a considerable workload in trying to turn around the Devil Rays. He participates in a handful of investment groups. He still works occasionally with some of the Wall Street colleagues with whom he made hundreds of millions of dollars. He is intimately involved in the daily lives of his wife and four children. He even coaches and plays centerfield on a men's softball team.

But what does Stuart Sternberg really do?

"What do I do? I think I can answer that by saying what I don't do," Sternberg said. "I went to school for 17 years and I worked for 25 years, and that's what I don't do anymore.

"I think what I do now is probably more reactionary. When things are happening I opine on them, and I take some action on them, and if I'm needed I respond to things. I'm just available."

It sounds cushy, especially for a boyish 46-year-old whose loves (still) include baseball, Bruce Springsteen and burger joints. But he refuses to call himself retired - "I can't use that word," he insists - and says he doesn't feel comfortable telling people he runs a major-league team, much less asking if they know who he is.

"When people ask me what I do, I find it difficult to tell them," Sternberg said. "I guess what I say is that I oversee some businesses. When you have to write it down on an application, I guess I put "professional investor."'

The approximate $65-million investment he and a half-dozen partners made in the Rays takes up much of his time.

But with his prodigal associates, team president Matt Silverman and executive vice president Andrew Friedman, running the business and baseball operations on a daily basis with his full authority, Sternberg prefers to deal more in concepts and big pictures.

He can fret about a loss with the best of them, but he's more likely to call manager Joe Maddon to talk about music or his kids than on why he didn't make a pitching change.

Whether sitting at the desk in the modest 15th-floor midtown Manhattan office he shares with Andrew Cader (a major Rays partner), another investor and a handful of employees or from the office in his suburban Harrison home, Sternberg deals with whatever specific issues Silverman and Friedman, as well as personal assistant Julian Goldstein, bring to him while dabbling in broader matters.

For example, he hears a lot from people who either can't get Rays games on TV or have trouble finding them. Rather than assign blame or seek a short-term fix, he instead has the staff looking at the team's entire TV deal and what can be done about it.

"We really need to understand that," he said. "We stepped into that arrangement, and that is something you can't snap your fingers and change overnight. But I'm hoping we can have an effect, even for next season. That's the next big project."

Sometimes, he'll wait for his staff to research an idea, then offer an alternative. Other times, he'll get an idea, such as free parking, and let them tell him why it will or won't work.

As the Rays consider significant issues like changing the team name or moving the spring training base, he'll take a similar approach: challenging conventional thinking, poking and prodding for fresh ideas, pushing employees to pursue change, making sure they don't get too comfortable. His approach is similar to the way he drives: "Never believe the sign, and the rule of thumb is that whenever someone waves you left, go right."

As much as he talks, he also listens.

When a young Rays fan asked for his autograph last weekend in Boston, he sought out her parents to ask what they thought of the changes his group has made and solicited suggestions for more.

"The next game is extraordinarily important," Sternberg said. "And the next 12 years are extraordinarily important."

Even more important is his family.

Taking advantage of his relaxed lifestyle, he can be the full-time dad others only dream of being. His schedule - which he keeps handy in his omnipresent BlackBerry 7130 - on many days is based on what he can do with, or for, Lisa and the kids: 7- and 10-year-old girls Ella and Natalie and 14- and 15-year-old boys Jake and Sandy.

After a brief workout at home on the treadmill or rowing machine and his usual breakfast of green tea and yogurt, Sternberg will drive a couple of the kids to school, go back to the house to work/play on the computer, then start the afternoon pickup and activities shift. The couple days a week he takes the 8:20 a.m. train into the city, he makes it a point to be home by 5-ish to do the same and schedules out-of-town trips based on when he'll miss the least.

"I really try to be there for the kids," he said, "whether it's a doctor's appointment, or a game, or someone is sick and has to come home, or to take care of their lunch."

Stepping into the spotlight of taking over the Rays has forced Sternberg into something of a compromising position. He prefers to keep his family out of the public eye, and Lisa, politely but persistently, insists on it, refusing to allow interviews or photo shoots at their home.

"It's sort of off-limits; I try to do business things outside the home," Sternberg said. "I'm trying to keep the personal end as separate as I can, but the more we do it starts to blur."

Walking the streets of Manhattan in his typical casual business attire - "As casual as I can get away with," he said - he hardly stands out as someone in charge of anything, much less an area's major-league dreams.

He takes the subway over a car service ("I grew up taking the subway; I just feel more alive."), loves to drive in the city ("I consider it a badge of honor when I get honked at by a cab, which is quite often.") and much prefers a discount seat on JetBlue or Delta Song than arranging for a private jet ("It doesn't feel right to me.").

His business style is equally relaxed.

He prefers titles be left off business cards. Casual chats are better than formal meetings. He likes roomy offices with lots of desks, few walls and open doors. At Tropicana Field, he doesn't even have an office but beams that he now has a chair and a desk in Silverman's office. "I'm big on office sharing," he said. "I think it's important."

The concept is to foster conversation and an exchange of ideas, and he feels similarly about having his office a block from Major League Baseball's Park Avenue headquarters. As one of only three owners who live full time in New York, Sternberg is convinced the access to and familiarity with MLB officials will benefit the Rays.

He has lived his whole life in and around New York City, and though he claims "you never say never" about relocating or even retiring to Florida, he still talks about the trauma of moving to suburban Westchester County: "It was like leaving the state basically."

He doesn't sound like someone who will ever leave.

"I get out," he said, "and it's tough to breathe the air outside of New York."

At home, he likes to surf the Internet and read magazines and newspapers, can hold his own until midweek on the New York Times ' crossword puzzles, doesn't watch much TV (except for baseball), plays cards, pingpong and board games with the kids but has no use for video games, and listens to CDs but doesn't have an iPod because he sees no point in taking the music with him.

And he doesn't like to talk on the phone. He prefers e-mails, which he can answer after the kids go to bed.

He collects memorabilia from the American Stock Exchange, old subway maps and tokens, Brooklyn Dodgers items (he named his firstborn for Sandy Koufax, after all), New York Mets yearbooks, coins, old Sports Illustrated s and Spalding rubber balls. He has most of the baseball cards ("The ones my mother didn't throw out.") from 1966-73. In addition to two Rays hats and a Don Zimmer minibobblehead on the shelf behind his desk is an Expos hat - simply because he liked the logo and knew they'd be disappearing.

"I'm a bit of a pack rat in that respect," he said.

He loves seeking out classic local food joints when he travels and will spend hours researching on a favorite Web site, chowhound.com. He jokes about being ambidextrous, saying, "I'm a righty trapped in a lefty's body." He figures if he never made it to Wall Street he could have made a good living taking over the family's decorative pillow business in Brooklyn.

But he did, and he worked hard, and he made his money, and now he is determined to make the Devil Rays a success.

So, what does he do?

Basically, whatever he wants.