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Stu Sternberg and his Wall Street cohorts didn’t set out to change baseball, it just worked out that way

Fifteen years ago this month, Stu Sternberg bought a majority share of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His first three hires had never before worked in baseball, but they quickly turned heads.
The Rays braintrust: Owner Stuart Sternberg, President Matt Silverman, executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon after Tampa Bay won Game 7 of the American League Championship Series in 2008. Brian Cassella - Times photo
Published May 25

ST. PETERSBURG — You are 20-something years old, working a Wall Street job you never really wanted. You have a friend who just quit his job at Goldman Sachs with dreams of publishing a novel.

Your friend knows a guy with money and wants to set up a meet. So you both take the train out of Manhattan and head 45 minutes south to Mamaroneck Diner and Pizza.

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An hour and a half later, none of your lives will be the same.

Neither, in some ways, will Major League Baseball.

* * *

In this 2004 file photo, Stuart Sternberg visits Tropicana Field for the announcement of his ownership group's purchase of the Rays. interests of five of the franchise's general partners and to watch the Rays victory over the Texas Rangers. [Times files (2004)]

It really was that quick and bold. Stu Sternberg already had complete confidence in his former Goldman Sachs colleague Matt Silverman and, one meal later, had been charmed by Andrew Friedman’s wit and smarts. No one in Tampa Bay knew it at the time but these three men, along with another Silverman friend Brian Auld, would take the Devil Rays from ridicule to the World Series in a handful of seasons.

In the months before the meeting at the diner, Friedman had sent letters to all 30 teams looking for a job. When he finally got an interview with the Indians for an internship, he finished second.

A little more than a year later, at 28, he was the head of baseball operations in Tampa Bay.

“It still shocks me that Stu was crazy enough to put Matt and I in the positions he did at our age,’’ Friedman said. “Just the trust he had in us, and the personal and professional development he helped nurture. It was a very unique setup that played a significant part in any success I’ve had.’’

All these years later, Friedman, Silverman and Auld had dinner in downtown St. Pete the night before Tampa Bay’s two-game series last week with the Dodgers. Friedman, who was named Sporting News Executive of the Year for Tampa Bay’s breakthrough season in 2008, had returned after leaving to become president of baseball operations for the Dodgers almost five year ago.

“In my mind’s eye, I have these pictures of Matt, Andrew and Brian from all those years ago, and it’s hard to see them in any other way,’’ Sternberg said. “They’re all married now, they all have three kids, and 10 years from now I’ll probably still see them all the same way.’’

* * *

Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers and former general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, was in town for the Rays-Dodgers series this week. CHRIS URSO | Times

If he had his way, none of this would have happened.

Sternberg originally was looking to buy a small chunk of the Mets after hearing Fred Wilpon was planning to buy out Nelson Doubleday’s share of the team in 2002. A banker working on the sale told Sternberg he was too late to invest in that deal, but suggested he consider buying the Devil Rays.

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It wasn’t his intent to be a principal owner, but Sternberg began looking into the situation in Tampa Bay. Where others saw a dumpster fire, Sternberg saw an opportunity. The area was growing, and the team was horribly operated. It was like buying the worst house in a fancy community. Silverman put his half-completed novel in a drawer, and was soon compiling all the information Sternberg would need.

Vince Naimoli ran the team for another 17 months or so after the purchase, but Sternberg was allowed to hire three people before he officially took control in 2005. Silverman, Friedman and Auld were his choices.

On the night before the transfer would take place in October, the three friends went downstairs into the clubhouse at Tropicana Field to drink beer and watch the clock turn to midnight.

In the age before smart phones, one of them brought along a disposable camera and they took pictures to commemorate the moment.

The camera was lost before the film was ever developed.

* * *

Advanced analytics were not new to baseball in 2005.

Bill James had already spent two decades coming up with inventive ways of looking at statistics, and the Oakland model of winning on a budget had been immortalized in the 2003 book Moneyball.

But there is no doubt that Sternberg and his people hastened changes that are now commonplace in the game. Shifts, platoons, identifying undervalued skills, multi-positional players, hiring analysts, openers, breaking down pitch locations, signing rookies to long-term deals and avoiding those long-term commitments with older players. They weren’t all new ideas, but they were utilized by the Rays in ways no one else had considered.

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“At that point,’’ Silverman said, “I don’t think we were relevant enough to even be laughed at.’’

Some of their ideas were out of necessity. Smaller crowds meant smaller revenues and a need to do things differently than the big shots in Boston and New York.

But a lot of it was also simply the way these outsiders approached the game. The fact that baseball did not have a lot of tradition, or success, in Tampa Bay made it easier to be innovative.

“We set out to do some crazy stuff,’’ Sternberg said. “We had this blank canvas so we were able to ask “Why not, why not, why not?’ whenever we were presented with ideas.’’

Ideas once ridiculed by the old guard are now standard operating procedure all around the game. And it’s not just philosophies that have been effected, but also real-life events.

Joe Maddon was a candidate for a manager’s job five times in seven years and was never hired. Sternberg’s group hired him in “06, and he’s now on a path toward the Hall of Fame. Ben Zobrist was a 25 year old stuck in Double-A with Houston when the Rays targeted him as part of a trade because they liked his skill set. He became the standard for the multi-positional player. The current managers of the Twins, Blue Jays, Cubs, Nationals and Phillies all have ties to Friedman or the Rays.

“Stu preaches educated risk-taking and to not be afraid of making a big decision,’’ said Silverman, who has bounced between running the business side and baseball operations side of the Rays. “He was willing to put a Major League Baseball franchise in the hands of three very inexperienced kids – and we were kids – but he had the confidence and the vision that we could work it out.

“He likes to throw people in the deep end.’’

* * *

From left Tampa Bay Rays President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman, President Brian Auld, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg talk at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Saturday, April 1, 2017. [Times files (2017)]

Friedman had been working for the team for a little more than a year when Sternberg offered him the de facto job of general manager after Chuck LaMar was fired. Friedman turned it down.

Find someone with more experience, he said. Friedman even offered to help lead the search. But Sternberg was insistent. He told Friedman he’d be asking his advice about every move anyway.

Since the moment he took over the last-place Rays, teams under Friedman’s control have made the playoffs eight times in 13 years, including six division titles and three pennants.

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Tampa Bay, meanwhile, did not disintegrate after Friedman’s departure, with Silverman and Auld overseeing a new baseball operations regime under Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom.

Since Sternberg took control in 2006, Tampa Bay has had six seasons of 90 wins or more. Only the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have had more.

It wasn’t that long ago that a 24 year old Silverman was introduced to Sternberg at Goldman Sachs. The idea was he was supposed to help facilitate some possible business deals Sternberg was considering. Instead, intrigued by some memorabilia and pictures in Sternberg’s office, they spent the entire meeting talking about baseball.

Around that time, Friedman was working on Wall Street as a financial analyst while managing a fantasy baseball team with his brother in his spare time.

Just three guys who loved baseball.

“Even today, we’ll be on the phone going over a list of things that we have to figure out or make tough decisions on. It’s no different than if we were building condos or making pizzas for a living,’’ Sternberg said. “But in the end, the conversation always comes back to the game. It’s like the magnet that always pulls you North. No matter what we’re discussing, we always end up talking baseball.’’

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.


How the Rays compare in the Sternberg era

An ownership group led by Stuart Sternberg purchased the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 15 years ago this month. Here’s a look at how the franchise ranks among American League teams since Sternberg took control in 2006:

Team Wins Playoff appearances
Yankees 1,232 9
Red Sox 1,186 7
Angels 1,152 4
Rangers 1,110 5
Indians 1,107 5
Rays 1,110 4
Tigers 1,096 5
Athletics 1,086 5
Blue Jays 1,078 2
Twins 1,046 4
Astros 1,030 3
Mariners 1,025 0
White Sox 1,023 1
Orioles 987 3

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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