Those who know David Einhorn say he is both friendly and disarming, but you wouldn't want to be across a poker table from him.

"You think of hedge fund guys as being full of themselves and he's not," said David Golub, vice chairman of Golub Capital, who sits on a charity board with Einhorn. "He's a brilliant investor, but if you were having a conversation with him, he comes across as funny, self-effacing and modest. That's who he is."

But that doesn't fully explain the Wall Street success of the prospective minority partner in the New York Mets. "He's an extremely competitive person who doesn't lose," Golub said.

 

No say in management

When Einhorn came forward Thursday, he indicated he was comfortable putting in his $200 million and letting the Mets' financially strapped owners, Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz, call the shots. "I'm just looking forward to working with them," he told reporters in a conference call.

Still, the immediate buzz among sports business experts was that he could walk away with the team. "Right now, he's just paying for the most expensive season ticket," Wayne McDonnell, an associate professor of sports management at New York University Friday. "This is probably phase one of a grander plan he has in mind."

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And now reports of emerging details of the deal being negotiated spell out such a possible scenario. The New York Times website and ESPNNewYork.com, each citing an unnamed source with knowledge of the talks, reported yesterday that the agreement, not yet finalized, would have Einhorn buy roughly 33 percent of the team for $200 million. In three years, they quoted a source as saying, Einhorn could raise his stake to 60 percent, or principal owner Fred Wilpon and his family could retain majority ownership by repaying the $200 million investment and still allow Einhorn to keep the 33 percent share.

Einhorn, who was at the Mets game last night, declined to comment through a spokesman.

The Mets organization yesterday said in a statement: "We have entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Mr. Einhorn. Per the terms of that agreement, the substance of the negotiations is strictly confidential."

If Einhorn ends up with a majority share, it may become a case of a nice guy, as described by both long-term associates and poker acquaintances, finishing first. To be sure, a nice guy who played hardball in building his $7.8-billion hedge fund. He famously, and loudly, bet in 2008 that the stock of Lehman Brothers would plummet, cashing in when that giant of the financial game melted down.

Fred G. Weiss, managing director of FGW Associates, a consulting firm, has known Einhorn, 42, for a decade. Weiss calls him "incredibly down-to-earth," lighthearted and generous.

"He is never pretentious," Weiss said. "I can't remember seeing David in a tie. He is about the furthest thing from a prima donna that you would expect."

Weiss said he never plays cards with his friend -- perhaps a wise move since Einhorn finished 18th in the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas in 2006, walking away with $659,730. He donated the money to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, on which Einhorn sits on the board with Golub and Weiss.

"It's the reason I've run the finance committee," said Weiss. "I'd rather have him playing for someone else on our side than play against him."

 

Charity participation

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Daniel Nir, managing partner of Gracie Capital and primary fundraiser for the Tomorrows Children's Fund, counts Einhorn among his biggest donors. Einhorn speaks at the charity's events every year.

"He's confident, friendly and approachable," Nir said. "The guy has a very, very analytical mind."

Dan Nassif, a St. Louis businessman who finished ninth in that same poker tournament, with $1.6 million, spent hours playing at the same table as Einhorn.

"I had no idea who he was," Nassif said. "He was very laid back, respectful and down-to-earth. He was a solid, solid player. I remember he knew the math. You could tell that. He was definitely a player you had to look out for."

And so it may be if Einhorn finalizes his deal to buy a minority stake in the Mets. While that will relieve the team's debt burden, the Wilpons and Katz still are battling to keep the trustee in the Bernard Madoff case from recouping hundreds of millions of dollars from them.

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Einhorn's investment is a "win-win," NYU's McDonnell said. Even if the Madoff cloud lifts, Einhorn will still have his piece of the franchise and will have taken a step toward controlling ownership in the longer run.

Smith College sports business expert Andrew Zimbalist said Einhorn is betting on the Mets' value improving.

"He sees that as a solid investment opportunity going forward. He's buying a distressed asset. He's an investor -- and he's a risk taker," Zimbalist said.

Even if the Wilpons can hang on to the team in the near term, he noted, there could come a point where Jeff Wilpon, as heir apparent, chooses to sell the controlling interest after he inherits it from his father, Zimbalist said.

With John Riley, Neil Best and James T. Madore