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New blood could be boon for Rays

These are cynical times. It seems wise to be wary of the mysterious stranger with a bagful of money.

It is easy, then, to raise an eyebrow in the direction of Stuart Sternberg. His face is not familiar. His intentions are not apparent. In some quarters, his wisdom might be questioned.

When one does not know, one cannot trust. So far, all we really know about Sternberg is, apparently, he wants to own part of a baseball team in the worst possible way.

In particular, part of the Devil Rays baseball team.

Sternberg threw Tampa Bay for a loop Thursday when it was learned he had bought out five of the Rays' six general partners. It was a bold, stunning move, one that made you ask yourself: "What's a Stuart Sternberg?"

That's natural. When big money blows in from out of town, people get a little suspicious. When it comes from an unknown investor who is ready to pay very much for a piece of a team that has done very little, they get nervous.

As soon as Sternberg's name hit the headlines, there were conspiracy theories as to just what Sternberg planned to do with the Rays. Maybe he was going to take them over. Maybe he was going to strip them down. Maybe he was going to move them out.

Well, relax.

This is a good thing.

Potentially, it could be a terrific thing.

First things first: For all that is good, and for all that is bad, Vince Naimoli is still in charge. He isn't going anywhere, nor is his team.

Say what you will about Naimoli's shortcomings, but have you seen this guy at a Rays game? You couldn't get him out of his seat with the Jaws of Life. Naimoli likes being in control. Hey, Sternberg didn't buy Naimoli's stock.

Still, it was time for a change in the Rays' ownership group. The discomfort between Naimoli, 66, and his partners had grown tiresome, both in reality and in perception. It was awkward, it was embarrassing and it was the worst-kept secret in town. It gave the Rays the image of a bumbling, bewildered team where the infighting was more interesting than the infield. Such a reputation doesn't help a team to be taken seriously in the business community.

Nothing against the five guys who are leaving. All worked to get baseball to Tampa Bay. If you found a certain comfort that Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, Mark Bostick, Dan Doyle and Bill Griffin all were local, then it is understandable if you feel a certain sadness to see them opt out of the franchise.

That said, the five of them seemed to have no more energy, and certainly no more economics, to give to the Rays. All had closed off their wallets to Naimoli long ago. Whenever money needed to be spent, it was Naimoli who spent it.

With Sternberg's group, perhaps that will be different. Perhaps there will finally be peace among the partners. Perhaps Sternberg will split the check with Naimoli on a free agent from time to time. Perhaps the Rays won't always have the lowest payroll in the major leagues.

And who knows? Perhaps, someday, Sternberg will be Naimoli.

That's the first thing you thought, wasn't it? Me, too. How could you not wonder about Sternberg's motivation? Was he going to try to push Naimoli out? Was he going to try to move the team? Was he willing to spent a fortune to be the world's biggest Rocco Baldelli fan?

Or, perhaps, did he wake up in a seedy hotel somewhere, grab his head and say, "I bought what?"

Poor Stu. Hasn't he heard about the Rays? Doesn't he know that, when it comes to investing in the Rays, most of Tampa Bay won't even pony up for the price of a ticket? Hasn't he seen the standings?

What I hear is this. Sternberg, 44, is a knowledgeable baseball fan who is comfortable with the Rays' plan to build with young players. Originally, he was interested in purchasing a smaller share of Rays stock, but when more partners were willing to sell so they could move on to other things, Sternberg was willing to buy.

Because of the large buy-in, it's easy to speculate that someday, Sternberg is going to want to run things. Who wouldn't? If you spent that much money on a last-place team with limited support and a laughable history, would you let Naimoli keep hold of the remote control?

Put it this way: Forbes magazine says the Rays are worth $145-million. Well, 45 percent of that is $65,250,000. While we don't know exactly what price Sternberg paid, it's a lot. Heck, it's almost enough for another infielder.

So calm down. All that has changed is that the Rays have fresh blood, fresh interest and fresh money.

Given all that, it's easy to think of Stuart Sternberg as the best free agent the Rays have signed in years.

By the way, do you suppose he can play second base?