By Ed Welles

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Donald Watkins grew up in Montgomery, Ala., during the epic years of the city bus boycott. He recalls days at school when protesters faced down police on the street outside. "There were two lessons going on there," Watkins recalls: "whatever was being taught in the classroom and the history lesson outside." The latter taught him that one generation was putting its lives on the line for the next, and, as Watkins puts it, "When that door opened to a new world for us, we would be ready to take our place in it."

Watkins, now 53, has since taken his place and then some.

Two-and-a-half years ago he founded Birmingham-based Alamerica Bank, which targets fast-growing businesses. Having turned that business profitable in just five months, Watkins is now acquiring two other banks, each with three times more assets than Alamerica. Watkins' banking success has dovetailed with other shrewd investing--in oil, timber, and real estate--to make him wealthy enough to pursue his ultimate goal: to become the first African-American owner of a major sports franchise.

He wants to buy a big-league baseball team. He inquired about buying the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last spring. And he submitted an offer for the Minnesota Twins last winter, which helped complicate baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to close the team. Watkins' third bid may be the charmed one. For the past three years it has been well known in baseball circles that Disney, which owns the California Angels, has had the team on the block for between $250 million and $300 million. Having reviewed the team's financials, Watkins has shelled out $150 million as a down payment, according to a knowledgeable source. Watkins, who makes no secret of his desire to land the team, refuses to discuss the transaction publicly. Both the Angels and Major League Baseball declined to respond to FSB's inquiries about Watkins, though they did acknowledge his interest in buying the team.

But does he have the resources? Jonathan Rose, Watkins' attorney, says that Watkins' wealth is a "legitimate concern" because his assets are privately held and hard to value. Still, "he's determined to make this work," says Rose. Watkins believes he has the drive of the proverbial outsider to run a sports franchise more imaginatively than his entrenched peers. "There will be my team, and then there will be the 29 others," he vows.

Lanky, informal, and affable, watkins, 53, is given to wearing jeans to work and dangling a long leg over the arm of his chair when in conversation. My first meeting with him is at the noon hour, and we walk to a nearby Birmingham restaurant. He begins by saying, "Let me tell you the whole story, and then you can figure out what you want to focus on," suggesting that in return I put my notebook aside. It is a disarming gambit, allowing the seemingly expansive Watkins, a litigator by training and certainly by instinct, plenty of time to size me up.

Here's what I learned, with and without the notebook: A seminal figure in Watkins' life was his grandfather, Adam, who owned a plumbing business in Tennessee. Beginning at age 9, Watkins worked for him during the summer. He recalls that what distinguished his grandfather's business was its "crossover" nature, meaning that it served both whites and blacks. "That was rare in those days," he says. And it taught Watkins a valuable lesson: "A quality product or service transcends artificial barriers, such as race."

Watkins went out of state to college in Illinois but then returned after winning an NAACP-sponsored scholarship aimed at desegregating the University of Alabama Law School. He was one of just two blacks in his class. Shunned by his classmates and so lacking study partners, he received wisdom from a janitor who approached him as he was buying his books. His whispered advice to Watkins: Don't buy new books. Buy secondhand books turned in by last semester's A students. (The grades had been posted out in the hall.) Find the A student who had written the most notations in the margins and buy his books. That phantom scholar will be your study partner.

In 1973, the year he graduated from law school, there were just 15 black attorneys practicing in Alabama. Watkins went to work for a civil rights lawyer, Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks in her landmark case against the Montgomery Bus Co. The first case Watkins worked on involved winning a pardon for Clarence Norris, one of the nine Scottsboro Boys falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. That effort, which lasted three years, became possible only because another black attorney, Milton Davis, had risen to state assistant attorney general.

Now as Watkins negotiates to buy a sports club, he speaks to Davis daily for advice. "I tell him everything. I'll give him verbatim the scenario of a meeting, who said what, how somebody might have gestured," says Watkins. "And then I'll ask him to interpret. He's a way for me to check and balance myself."

For his part, Davis calls Watkins an "immense talent." When I ask if he believes Watkins has the financial resources to buy a baseball team, he replies, "That's an ignorant question. The only reason you're asking that is because he's an African American."

Davis' staunch loyalty is a testament to a Watkins hallmark--collecting movers, shakers, doers, and fixers to help him build his businesses. "Relationships mean more than money to me," says Watkins. (In truth, it would be equally accurate to say that in Watkins' case, relationships have meant lots of money.) He seems, indeed, to have a near karmic ability to encounter the right people at the right time. "I've always looked for mentors," he says. "Once I recognize that a person is talented, I want to know what they know."

Larry Tate is one such talent. Watkins met Tate when Uniontown, Ala., elected a black mayor, Andrew Hayden, in 1973. Hayden inherited a town treasury that had been all but depleted by previous administrations. Watkins, hired as the town's attorney, worked with Hayden and Tate, the white local banker, to pull the town back from the brink of economic ruin.

The two men kept up over the years, and when Watkins was ready to open his bank, he knew that Tate, who in the interim had run five other banks, was the right man for the job. During the 1980s, Watkins had built his law practice doing a lot of corporate work. By then he sensed the next swing in the national agenda, represented by Ronald Reagan's election to President in 1980. Pushing the civil rights agenda translated as economic empowerment, or as he puts it: "You have to own something and be in charge." Watkins became increasingly determined to build businesses.

He learned how to do so the best way he knew: by finding a mentor. After winning a personal-injury case, Watkins started seeking a money manager for his client's large settlement. He met Nathan Chapman, an African-American investment banker at Alex. Brown in Baltimore. Watkins recognized he could profit from Chapman's keen business mind. "I would ride with him and learn the world of finance and investment banking," he recalls: "how you put deals together and how you price them."

Watkins says that if his grade school education in entrepreneurship came from his grandfather, Chapman provided the high school equivalent. Daryl Harms, another advocate and friend, provided his post-graduate instruction.

The two had attended college together at Southern Illinois University, but then their paths had diverged--until Harms ended up in Birmingham. Over the years Watkins kept tabs on Harms, who made early and large investments in cable television, wireless telephony, and home-security systems. In fact, Harms has built some of the largest privately held companies in the country in those industries--and then sold out as others flocked to those markets. Harms' company, the Masada Resource Group, sold its cellular and home-security businesses alone for more than $800 million in 1997.

That set Masada up for another, even bigger deal, Masada Oxynol, in which Watkins is an investor. Masada Oxynol holds the rights to a patented technology that converts garbage and sludge into ethanol and other useful industrial byproducts, at 90% efficiency. The process, Watkins claims, has global implications, given its promise of reducing waste, emissions, and American dependence on foreign oil.

While Watkins asserts that "people all around the globe want to buy my rights to this technology all the time," he declines to discuss the extent of his wealth. "It's bad business to publicize your net worth because when you move to do the next deal, people know your limitations and you can't negotiate effectively," he says.

As for the deal currently before him, he says that only Major League Baseball needs to know the true depth of his pockets, and there he has fully complied. Watkins notes that the league "has a detailed application, which includes extensive financial disclosure," and he insists that he has "systematically" valued his assets conservatively. Moreover, he adds that both the Twins and the Angels have shared their financials with him--something they wouldn't have done if they didn't first deem him a qualified buyer.

Watkins first decided he wanted to buy a sports team 20 years ago. At the time he couldn't help but notice how sports coverage filled a quarter of the daily newspaper and was proliferating with the growth of cable TV. "It was big business," he says.

Watkins' four sons, meanwhile, were getting interested in sports. But unlike most fathers, Watkins discouraged them from actually participating. "I preached to them that it was more important to own a team than to play on one," he says with a serious face. Asked how he could fashion a credible argument favoring the abstraction of future ownership over the immediate joy of chasing a ball around, Watkins replies, "I told them, 'I'm serious. We need to start preparing ourselves to own a team.' I told them I would follow through on that, and they saw I was sincere."

Watkins says he has chosen baseball for two reasons, both related to power and money. First, baseball is the most select club he can find to join; there are just 30 franchises in the world--and all of them are happily exempt from antitrust laws. As for the money, Watkins says, "People who go to baseball games have healthy disposable incomes." And with 81 home dates each season, he sees more chances to tap those incomes.

Watkins is in fact now in the process of figuring out how to do just that; he's been busily poring over the Angels' financials, trying to calculate what the team is really worth. Tireless student that he is, Watkins has also dissected every professional sports stadium construction deal he can find over the past 20 years. He is engaged in a similar study concerning broadcast rights and the sales of teams.

Watkins plans on being a sole owner. "I can't be part of a committee or ownership group, no question about that," he says. (His bank employs all of 12 people and qualifies borrowers in as little as two days.) He will hire one key employee, a CEO, to run the team and make daily decisions. During games, Watkins will sit in the stands, sowing goodwill as he turns over his owner's box at each game to some lucky fan family chosen at random. Meanwhile, he says he will use the same restrooms and concession stands as the fans--"It's the ultimate form of quality control"--and personally market stadium luxury suites so that he can troll for business contacts. Says Watkins of this effort: "I need to know who's living in my house."

By being an on-the-ground, flesh-pressing presence, Watkins also believes he can inspire loyalty among his players--known more for their self-interested urges. "If you want to set records on compensation, we may not be the team for you, but if you want to win championships and play with other champions, you will want to play for us," he says. The best players, he asserts, will eschew the top dollar in favor of a clutch of World Series rings. "Winners like to be around winners," he says.

When Watkins looks at a baseball stadium, he doesn't see a ball yard surrounded by asphalt but a "footprint" to be filled with nightclubs, movie theaters, and restaurants, which he will co-develop with their owners and in which he will share a piece of the action. He sees a stadium as a people magnet, the hub of an "entertainment zone." It will thrive even when his team is on the road because Watkins will push to book the stadium as often as possible. "We want to have money coming out of that footprint every day," he says.

Like a star athlete, Watkins says he can achieve his goal by visualizing it. "Every industry I've been in, I fast-forward five years and imagine myself at my goal," he says. "Then I figure out what it takes to get there. It works every time." (In fact, every night as Watkins goes to bed, he assesses what he has done that day to move him nearer to each of his various goals.) So where will Watkins be five years from now in baseball? "I'll be holding my second or third World Series trophy," he replies without hesitation. "My goal is to dominate the sport."

Surely Watkins can't be the first would-be owner to think this way. But he argues that often baseball teams are run as distant divisions of large corporations or as trophies for men who have gotten quite rich in other industries. They have not been, historically, run as hands-on moneymaking ventures. "I know that I will have to find a way to pay for every expense item, and one thing I know I can do is develop revenue streams," says Watkins.

As a case in point, Watkins, after his first pass over the Angels' financials, notes the following: The stadium is used on only ten other days each year beyond home games. Watkins believes that the area around the park is ripe for development--particularly given its proximity to Disneyland--and that the Angels could do a better job of marketing to Hispanics, a big, baseball-loving demographic in Southern California.

Jonathan Rose says that he could be a catalyst for new thinking in a sport that seems hopelessly stalemated between the big-market haves and small-market have-nots. "He doesn't have a habit of failing," says Rose. "He's a very strong and savvy guy." Savvy, too, for choosing Rose as his counsel. Rose served in various Republican Administrations and is now a senior partner at the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue. Says Watkins: "When you're black and you're from Alabama, it's important who your team members are."

Right now, the man Watkins hopes to team up with is Bud Selig, of whom he says, "I hope I can come in on his watch." A spokesman for the Major League Baseball commissioner says Selig has met Watkins but would not have cause to judge his fitness as an owner until he comes to terms with a seller. Reflecting the game's clubbish nature and perhaps the prospect that Watkins may be close to a deal, others close to the action are similarly tightlipped. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf declined to comment. Bill Bartholome, chairman of the Atlanta Braves and head of the league's ownership committee, did not return calls. Watkins has met with both men--among many others--as he's worked to crack the protocol code that would admit him to baseball's inner circle. "I kept thinking that if you had the money that would be enough," he says. But something hasn't felt right. That has prompted more calls to his mentor, Milton Davis--now as often as three times a day. Davis, Watkins says, helped him frame the question he feels he needs to answer: "What do you bring to the table that they don't already have?"

Now, sitting at the table in the hushed quiet of his favorite lunch spot, Watkins wonders whether he's sure of the answer himself. His confident facade shows a fissure or two. "Do you think I'm crazy?" he asks about his quest to land a team. He admits that until recently he worried that Major League Baseball would never let him in. But those fears have since dissipated. "This month I realized I am in a placement program," he explains. "The league will help me find the opportunity that will give me the best chance for success."

And then he gives voice to the subtext that has been there all along: "No black man has ever owned a major sports team before," he says. It is 1947 again, with Donald Watkins as Jackie Robinson, the man who was handpicked as the "right" player to break through the color barrier. Perhaps Watkins, for all he has accomplished thus far, must stoop to a similar sort of scrutiny before he can finally rise.

"Once I pull this acquisition off, no one is going to underestimate me anymore," says Watkins, who knows he has the right stuff. Soon he'll know: Does Major League Baseball think so too?