Tampa Bay Rays president moves past public stumble before City Council

Rays president Brian Auld moves past his public stumble with the St. Petersburg City Council, one of few in his professional career.
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ST. PETERSBURG — Forty-two seconds was all it took for Brian Auld to make a bad first impression on greater St. Petersburg.

At a City Council meeting in December, the newly installed president of the Tampa Bay Rays too quickly dispensed with a council member's complicated question. And that helped sink the proposed plan to allow the team to look at stadium sites in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"Either arrogant or tone-deaf," council member Darden Rice said of Auld's performance, moments after the vote. And she voted for the deal.

Most of the council didn't. After the 5-3 vote, killing the proposal, Mayor Rick Kriseman held an impromptu news conference blasting the council. Auld stalked off into the night.

The next day, council member Karl Nurse was asked if Auld should have appeared more humble at the meeting.

"More humility? Any humility," Nurse said. "Less arrogance."

It's a perception that continues to shadow the ongoing negotiations between the Rays and the mayor in the search for a new deal, but one that family and friends say ultimately isn't accurate. Yes, he had a misstep, his dad, Robert Auld, a retired financial executive, allows: "He could have done with a little media training." But they say it should not be defining.

"He's a people person. He's been the single biggest impact on the culture of the Rays. But, until recently, very few people had even heard of him," said Matt Silverman, the Rays' president of baseball operations. "He's someone I've trusted and leaned on for 20 years."

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Asked to define a previous professional failure, Auld pauses before acknowledging that one of his earliest ideas for improving the fan experience at Tropicana Field — a stingray petting tank in the outfield — came in about three times over budget. A failure of finance, perhaps, but not of result: Game after game it attracts long lines of fans waiting to take part.

That is more emblematic, perhaps, of the arc of Auld's life. How, for 37 years, he has lived a notable, perhaps enviable, mix of hard work and privilege, luck and grit.

Auld grew up all over. Frequent family moves meant a childhood spent in Berkeley, Calif., Tokyo, Scarsdale, N.Y., and Dallas.

It was in Dallas where he met Silverman and hit his stride as a competitive student and athlete at St. Mark's, an all-boys private high school. Then came a bachelor's degree and master's degree at Stanford — in four years.

Next came four years teaching at a fledgling charter school in East Palo Alto, Calif., aimed at serving at-risk minority children. There, he won over skeptical parents and fourth-grade students, quickly becoming a lead teacher and director of development. After that, an MBA at Harvard. The plan was to get that prestigious degree and use it to become a principal at a charter school, to help kids who hadn't gotten the same kind of breaks.

That's when Silverman called to offer him a job so fantastic — associate director of planning and development — that it took his friend 10 minutes to persuade Auld that he wasn't being pranked.

"C'mon, this isn't really happening," Auld remembers thinking.

Once he arrived in St. Petersburg after getting his MBA, Auld became the organization's "change agent." For the second half of the 2005 season, he patrolled Tropicana Field, chatting with fans, getting to know plumbers and groundkeepers, figuring out what needed to get better. At every home stand he tried to find one thing to improve.

So he applied a lesson from his days as a lead teacher at the charter school.

"I learned back then I could just demonstrate that I wasn't there to tell them how to do their jobs, but to be an advocate for them," Auld said. As of Sunday, the Rays raised the minimum wage for their workers to $10 an hour, with Auld calling it "the right thing to do."

Bess Kennedy, who taught with Auld at the charter school, said he was an exceptional teacher, gifted at building bridges.

"All the boys looked up to him. All the girls had crushes on him," said Kennedy, now a lawyer. Auld frequently dressed up in costumes and adopted exaggerated personas to engage his students.

"They ate it up," Kennedy said. "Brian was able to connect with them in ways other people couldn't."

Kennedy didn't expect to like him. A mutual friend had warned her that Auld could be sarcastic and off-putting. But she quickly discovered Auld knew every word to the Indigo Girls' song Get Out the Map, which he liked to sing in his classroom before school.

"Who are you?" she remembers thinking. As it turns out, Auld is the guy who was first to cry at her wedding.

Recently, Kennedy, a lesbian active in LGBT issues, asked Auld if the Rays would file an amicus brief in support of a same-sex marriage case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

She said he told her: "It's 2015. It's past time."

The Rays are the only Major League Baseball team to openly support the legal effort, she said.

Robert Auld thought his son would stay an educator. As a child, Brian was a leader but a small kid who didn't break 5 feet until he was 16 (he's now 5-11); he embraced sports as a way to fit in as his family moved from city to city. He found lacrosse and ended up as a captain of the Stanford team.

When Auld graduated, his father said the lacrosse coach told him that his son would be easy to replace as a player, but hard to replace as a leader.

Auld doesn't talk about being captain of the lacrosse team. He also tends to leave out Harvard business school when he recounts how he ended up with the Rays, instead emphasizing the luck of his friendship with Silverman.

His wife, Molly Auld, says that's why it stung when media critics, after the City Hall performance, suggested he eat some humble pie over the holidays. The couple, who have two children, Lucy, 3, and Jack, approaching 18 months, had a long-planned tripped to Paris. Brian Auld spent part of each day in France on the Internet, reading the aftermath that blamed his performance for the failed deal.

Auld now regrets that at the December meeting he did not emphasize the Rays' willingness to work with the city on development rights, regrets reverting to shorthand that he expected the city to "abide" by the use agreement that provides the Rays with half of any profits from development deals that occur while the team is using Tropicana Field.

In Auld's mind at the time, he didn't see why development rights would be on the table since the city had insisted any agreement on allowing the team to search had to be a separate memorandum of understanding. The city had repeatedly said it didn't want to change the terms of the existing contract due to its fear any changes could weaken the city's recourse if the Rays left town.

"That didn't really come across as I had intended," he said.

Last month, Auld started reaching out to the council members again. And Rice, the council member who called him arrogant in December, said recently that the initial impression might have been overblown.

"You could chalk it up to his inexperience. Not understanding the dynamics of speaking to council," she said.

But Auld may never appear publicly before the council again. Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said last month that neither Auld nor anyone else will appear at a council meeting when the stadium search agreement is on the table. Auld was surprised by the news, but unfazed.

"I'll do what Stu says," he said.

Council members have his phone number and he's willing to meet with them any time, he said. And considering his first appearance, he says he understands his boss' decision.

"I wouldn't say, in retrospect, that it was necessarily helpful to our case," Auld said.

After living in Tampa for the first few years in the region, Auld has lived in St. Petersburg since 2008 — longer than he has lived anywhere else. After several years living in a downtown condo at 400 Beach Drive, the Aulds now live in a house in the Old Northeast neighborhood.

"This is home," he said.

But it may not remain a happy one — at least not professionally. If the current stalemate lasts, the final 12 years of the Rays' stadium contract could be a slog, even if his office at Tropicana Field has a balcony overlooking centerfield.

"There are two paths as to how this can go. We can get everyone to understand why baseball is so important to this region, why it's so worthy an investment, why this (deal) is good for everyone, moving forward. And then we can work cooperatively to move this process forward," he said. "The other route is we have to work outside those channels in an antagonistic way. That's a lot less fun."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

   
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