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Twins fans sway suitor
by Aron Kahn

An Alabaman who wants to buy the Minnesota Twins says he has been overwhelmed by an "avalanche'' of encouraging messages from fans in Minnesota.

Donald Watkins, a lawyer, investor and chairman of a small Birmingham bank, said Tuesday he has received about 4,000 e-mails since Thanksgiving exhorting him to buy the Twins.

"These are not one- or two-sentence e-mails, but the type where fans pour their hearts out,'' said Watkins, who would be baseball's first black owner. "Apparently, there's an avalanche of fans there waiting to be loved, and I intend to love them.''

Watkins, who is trying to meet with Twins President Jerry Bell before Christmas, previously submitted an application to buy baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But he said Tuesday his priority is shifting.

"The Twins have really closed the gap on the Devil Rays,'' he said. "The fan base has a highly charged, dedicated support group, and it would be difficult to find that level of support in Tampa. A loyal fan base is a key ingredient to a successful franchise.''

Major League Baseball announced Nov. 6 that two teams would be eliminated through contraction. Sources say the Twins and Montreal Expos are targeted. Owners and the players' union negotiated for a second day Tuesday over the issue of contraction, but there was no resolution as of early Tuesday evening. Amid the contraction discussion, Twins owner Carl Pohlad has said he would sell the team if he got a reasonable offer.

Watkins, reportedly worth $1.5 billion, invests in energy and financial services, and maintains law offices in Montgomery and Birmingham, where he also is chairman of Alamerica Bank, a financial institution incorporated last year. Regulatory agency records show that the bank had nine employees and assets of $26 million as of June, making it a very small institution. Watkins said assets since have risen to $42 million.

A former Montgomery city councilman, Watkins also was a trustee of Alabama State University and a political activist who urged blacks to leave the Democratic Party and become more independent, so they could better address mainstream issues. As a lawyer, Watkins was special counsel to the Birmingham mayor for 15 years, and earned the displeasure of some football fans when he represented a player whose allegations of rules infractions caused Auburn University coach Pat Dye to retire nine years ago.

"I think he's shrewd, smart and extraordinarily well-connected politically,'' said Tom Cosby, chief operating officer of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. "I don't know anything about major league sports, but as the first minority owner, he would be a force to be reckoned with.

"If they ever tried to kick his team out of the league, he'd be a tough competitor,'' Cosby said. "He'd be a staunch advocate for your town.''

Bell said Tuesday he did not know whether it's possible for he and Twins owner Carl Pohlad to meet Watkins before Christmas because of scheduling problems.

Watkins had read the Twins were for sale but said Tuesday he wants to hear that from the Twins. "That's the first order of business,'' he said. "And if so, will they give me an application form?''

Watkins said he met with his investment banker last weekend. "I have already started my program to monetize certain assets to ensure that a sufficient pool of cash is available for a cash purchase,'' he said.

"I'm getting myself in a position where I'm ready to do a deal. I don't intend to borrow any money for the team purchase.''

That cannot be said of Pohlad, who financed his $38 million purchase of the Twins in 1984.

Forbes magazine estimated the Twins' value this year at $99 million, although Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Minnesota Wild owner Robert Naegele Jr. agreed to buy the Twins in 1999 for an estimated $120 million as an element of the St. Paul ballpark proposal at the time. The deal fell through when St. Paul voters defeated a ballpark financing proposal on a referendum.

Forbes has valued the Devil Rays at $150 million.

Watkins, 53, said he's optimistic about being approved by the Twins and Major League Baseball as a suitable owner.

"I don't expect to have any problem going through the approval process,'' he said. "I'm in three regulated industries -- law, banking and investment banking -- and all of them have fitness and character reviews, and I passed each one."