In the mid-1970s, while most 10-year-olds were watching Saturday morning cartoons, Jeff Zients was poring over the classified ads, searching for buried treasure.
His quarry: mint-condition Topps baseball cards. Every Saturday, he telephoned two dozen garage sales, picked the most promising, begged his dad to drive him and used money from his paper route to buy up stacks of cards. By the time Zients went to college, his collection was worth almost $30,000.
Since then, Zients has applied his enterprising skills to more serious pursuits. He built two innovative research and consulting firms that went public in 1999 and 2001 with blockbuster offerings. In 2002, he made Fortune magazine's list of the 40 richest Americans under 40, with a net worth of $149 million, just ahead of Julia Roberts.
But Zients's heart still belongs to baseball. And in June, the 37-year-old Washington native agreed to become president and chief executive of the Washington Baseball Club, a group of wealthy area investors who hope to operate the capital city's first major league franchise in more than 30 years.
Before that can happen, Major League Baseball must first agree to move a ballclub to the District, and then choose Zients and his partners to buy the team. Both issues are undecided. But after 21/2 maddening years of on-again, off-again talks with Washington and other interested jurisdictions, baseball officials say they are finally ready to choose a new home for the financially struggling Montreal Expos. The District and Northern Virginia are said to be at the top of the list.
Baseball watchers are hoping for a decision soon after MLB team owners meet this week in Philadelphia. Baseball officials say they will act before the season ends in October.
"It feels like it is imminent," Zients said during an interview last week in his sleek offices at the Watergate Hotel. "And what I believe will happen is baseball will come back to D.C."
Zients is the newly designated frontman for a deliberately low-key group of very wealthy men who have toiled for five years to bring baseball to Washington. They include Frederic V. Malek, a former Nixon White House official who was part-owner, with George W. Bush, of the Texas Rangers; James V. Kimsey, the billionaire co-founder of America Online; local real estate developer Joseph E. Robert Jr.; and Franklin D. Raines, who directed President Bill Clinton's Office of Budget and Management and now serves as chairman and chief executive of Fannie Mae, the largest non-bank financial services company in the world.
Collectively, they are worth well over $1 billion. Together, they have spent more than $1 million to promote the city's bid for a baseball team. But with baseball at last on the eve of a decision, some members of the club seem a little weary and said they have mixed feelings about spending the vast sums that will be needed to build a winning team.
"This group has held together for a long time," Raines said. "We will have achieved a great success if the District gets the team, even if we are not the owners."
This spring, the group designated Zients as president and Raines as chairman of its executive committee in an attempt to telegraph to baseball that the group is packed with heavy hitters and ready to do business, said D.C. lawyer Stephen W. Porter, one of the club's founding partners.
"Jeff is a very smart man with a lot of experience in business. And Frank is just a highly respected, well-known national figure," Porter said. "Any business that can get Frank Raines as your chairman is basically announcing to the world that, hey, you know what? We're a serious group."
But there are no guarantees. Baseball officials bought the Expos in February 2002 and have been losing money since. Some insiders expect MLB to negotiate the team's sale at the same time officials pick its new home. Others say baseball is likely to put the Expos on the auction block to attract the widest array of bidders and fetch the highest price.
In an interview last week, Long Island real estate magnate Mark Broxmeyer said he would bid on the Expos if baseball sends them to Washington, and that he is putting together an ownership group that could include publisher and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
"Washington and Northern Virginia is an attractive region for baseball," Broxmeyer said. "There are enough people out there interested in owning a team that I would not be surprised if one or two other groups popped up."
In the past, other potential buyers have faded away in the face of baseball commissioner Bud Selig's long years of indecision. Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, for instance, once teamed up to buy the Expos, but Johnson said last week that he and Snyder have lost interest.
Johnson said he supports Malek, who asked him to join the Washington Baseball Club this summer. Johnson declined.
"I said: 'Fred, I respect everyone in the group, but this has become one of those 'Waiting for Godot' kind of things. People got other things to do than wait around for Bud Selig to make a decision,' " he said.
Johnson said the baseball deal is made even less appealing by the huge price tag. In addition to paying for the Expos -- baseball is expected to demand in excess of $200 million -- the new owners would have to hire new players, refurbish Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium to serve as the team's temporary home and probably make substantial investments in a new stadium, though D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has promised that the city would pick up most of the tab.
Add the prospect of operating losses for at least a year and perhaps a cash payoff to Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who argues that the Orioles would be harmed financially by having a rival in the District, and the total price tag climbs to "close to $300 million," Johnson said, for a team that could take years to turn a profit.
"I'm not mad at my money," Johnson said. "I'm not used to begging somebody to let me lose it."
Others, including Marc S. Ganis, a sports franchise expert based in Chicago, said the Expos' new owners could spend closer to $500 million over the first three years. No one with the Washington Baseball Club would say whether the group is ready to spend that much money. Zients, Raines and Porter all hinted that there are limits to their largesse.
"It could be $300 million. . . . I suppose that's a possibility," Porter said. "But I hope that's on the high side."
Raines said none of the partners is interested primarily in making money. "But, at the same time, we don't want to do anything foolish, either," he said.
In a telephone interview from an undisclosed beach location, Raines expressed weariness with the process. "I've been surprised at how long it's taken them to make the decision," he said. "My own preference is for them to decide. Whatever they want to do, just decide. So we can go on with our lives."
The Washington Baseball Club was formed in 1999, the brainchild of Porter and another lawyer, Paul M. Wolff. Porter was chairman of the baseball exploratory committee for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and Wolff sat on the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. According to Porter, baseball officials had rebuffed Washington's interest in the sport, saying the city couldn't produce a viable set of investors.
"We didn't believe it," Porter said. "The economy had changed. This was not just a government town or a town of real estate moguls. Northern Virginia has high tech. Maryland has big biotech businesses. And in D.C., there's enormous financial services companies, including a lot of investment bankers."
Porter and Wolff approached Malek, who brought in Raines, Robert and Kimsey. Last year, they added Zients and his former business partner, David G. Bradley, who founded the Advisory Board Co. Bradley now owns the Atlantic Media Co., which publishes the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal.
At first, the group lobbied baseball directly for the Expos, Raines said. But then Selig let it be known that he wanted to deal exclusively with public officials willing to finance a new ballpark with public funds. So the club faded into the woodwork, a decision that didn't sit well with some D.C. fans. D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) complained last year that the group had failed to make full use of its influence. But Porter said they were just "following the rules that MLB set down."
"This is not a particularly flamboyant group," Raines said. "If they want somebody who's flamboyant, they ought to pick somebody else."
The club's lack of flash was on full display when it picked Zients to be president. For a rich guy, Zients has maintained a remarkably low profile. There have been no glowing stories in the national business journals. He's doesn't show up in any of the who's who directories. He goes to work in khakis and casual, if starched, shirts.
Zients said his presidential persona would be shaped by the same qualities that he and Bradley used to build a business: "You hire great people, give them autonomy and keep as low a profile as possible."
Zients grew up in Kensington. He was never much of an athlete but loved sports. In addition to collecting baseball cards, he was sports editor at the St. Albans News. He studied political science at Duke University, and then went to work in Boston. He came home to the District in the early 1990s, after Bradley asked him to help run the Advisory Board Co., which rewrote the model for management consulting.
Last month, Zients announced that he would step down as chairman of the Advisory Board Co. to focus on baseball.
"In the first three, four, five years, this will be an amazing business sprint," he said, eyes narrowing at the thought of putting together a "great product, a great business," a winning baseball team. "I have this desire from way back to have baseball in D.C."
Unlike some of his partners, Zients betrays no sense of frustration. In his calm, unassuming way, he's all business, ready to go.
Who will manage the team? The Expos already have "a strong manager and a strong general manager," he said.
Is he worried about a rival bid to put a team near Dulles in Northern Virginia? "No," he said. "It's just too far."
What about a name? "I think we'll leave it up to the fans," he said.
"I have no fatigue," Zients said. "We want baseball today. We want baseball yesterday. In the grand scheme of how important this is, days or weeks don't really matter."