Owners approve sale of Reds to produce mogul

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Baseball owners unanimously approved the sale of baseball's oldest franchise, the Cincinnati Reds, on Thursday to a group headed by produce mogul Robert Castellini.

Carl Lindner, the 86-year-old Cincinnati financier who owned the franchise, had three potential buyers whose offers were roughly the same but chose Castellini largely because of his local ties. Lindner will remain a minority partner.

"Local ownership there was critical, and it was crucial to Carl Lindner," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "The one overriding goal we had was to have local ownership."

Terms weren't announced, but Castellini's group is said to be acquiring about 70 percent ownership of a franchise worth an estimated $270 million.

The Castellini family founded a shipping company along the Ohio River in 1896, 27 years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became baseball's first professional team. Today, the company is one of the largest shippers of fruit and vegetables in the United States.

Castellini chose not to discuss his acquisition of the team on Thursday. He saved his comments for a news conference at Great American Ball Park on Friday.

"Mr. Castellini wanted his first comments to be live and in public before the fans of Cincinnati," Castellini spokesman Joe Bride said earlier. "He wanted to talk directly to the fans of Cincinnati from Cincinnati."

The new ownership group includes William Jr. and Thomas Williams, who come from a family that owned the team during the 1970s. The three were part of fellow Cincinnati resident Bill Dewitt Jr.'s ownership group of the St. Louis Cardinals.

They are in the process of divesting their Cardinals interests, according to Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer.

"He's a partner in the Cardinals and he's been with Bill DeWitt in other deals," Selig said. "Everybody raves about him. He's very personable and a Cincinnati man. I think it's great. Frankly this was an easy one. This was quick."

Selig said he first met Castellini about a year ago and spoke with him again on Wednesday night.

They take over a franchise with a storied history but with no playoff appearances since 1995. The Reds have had five straight losing seasons, their longest slump in 50 years.

The Williams family owned part of the Reds until local car dealer Marge Schott bought controlling interest in the team in 1984. The Reds won a World Series in 1990 but Schott's often-offensive remarks overshadowed anything the team did on the field.

Under pressure from Major League Baseball, Schott sold her controlling shares for $67 million to Lindner's group in 1999.

Owners also heard reports on the unsettled situation with the Washington Nationals and the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

Sale of the Nationals by Major League Baseball has been held up until the District of Columbia Council approves a lease agreement for a new stadium.

"You know, life doesn't always move just as you'd like it," Selig said. "Of course, if I had my druthers, this would have been over a long time ago. But there are a lot of things that have happened, and I wouldn't do anything differently.

"I know I've heard some criticism of us, particularly in Washington, which I think is unfair but everybody's entitled to their opinion. But look, if you were buying a team the first question you'd ask is, 'What's the stadium situation and what's my lease?'" he said.

Selig said he had talked to eight prospective owners and has reached a conclusion about each.

"When I know we are getting close, I'll make a decision," he said.

DuPuy said that all announcements regarding sponsorship and other details of the World Baseball Classic are on hold while baseball awaits a decision from the Bush administration on whether Cuba will be allowed to compete on U.S. soil.

"We're still waiting to hear," Selig said.

One word that didn't come up is "steroids." Selig's brief meeting with the press on Thursday was in the same room that baseball announced a toughened anti-steroids agreement, a deal that was revised again in November with even tougher penalties.

"How well I remember," Selig said of that packed news conference a year ago.