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New investor? Great, as long as he won't move the team

There were two questions most every local leader wanted answered Thursday as they digested the news that a Wall Street investor had agreed to buy a chunk of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Who is this person? And, is he going to move the team?

"Since the beginning, we've always worried about the team being moved," said City Council Chairman James Bennett. "We want to make sure the new owner is 100 percent devoted to this area."

Stuart Sternberg, 44, a former executive with an options trading firm, has an agreement to buy out five of the team's six general partners, which will give him about 48 percent of the overall team. Managing general partner Vince Naimoli remains in charge.

The news came as a surprise Thursday to local officials.

"My initial reaction is to be very, very guarded," Bennett said. "When you have owners who aren't local, there's always more concern about maintaining the team here."

Mayor Rick Baker said he hadn't spoken to anyone from the Devil Rays as of Thursday evening and knew very little about Sternberg or the details of the deal. However, Baker said he was cautiously optimistic.

"I want the Devil Rays to succeed," he said. "I want them to win baseball games and succeed as a franchise. If this helps them in that endeavor, I think that's great."

The city has a strong contract with the team, Baker added, and he has no reason to believe they will move.

Some officials expressed optimism the new owner might breathe new life into the team, which has struggled to attract visitors for years.

"Maybe there will be some inclination on the part of the ownership to spend some more money to have better players' salaries and put some better talent on the field," said Bob Stewart, a Pinellas County commissioner who as a St. Petersburg City Council member helped lead the effort to lure a team to downtown St. Petersburg.

City Council member Jay Lasita was a little miffed the council wasn't tipped off about the deal. But he agreed the change in ownership might be good for the team.

"As a fan," Lasita said, "I'm hopeful it will make for an across-the-board congenial relationship for all the team's management."

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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