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Rays catch the eye of Alabama bank chairman

Birmingham lawyer Donald Watkins wants to buy club, keep it at Trop.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001


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Watkins
ST. PETERSBURG -- If the Rays eventually are put up for sale, Donald Watkins said he is ready to buy -- and keep them at Tropicana Field.

The 52-year-old chairman and majority owner of Alamerica Bank in Birmingham, Ala., said Wednesday that he faxed letters to Rays senior vice president John Higgins and baseball commissioner Bud Selig asking about a point person and what steps need to be taken.

"I recognize there is a tremendous value in the sports entertainment world," Watkins said. "I view it as a business opportunity, though I would enjoy having a sports team that you can make into a winner over time."

Higgins said he did not remember Watkins' fax, but admitted, "It's been a crazy week. I may have received a letter and sent it to ownership. Any inquiries like that would go to ownership."

Watkins knows the Rays are not yet on the block. But he also knows Tampa Bay is in the midst of an ownership shakeup that stripped Vince Naimoli of his day-to-day duties.

The team also said it will hire an investment banker to explore "alternative strategies," one of which is selling the team.

"Obviously, there are people that would express interest," Higgins said. "But our position is the team is not for sale at this juncture. When the time comes, if it comes, if we have hired an investment banker, any inquiries would be directed that way."

Watkins said he does not want to be part of the existing ownership group.

"I'm interested in coming in as the owner," he said, adding, "If I lose the opportunity here, it will not be on the basis of price."

Watkins does not see St. Petersburg as a disadvantage.

"You're pretty much locked into the stadium lease," he said, "so you have to work around the situation and start thinking outside the box and devise a strategy that allows you to increase the revenue streams given the factors you cannot change.

"I like the Tampa/St. Pete area, and I think that if the team is properly capitalized and you reinvest constantly for a significant period of time and manage the investment well, the team has tremendous potential both on the field and in the business offices."

Watkins would be major-league baseball's first African-American majority owner.

Watkins is well-known in Alabama. He is a lawyer and is on the board of trustees at Alabama State University. He was special counsel to Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington from 1985-99.

He earned the ire of Auburn football fans as the attorney for player Eric Ramsey, who brought down coach Pat Dye with allegations of rules violations.

Said Tom Cosby, chief operating officer of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce: "I think he's a very smart, shrewd businessman with incredible political connections that have worked well with him in his other endeavors and could help him in major-league sports."

Watkins said he has not been involved in Birmingham's professional sports franchises, but he has been searching since January 2000 for the right situation to buy into.

He saw the Rays' troubles as an opportunity.

"I like winners," he said. "It doesn't bother me you can start out in a losing situation as long as there is potential for a championship.

"What I have learned from all my years in business is there are certain generic principles to a successful business, and if you employ them, you can create value in business. And when you create value in business, you create wealth for yourself and a lot of good will for the community."

- Staff writer John Romano contributed to this report.

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