Yesterday was Part I of the Athletics Nation exclusive interview with A's managing general partner Lewis Wolff. Today is Part II.
Blez: Would it be fair for the fans to give up on the A’s for a couple of seasons since most of them seem to think, probably rightly so, that the team won’t truly compete? These are hardcore fans that are saying this.
Wolff: Do I think it’s right? I think it’s their privilege. I would hope they wouldn’t. The fan we need is someone who understands us and feels like we did the right thing. The fan that wants to see Gio Gonzalez have a good game and then a bad game and a good game and to see where he’s going. But that’s a sophisticated fan. I’m not saying they need a Harvard degree. Also our venue is such that there is really no scarcity of seating. Even with the tarp. We have not filled up very often. Even during our playoff run. So the fans in Oakland have the luxury of going to the game if they want to and they don’t have to worry about getting a ticket. That luxury is nice for the fans and not so great for the owner. (laughs)
Blez: I’m going to get to the tarp and the Coliseum a little later, but how do you sell a team that is in rebuilding mode to a market that at times can be ambivalent? The Coliseum wasn’t even selling out when the A’s were the class of the AL a few seasons back. Does it take a World Series victory or even two to motivate these fans again? Or is this just a dead market?
Wolff: I do think that the proximity between us and the Giants hurts. They’ve actually moved closer to us. The six years prior to the year 2000, the Giants outdrew us by around a half a million on average per year. In 2000 they opened the new ballpark and the attendance has jumped and pretty much has stayed there. The difference is now about a million and a half although I haven’t checked it this year. That (the new venue) has something to do with it. Maybe not 100 percent. Secondly, Barry Bonds was a big attraction there and we didn’t have Barry Bonds. The other side of it is the demographic. Both the Giants and ourselves have a lot of water in front of us so there isn’t anyone else living there. A couple of other owners tease us that we may be the only inelastic demand team in baseball. That means that if you won the World Series, the next year would you have two and half or three million out there? In other words, our band of attendance has been approximately 1.7-2.1 million, win or lose that’s where we’ve been.
Blez: Does that make you feel helpless as an owner? It has to be really frustrating that no matter the product you put on the field you’re in the same range.
Wolff: It’s a very helpless feeling. It’s been the saddest thing. And I want to be careful here because the people who do come, they deserve whatever we can give them and we’ve tried to do that. I always laugh because we have $2 Wednesday night and dollar hot dogs with a limit of 10.
Blez: I was thinking I could go over that, easily.
Wolff: (laughing) I want to be able to drive the person home who eats all 10. But I don’t know too many ballparks that offer that opportunity. That’s just our current market. It’s challenging. All I would like is to have more fans and we have to earn that. We can’t ask them to just voluntarily show up. So our players when they go out on the field are stimulated by a full stadium. We have to earn that though. We can’t ask the fans to do our players a favor and come to a game. I’m not suggesting that. We have a 40-year-old facility which we share with a football team and we’re in a market that is somewhat lesser than the market 16 miles away. We have our challenges. We bought the team knowing that. But we did buy the team with the idea that we’d get a new venue in the general area. If we can produce that, we’ll do everyone a favor even though some say, well you’re moving to Fremont that’s like you’re moving to Las Vegas or something. We don’t consider it that way, but fans might. We’re not looking to have a huge increase in ticket price, we’re looking for a huge increase in attendance.
Blez: You mentioned Barry Bonds twice now. He’s been sitting out there the whole year. Would it hurt in a rebuilding year to have him here? People want to come out and see the circus sideshow that is the Bonds traveling circus.
Wolff: Yes, it would hurt. Look, Barry’s statistics for the year before were very high on our special rankings. He’s a great player. But he would need playing time and would he attract more people or would he not? We had just as many people telling us that they would never come to another game again if we signed Bonds.
Blez: People may say that now, but I honestly think it would be different if it actually happened.
Wolff: You’re right. It would fade. The answer is that if we felt we were competitive and going to be making a run at the playoffs, someone like him, and it wouldn’t have to be him necessarily because there were two or three others out there like him like Jason Bay.
Blez: But no one is the sideshow attraction that Bonds is.
Wolff: The sideshow could be putting all the players in dresses but I don’t want to do that and I don’t think Billy would want to either, just to have a sideshow. If we were to sign Bonds or anyone else, it would be to have them fit into our program. Then we might not be able to play Ryan Sweeney, just as an example. That wouldn’t work for us. Then we’re really cheating ourselves and the fans except for one period of press.
Blez: The thing that someone could very easily respond to that is by saying that you’re playing Frank Thomas right now and Thomas is similar in that he’s a designated hitter, he’s an older guy. The difference is that Bonds would sell tickets and fill up that stadium. It would increase media exposure for the team. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing, but it when you talk about filling the stadium that would be a way to do it.
Wolff: We thought about it and he’s a great player. I’m surprised no one has picked him up. But it really wasn’t an overriding issue for us. We want to build something even when you’re tempted to do something like that. As far as the DH side of it, we have Mike Sweeney too. We’re probably not going to do so much of that in the future. Piazza was fun to have but these guys tend to get hurt as they get older.
Blez: Just like Frank did.
Wolff: Frank is a jewel of a guy. And so was Mike. As I said, the idea is that we want to have a long-term consistent plan where people are saying, look at the A’s they’ve done so well for X number of years in a row. We’re not going to do that by bringing in a character actor for one role.
Blez: Does the transient nature of A’s players impact how dedicated the fans are in following the team? Everyone gets attached to a player. It’s human nature. Billy has always talked about rooting for the name on the front and not on the back and how important that is but you inevitably get attached to the players you see on the field. You’re a fan yourself. You love Nick Swisher. Does that make it a bit of a challenge in that it seems like every player someone might fall in love with as a player, outside of Eric Chavez, in the last 10 years or so, has left or been traded? Does that stop?
Wolff: You have to look back at when it started. In the sense that you need to look at other teams and see if they’ve produced lineups that have been consistent during that time span. That’s the first thing and I think you’ll find that you don’t have any more Stan Musial’s when every day I got up in St. Louis and knew he was going to be with the team, whether it was in last place or first place. With free agency, those days are gone. I think, at least on my watch with Billy, you should measure each and every trade. We had signed Nick and extended him to a great contract. We had to look at where we were going. We can’t just keep him because everyone loves him. We could have the nicest guys in baseball but we can’t do that. Billy always says to reporters, well, tell me which guy I should’ve kept and compare him with what we got for him. If you really get into it with a deep thinking fan, on balance, I think he’s done really spectacular. It’s going to be a test over the next couple of years but I think we’re loaded with young pitching and that seems to be the spine of every great team. Everyone is calling us about our pitchers. They’re going to have some bumps as they get used to the majors as it’s a big jump from Triple-A to the majors. But as far as keeping people since I’ve been there, Kendall is a great guy who I love but I think the replacement worked out well and I think he’s doing OK where he’s at. Barry (Zito) was someone we couldn’t afford to keep even if we wanted to. We measured him as we had him. Even if he won 20 games, we weren’t going to give a six or seven year deal. It just wasn’t going to happen. And any fan that wants us to do that is going to be disappointed because that just isn’t us. We want to be younger and faster. We’re running more this year. We’re doing a lot of things that people may not see. One of my favorite ballplayers is (Chone) Figgins and we’re getting a couple of guys like that.
Blez: Like drafting Weeks in the first round. Patterson is another one.
Wolff: Yeah, right, good point.
TOMORROW: Lew discusses the impact of revenue sharing, the decision to sign Inoa and the decision to go into rebuilding mode.