The Diamond Club

Thanks to Mark Attanasio, Gary Goldring, Stan Kasten, and three fellow Law School alumni who traded in fantasy leagues for the real thing, Columbia has major league connections to the world of professional baseball. Brewers, Rays, and Nationals front-office members talk about what it’s like to own a baseball franchise, make the tough calls, and live out childhood dreams.

By Josh Levin

Winter 2009

Like every boy who grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s, Mark Attanasio ’82 dreamed of playing center field for the Yankees—and like every boy in that era, he eventually realized he wasn’t Mickey Mantle.

So what do you do when you love baseball but can’t hit a ball 500 feet? In the early 1980s, Attanasio satisfied his baseball jones by participating in one of the earliest rotisserie (now known as fantasy) leagues—slotting players onto an imaginary team and tracking their statistics with some buddies.

Two decades later, the investment banker had worked his way up to the majors, becoming the majority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. Like all rookies, he had “a lot to learn,” Attanasio recalls. “Running a real baseball team is a lot tougher than running a rotisserie team.”

Attanasio isn’t the only Columbia Law School graduate who has turned a life in baseball from fantasy into reality. Gary Goldring ’82 is part-owner of the Tampa Bay Rays. Stan Kasten ’76, the longtime president of the Atlanta Braves and now the president of the Washington Nationals, has been working in the game since he graduated law school. And Attanasio brought three fellow alumni—Marc I. Stern ’69, and Richard and Alison Ressler ’83—to the Brewers as investment partners.

For Attanasio and his cohorts, Major League Baseball is a place where childhood fantasies mingle with decidedly grown-up challenges. When Attanasio bought the Brewers in 2005, the team had just suffered through its 12th straight losing season. Despite improving to an 81-81 record in Attanasio’s first year as principal owner, “there were all these articles mentioning that we were still not winners,” he remembers. That was nothing compared to the heckling he received when the team traded fan favorite Lyle Overbay that offseason. “When I told my wife, Debbie, she promptly told me that she wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the night,” he says. “My son Mike told me that he was done with the Brewers.”

This past season, the 51-year-old Attanasio and Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin made an even tougher call: firing Manager Ned Yost with 12 games left in the season. The Brewers responded by making the postseason for the first time since 1982. “I felt like we needed to make that decision to make the playoffs,” he says. “It was a very hard call for personal and other reasons, but you shouldn’t take the job if you don’t want to make those decisions.”

Stan Kasten has been making those kinds of tough calls for three decades. When Kasten got his start as in-house counsel for the Atlanta Braves, he was given simple marching orders: “I was told to stay near [former Braves owner] Ted [Turner] and make sure he didn’t get into trouble.” This proved an impossible task. Soon after Kasten signed on, Turner was suspended for a year by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for violating baseball’s tampering rules—the Braves owner had announced at a cocktail party that he would shell out whatever amount was necessary to sign outfielder Gary Matthews. While Kasten was fighting the suspension in court, Turner tried to jolt the Braves out of a losing streak by naming himself the manager for one game. The Braves lost that game, and Kasten once again found himself having to placate an angry commissioner. Kasten, 56, got into baseball serendipitously. After taking the New York and New Jersey bar exams, he celebrated by going on a cross-country ballpark tour with his wife. At a Braves game, he spotted Turner and introduced himself; within weeks, he had a job offer. Kasten remembers that his parents, neither of whom followed sports, “were mildly to moderately horrified” about his decision to join the Braves rather than take a job doing antitrust work at a Manhattan firm. It was only years later, Kasten says, that they “developed some understanding that whatever the hell I was doing, at least I was being successful.”

The secret to Kasten’s success: Put together a team you can trust. Manager Bobby Cox, General Manager John Schuerholz, and Kasten, who was named the Braves’ president in 1986, led the Braves to the 1995 World Series title, 12 straight division crowns, and universal acclaim as baseball’s model franchise. Now, as the president of the Nationals, Kasten is trying to bring the same success to Washington, D.C. “The opportunity to build a team from scratch in the most important city in the world,” he says, “is a challenge that’s unique.”

Along with trying to put a winner on the field, Kasten has had ample opportunity to take advantage of his Columbia Law School education. Kasten, who now sits on the Board of Directors of the Sports Lawyers Association, served on the owners’ negotiating committee during baseball’s 1994–95 strike, and he managed the legal and business task of overseeing the construction of three major sports facilities: Atlanta’s Turner Field and Philips Arena, and Washington’s Nationals Park, which opened in 2008. “There are days when I wonder what it would be like to just be a more conventional lawyer, and then all my friends who are the more conventional lawyers talk me out of that very quickly,” he says. Kasten says he realized just how lucky he’s been when Law School classmate (and Nationals season ticket holder) Eric Holder ’76 told him how much everyone envied Kasten’s job. “And he was the deputy attorney general at the time!” Kasten says, still disbelieving.

Unlike Kasten, Mark Attanasio didn’t act on his baseball dreams right away. At the Law School, Attanasio organized a sports law panel that included NBA Commissioner David Stern ’66, then the league’s executive vice president. But while he briefly considered becoming a sports agent, Attanasio found himself drawn to corporate law. After two and a half years at Debevoise & Plimpton, he moved to investment banking, working with Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert. He has been a senior partner with Trust Company of the West (TCW) since 1995, when that firm bought Attanasio’s investment company, Crescent Capital Corporation.

The Los Angeles–based Attanasio began to think seriously about owning a baseball team after a pair of local clubs, the Angels and Dodgers, were purchased by new owners in 2003 and 2004, respectively. When the Brewers went on the market shortly thereafter, he submitted a bid during the 2004 season. Attanasio was selected to be the new owner after the regular season concluded, and the deal was approved in January 2005. Now four years into his tenure with Milwaukee, Attanasio says the patience he learned while investing in the financial markets has helped him adjust to his new field. “In both businesses, you assemble a lot of data, and you try to project an outcome,” he says. “In baseball, you’ve made a bet on a guy, and he has to perform or not perform. Like with a stock, there’s a trend line: It’s up and down and up and down, but it should be trending up. If you’ve made the right talent call, you can’t give up on the player because he’s in a slump.”

For Attanasio, it’s been invaluable to have Marc Stern and Richard and Alison Ressler—all friends and fellow Columbia Law School alumni—on board as investors and advisors. “Marc, Richard, and Alison have been huge supporters of mine forever, and they supported me in this unequivocally,” Attanasio says. “It was a real act of friendship.” For the 64-year-old Stern, TCW’s vice chairman, buying into the Brewers was more than an act of friendship—it was the source of a crisis in fandom. Last October, the self-described “compulsive Phillies fan” was confronted with a Milwaukee-Philadelphia matchup in the playoffs. “It’s a very interesting thing to have your historical team against the team that you own a piece of,” Stern says, calling it an emotional toss-up. “I actually think he was rooting for us,” Attanasio says. “But he was able to get out of that existential dilemma when the Phillies beat us.”

The Phillies didn’t just knock off Attanasio’s Brewers this fall. They also took down the Rays, a team that’s partly owned by Attanasio’s classmate and former pickup basketball opponent Gary Goldring. After retiring from Goldman Sachs, Goldring and some colleagues, led by businessman Stuart Sternberg, purchased the Rays in 2005. “Stu [Sternberg] has proven to be quite adept at running the baseball team, and the rest of us function as a board and listen to the business prospects,” says Goldring. “It’s been very interesting learning about a new business.”

Goldring, who lives in New Milford, Conn., and spends the majority of his time working with nonprofits like the Earthwatch Institute, says that, because he’s based in the Northeast, the most gratifying part of the Rays’ 2008 season was playing the Yankees and Red Sox. “We were historically a bye week for teams when they would come to Tampa,” he says, “and now everybody has to [worry about] the Tampa Bay Rays.” His only disappointment: “It’s too bad that both my team and Mark’s team didn’t make it to the World Series.”

With the Brewers and Rays both on the rise, it is not far-fetched to think that the 2009 World Series will turn into a Columbia Law School reunion of sorts. Kasten, meanwhile, continues to work at rebuilding the Nationals, while also drawing mention as a potential commissioner when Bud Selig retires. “That job’s not open,” Kasten says, “which is just as well, because I love doing my job. I love the adrenaline of competing.”

Josh Levin is an associate editor at Slate magazine.

illustration by Brad Yeo