PITTSBURGH — Thomas Tull gets off the elevator from his $13.9 million, three-story penthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, lowers the farmer’s cap on his head, walks across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, turns left on West General Robinson Street, through the double-glass doors, up the elevator, to Suite 29.
He plops down in Row A, Seat 2, just before the first pitch, with a panoramic view of PNC Park and the gorgeous Pittsburgh skyline, and exhales.
“Let me first tell you,’’ Tull says, “I’m the luckiest human being you’ll ever meet in your life.’’
While the Major League Baseball owners were gathering in midtown New York City for their quarterly business meetings, Tull is cheering on his adopted team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are playing the Washington Nationals and one of his favorite players, Bryce Harper.
There will be a day when Tull is at those meetings, too, as one of baseball’s 30 owners, considering his passion for the game, a bank account flush with cash, and his close relationship with the game’s biggest power brokers.
Tull, who earned a look as a player with the Atlanta Braves before spending two years as an area scout, is one of the wealthiest men in the USA. He’s the founder of Legendary Entertainment, the company he sold this winter for $3.5 billion, while also a minority owner of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s no doubt among baseball’s hierarchy that one day, perhaps sooner than anyone anticipates, Tull will joining their exclusive ownership circle.
If Tull desired, he could be the lead investor in Derek Jeter’s bid to purchase the Miami Marlins right now.
Jeter and Tull are close, and he helped fund Jeter’s Players’ Tribune. Yet, the locale and timing of the Marlins’ sale, Tull says, isn’t quite right.
“For me, it’s going to have to be the right situation geographically, the timing of it, and everything else, maybe a little later in life,’’ the 46-year-old Tull says in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I do believe that Derek will be an owner someday, maybe very soon.
“What’s amazing about him is that early on, even when he was playing, he would talk about what he wanted to do in business. He talked about someday wanting to own a team, and he was hyper-focused on it.
“If he’s decided on Miami, or wherever he ultimately winds up, I think he’ll do a great job. He’s a fantastic ambassador for the game, and he’s very smart. He’s universally respected. You’ve got a lot of owners in baseball right now rooting for him.’’
Tull, still is a diehard Yankees fan with third baseman Graig Nettles as his boyhood favorite, scoffs at the notion that without his financial support, Jeter and Jeb Bush’s group are having trouble landing investors.
He believes that Jeter could attract virtually any investor he desires.
“I don’t think Derek’s going to need any help on that front,’’ Tull says. “Derek Jeter would be the last guy I would try and bet against.’’
Baseball’s power brokers share the same sentiments about Tull. He’s close friends with Commissioner Rob Manfred, who grew up just 90 minutes away in upstate New York, and they often talk about ideas and visions. He counts a wide set of baseball officials as friends, from owners Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and John Henry and Tom Werner of the Boston Red Sox, to powerful agents Scott Boras and Casey Close.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Hall of Fame player like Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax, a future Hall of Famer like Jeter, or the greatest of this generation like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, each of them knows and appreciates the man.
Where else could you find 10 Hall of Famers having dinner one night at Tull’s Los Angeles mansion, getting a tour of his vast memorabilia collection in the lower level of his home, and gathering for a picture on his doorstep.
“I remember all of these Hall of Famers standing for the picture, and Derek was just standing there by himself,’’ Tull says. “Frank Robinson yells out, ‘Hey Jeet, come into this picture. It’s OK.’ I’m thinking, this is the first place Derek ever got his picture taken with all of these Hall of Famers. It’s goose-bump inducing.
“You know something, I think he might get in there, too.’’
Where else would you find Rachel Robinson, Aaron, Jeter, Trout, Harper, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and broadcaster Al Michaels all making inspirational videos for Tull’s hometown little league team before Maine-Endwell (N.Y.) beat South Korea for the Little League World Series title?
“Other than (the Steelers) winning the Super Bowl and beating the Cardinals in ’08,’’ Tull says, “and I mean narrowly, it was the greatest sports experience of my life.’’
Where else would you find Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Goose Gossage at his high school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for their new artificial turf baseball field, courtesy of Tull’s $2 million donation with wife Alba, rewarding his long-time baseball coach, Gary Crooks, by naming the stadium in his honor?
“There’s nothing any of us wouldn’t do for that man,’’ Gossage says. “Nothing. He’s that special. Everything is from the heart. My gosh, would he be a terrific owner.’’
And where else would you find Harper, just minutes after hitting a ninth-inning homer Tuesday that nearly landed in the Allegheny River, walking out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, before showering or addressing the media, stunning the security guards by coming out in uniform just to see Tull in the corridor.
“The guy is awesome, just an unbelievable person,’’ says Harper, a guest of Tull’s at the White House premiere of 42, with the Obama family and Rachel Robinson. “I couldn’t believe I was in that room. I mean, not only are his movies really good, but just a great person to be around.
“You would never know he was worth all the money he has by being around him. He’s just a regular guy. This guy would be an awesome owner. He would be great for the sport because he understands the game and how it works. Really, I think everyone would love to see that.’’
It was often suspected that if Jeter ever was involved with a team, Tull would be his lead investor. When the news broke that Jeter and Bush were partners in their bid for the Marlins, Tull was believed to be the power broker behind the scenes.
“When I heard Jeter was involved, I just assumed Thomas was too,’’ Gossage says. “I know how close they are. But on the other hand, when you’ve got that kind of financial wherewithal, why not be the top dog where you can have a real say in what direction your team goes.
“I think he’s very smart in terms of being patient, and being his own self-made man, I have no doubt in my mind he would be a tremendous owner in Major League Baseball.’’
Tull actually explored purchasing the San Diego Padres in 2012, and was planning to give a portion of the team to Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, until it fell though. It’s the last baseball franchise sold, the longest stretch no team has changed hands since the advent of free agency. Now, the Marlins are up for sale — as well as another team that has not publicly divulged its intentions.
Tull is not involved in the negotiations with either team, but if another one is put up for sale, particularly if it’s close to his homes in Los Angeles or Pittsburgh, or businesses in New York, he’s all ears.
It’s easy to imagine more franchises coming on the market, given that many clubs are sitting on mountains of equity. There are 18 current owners who bought their clubs for less than $200 million, and no major league team is worth less than $1 billion these days.
“If I was going to do it someday,’’ Tull says, “I’d probably jump in with both feet, rather than dabbling. That’s why it would have to be a perfect situation.
“It’s crazy to even have the conversation, right? I’ve got to be the luckiest guy in the world. I keep thinking one day my whole life will be like a Punk’d episode. Ashton Kutcher will show up and say, ‘You’re kidding me? This can’t be real.’’’
Tull, who grew up the oldest of three kids raised by a single mom, Carol, in Binghamton, N.Y., played football for Division III Hamilton (N.Y.). He played two years in the Braves’ farm system. Started a chain of local laundromats and tax preparation franchises.
From there, he moved on to tech companies and media investments. And off to Hollywood where he produced huge box-office hits from Jurassic World to Man of Steel to Godzilla to the Hangover trilogy to 42.
“That was one of the greatest experiences of my life,’’ Tull said of 42. “If you had told me growing up in upstate New York that I would have the privilege of telling the story of Jackie Robson, I never would have believed it. I don’t get nervous a lot, but I remember the first time I screened the movie for Mrs. Robinson it was so nerve-racking because it’s one thing to screw up a Dark Knight movie, it’s another thing to screw up Jackie Robinson’s story.’’
Tull, who in January sold Legendary Entertainment, which produced 30 films that grossed more than $13 billion, to Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, says he still has plenty to keep him busy. He’s founder of the Tull Investment group, focused on the life science, media and technology sectors. He purchased a 157-acre farm for $3.65 million, called Rivendale, where former Steelers great Troy Polamalu dropped by Tuesday to witness the all-natural farming process.
The farm, run by former Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke, will raise organically grown lettuce, tomatoes and apples. Tull is also a minority owner of the Steelers, with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva awaiting for him at his penthouse Tuesday evening after the game to learn more about business. He’s producing an introductory film for Baseball Hall of Fame visitors. He’s on the board of directors for Carnegie Mellon University, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation, the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution.
He still has one of the greatest baseball memorabilia collections outside of Cooperstown, but this year has given away nearly half of his prized possessions. He donated Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s uniform and bat from Game 7 of the 1960 World Series to the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. He donated 14 items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, everything from Ted Williams’ game-used jersey when he collected his 2,000th hit to Willie Mays’ glove to Aaron’s bat and glove, to Yogi Berra’s catcher’s mitt to Cardinals’ uniforms worn by Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith.
And he has donated artifacts for years to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“To have Thomas on the board is very valuable to the Hall of Fame,’’ says chairman Jane Forbes-Clark. “His appreciation for the history of the game, and what’s needed to tell the story, and to preserve that history, is enormous.
“He would be a wonderful hands-on owner who understands the history of the game.’’
In time, Tull will have his own players to cheer, with his own management staff, and perhaps even with Jeter still as a partner.
“I have two mindsets on owning a team,’’ Tull says. “It would be a tremendous dream come true and a privilege. But on the other hand, I can just go to every ballpark, and just enjoy the games. There’s a component of it that keeps it pure by not being on the business side of it.
“But I love this game so much, do I ever love it. Who wouldn’t want to be part of something so special. And to be involved with Derek Jeter?
“Come on, now think about it, have you ever met someone so lucky as me?’’