|Thursday, February 28
Baseball's next great black hope
By Darren Rovell
Like many teenagers entering adolescence, Donald Watkins Jr. had to endure those frequent parent-child conference that would make any pubescent teen roll his eyes either in disdain or embarrassment: Drugs are never safe. Make sure your sex is.
"Remember," his father told him, "the goal is eventually to own a team, not to play on one."
Donald Watkins Sr. made sure to engrain this ideal in the minds of his four sons as they entered the ninth grade. That he felt each were gifted both athletically and academically, he wanted "to keep them focused on the larger opportunity."
Though his sons have gone on to pursue their own career aspirations outside of sports, Donald Watkins quietly went about following his own advice some 15 years later. With an eye ever focused on realizing his goal of becoming an owner of a professional sports team, Watkins carefully and methodically built a business portfolio that today has positioned him on the verge of making that dream come true.
"I've always said it's more valuable to write someone a check than to sign your name on the back of one," he says.
Indeed, Watkins might soon find himself writing checks to Brad Radke and Corey Koskie, two of the Minnesota Twins star players whom Watkins would inherit should he strike a deal to buy the team from owner Carl Pohlad. Pohlad, whose Twins had been tabbed for contraction along with the Montreal Expos in November, formally put his team on the market last week.
Watkins, a successful Alabama attorney and businessman, has stepped to the forefront not only as a prospective savior of the Twins, but the great black hope to break baseball's remaining color barrier -- team ownership. If he is successful in his bid, Watkins would become the first person of color to assume a controlling interest of a Major League Baseball team and just the second in professional sports' four major leagues, some 55 years after Jackie Robinson led the flood of emancipated black athletes onto the field.
Mannie Jackson, the former Harlem Globetrotter and Honeywell executive who purchased the team for $5.5 million in 1993, knows what it feels like. "Others who come into professional sports ownership will find that they have a peer group," said Jackson, an African-American. "Donald will find that he does not have a peer group and he will be known for some time as the black owner, and that's difficult."
Among Watkins' toughest battles, he says, has been media scrutiny of his financial solvency. Watkins calls the probing a form of racial profiling.
In November, Baseball Weekly estimated that Watkins was worth at $1.5 billion. That would make him one of the richest owners in all sports, the accuracy of which even some of his friends have questioned in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article in January. "You have to understand, if he were worth $1.5 billion, he would be the richest black man in America, and the richest white, black, purple or green person in Alabama," Jesse Lewis, a longtime acquaintance of Watkins and publisher of The Birmingham Times, a weekly newspaper.
Further doubts are supported by the fact that Watkins doesn't appear on the prestigious Forbes list, and that one of his only public investments, 17,000 shares in Echapman, an investment bank and brokerage firm, was worth only $1,190 as of close of Wedneday's trading on Wall Street.
"Many people think that the only black folks that have money are either the entertainers or the athletes," Watkins says. "If you are a businessman, you're normally labeled as a black businessman. I've worked hard all my life so I wasn't labeled like that."
The double standard isn't new, said Peter Bynoe, who was the first African-American majority owner of a professional sports team. Bynoe was the managing general partner and had controlling interest in the Denver Nuggets from 1989 to 1992.
"We always had the perception of financial weakness hanging over us," said Bynoe, who made his fortune in real estate business. "Even when we closed the deal, they still said we weren't for real.
"Why," he asks, "doesn't anybody look into the financial stability of an owner when they are white?"
Yet Bynoe's partner, Boston broadcasting executive Bert Lee, once called himself "cash-poor" and made headlines for failing to pay rent during their term of Nuggets' ownership.
Watkins said he submitted audited financial statements to Major League Baseball in September and met with league officials in January. He said neither league officials nor Pohlad have questioned claims about his wealth. Before the bidding formally opened, Watkins reportedly made an offer of between $125 million and $150 million for the Twins, but said he is unable to discuss details of the negotiation after signing a confidentiality agreement with the team.
Major League Baseball officials would not confirm the details of the bidding process, but made clear that the league will not conduct an extensive credit check of Watkins' finances until after a deal has been agreed to in principle. Though Watkins and baseball commissioner Bud Selig are scheduled to meet sometime soon, at least one observer questions Selig's eagerness to bring an African-American into the league's fraternity of white, upper-class aristocracy.
As a high-profile attorney in Alabama, Watkins has not shied away from the limelight over the years. In 1977, Watkins made a name for himself when he helped the surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of the nine black teenagers wrongly convicted of a 1913 rape of two white women, receive a pardon in a case that gained worldwide attention as a symbol of Southern racial injustice. In 1991, Watkins represented Auburn defensive back Eric Ramsey, who secretly recorded conversations with boosters and an assistant coach whom he alleged payed him to play for the Tigers in the early '90s. The charges eventually led to NCAA sanctions and the resignation of Auburn coach Pat Dye.
Watkins appears willing to play hardball again, this time to become an owner of a professional sports team. If he can't buy the Twins, he said, then how about the Expos, now run by Major League Baseball? Watkins said he would be interested in team ownership other than in baseball, but declined to confirm whether he has been approached by either NBA or NFL officials.
"I get the feeling that I have to prove that I deserve to be an owner and to earn my way in without special help or assistance," Watkins said. "If I can survive this process and find my way into the owner's circle they will welcome me with open arms as I cross that last barrier. But I don't see anyone helping me across."
Bynoe said NBA commissioner David Stern was anxious to break ground in sports and pushed to get his deal done to buy the Nuggets. "He single-handedly made the deal happen, and when it was done, he took great pride," Bynoe said.
But because of his race and the things he has accomplished, Watkins says he has grown used to the naysayers. In order to quiet the critics for others who may follow his path, Watkins says he feels the responsibility to be successful.
"Whether I want (my ownership bid to be reflective on all African-Americans) or not, the reality is the American public perceives it as that way and that's one of the reasons why my steps have been very measured," said Watkins, who still gets chills when he sees archive footage of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in front of Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "I don't want to make it any harder on the (African-American) person that wants to follow me."
"It will be a significant cultural milestone in this country," Jackson said. "But in a month after it's done, it will be yesterday's news and he's gotta move on. Then he'll be judged on how be protects his investment."
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.