Oakland A's Owner Lewis Wolff Discusses Stadium, Team Future

The Oakland A's have stumbled out of the gate in 2009, dealing with injuries, youthful inexperience and players who aren't performing anywhere near their career norms.  And to make matters worse, the A's also recently had to pull the plug on their significant investment and efforts in moving to Fremont. 

I wanted to figure out what happened and what was next for our beloved green and gold.  Will there ever be a new stadium?  Is Oakland still an option?

I decided now would be a good time to catch up with A's managing partner Lew Wolff and while there are many issues he can't answer just now because so much is now up in the air, I think you'll find this very interesting.

Enjoy.

 

Blez:  Hi Lew, how are you?  What have you been up to?

Lew Wolff:  I'm good.  I've been up to nothing, absolutely nothing.  (laughs)

Blez:  Not working hard on anything at all?

Wolff:  Watching 14-inning losses. 

Blez:  That was brutal, huh?

Wolff:  I also saw one in New York a week ago.  In the rain, I sat there and watched it.

Blez:  And you stayed for the whole thing.

Wolff:  The.  Whole.  Thing.

Blez:  There's the type of owner that I want for my team.

Wolff:  I had to duck in and out. When they comped us those seats at the time they were $2,500 a seat.  Of course I could move anywhere I wanted.

Blez:  The park didn't look very full that day either.

Wolff:  It actually was.  The interesting thing is they had very inclement weather and still had about 42,000 people even though those seats that were right on camera looked a little vacant.  But it was a big crowd there and I'm sure at a higher volume of revenue than they had the prior year.  Now whether they can cover their expenses, I don't know (laughs).

Blez:  They're got plenty of them, that's for sure.

Wolff:  It's gorgeous though.  And huge.  It's probably the highest quality ballpark I've ever seen.

Blez:  Were you out there doing a reconnaissance mission?

Wolff:  No, I happened to be there for a Major League Soccer meeting, but it got so boring that I left to go to the ball game.  Well, not boring, but I left (Mike) Crowley there (laughs).  He went to the game the night before.  I didn't get a chance to tour the park but what I saw was unbelievable.  The materials were unbelievable.  But it wasn't as intimate as we're shooting for if we can ever build one.

Blez:  I'll get into that effort in a minute, but I wanted to first thank you for taking the time to talk to me.  I don't have a lot of questions...

Wolff:  I hope not because I don't have a whole lot of answers as we're in the middle of this stuff, but I'm happy to answer where I can.

Blez:  That's what I figured.  It's my responsibility to at least ask the questions even if you can't answer them.

Wolff:  Go ahead.

Blez:  Before we get into what's next for the A's ballpark search, back up and tell me about what happened with Fremont.  The last time we met and did an interview, I know you were pretty frustrated with the whole process because I could see it on your face.  You seemed pretty perturbed with what had been going on.

Wolff:  I'll be happy to give you the details but they're a little complicated.  Basically my frustration was not with the city council.  It wasn't with Fremont.  It was more with two different groups, which I'll explain in a minute, and the process in California where having the elected officials on board isn't enough.  The process has become the end product in California.  So many people live off the process and there's so many ways to stretch the process and thwart it that I wasn't just worried about our ballpark but how you can get things done in California.  We'll find out.  I hope the stimulus package where they're saying things are "shovel ready," which they're going to need to be to create jobs, but if they have to go through the process every time of constant review and consultants and stuff then I'm concerned.  And some of that stuff is very necessary.  Well we could've been under construction next year and had a private stimulus package of our own but that isn't the way it turned out. 

Blez:  So then what happened?

Wolff:  Here's what happened.  Most fans really don't care about the process, I don't think.  They just want to know if we can win games.  But my job is to figure out how we get a facility that will work for us and retain players and so on.  In the area called Pacific Commons, the land that we were buying from Cisco, the adjacent retailers and the actual owner of the site, Cisco, had an option and we were taking their option, on which they had spent a lot of money already.  The company was called Catellus, which is now called ProLogis.  OK so you have a land owner there and Cisco was originally going to do a campus there.  There were some clauses in the transaction before it started that said that if we were proposing something that could be very detrimental to the retailers they could protest it.  Since at that moment, we thought we would be adding potentially 9,000 people living there who could walk to Costco and Lowe's and Kohl's and others we didn't feel that issue was ever going to be a big problem and neither did Cisco. 

Blez:  Because you were going to be bringing them new customers.

Wolff:  Well at the time the market was different.  We were planning on having townhouses and things of that nature.  You have to remember the timing of this because it's very important because that market doesn't exist today.  I don't know how many retail users there are in this area called Pacific Commons, but there are probably about 30-50.  We went out and checked and I don't have the information at my fingertips, but the vast majority couldn't wait for us to do the ballpark.  One of the three larger retailers, and they weren't that large in my opinion, but I think it was Kohl's or Lowe's, I can't recall.  But one of them started to protest our development and we couldn't figure out why they would care if we were there because it would only operate 22 percent of the time that a normal business would.  That on a few days we would have more traffic there than other days, but why would that be terrible for these retailers?  For reasons that only they know, and they claim that they would've accommodated that if the A's had moved the ballpark left or right or so on, they threw a roadblock in front of us, and it wasn't the majority of the retailers, just a couple of them. But we finally realized that we couldn't go ahead because the clause is in there that if we had deteriorated their business, that there was unlimited liability in there that no one was going to take on.  We had probably thought a little bit naively, although I don't think so, that we were adding to their value and adding to the community and that they'd want to see more revenue and jobs for the city created.  I guess they do, but they wanted to do it their way and we couldn't figure out how to do it.  So we really had to give up.  The EIR (Environmental Impact Report) was still under process.  Then the city or someone suggested that we move over to Warm Springs.  That's where they're going to have the funded rapid transit station.  By the way, BART and others were opposing us being at Pacific Commons because it was a mile and half or so from rapid transit.  And obviously it's better to be right at rapid transit but if you're not, we thought we had a bus arrangement and a bunch of other details worked out.  I think the city thought so too.  So we then moved over to Warm Springs which is pretty much a vacant area.  And it's an elevated freeway right there.  Then when it gets to the top, it's one of the widest freeways in California and then drops to the other side.  So if we built the ballpark there or even two or three of them, there would no lights or noise or anything that would bother anybody.  At least we felt that way.  The neighbors on the other side of the elevated freeway, for reasons of their own, did not like the idea and came out in mass against it.  Six or seven hundred of them.  So we went from meeting to meeting trying to explain or at least give it a fair evaluation and so on.  And whether we're right or they're right, it doesn't make any difference.  The issue then came about that even if we got the approval of the city council, in California, an individual or a group with any kind of staying power can file a CEQA (California Environment Quality Act) lawsuit to try and find something wrong with the EIR.  And it can't cost much to do that and there are many attorneys who will take these things.  Even if we won the lawsuit, we could be tied up for two years.  And then there could be an appeal.  I'm not denying their right or desire to protest anything they want. But if their lawsuit didn't work, and they indicated they would file a lawsuit if they could find reasons to, and it's sort of easy to do that with CEQA in environmental areas, then they would ask for a referendum, and it was sort of a never-ending process.  So on one side we had this threat of unlimited liability which they could have just said forget about it, we'll do something great for the community and the other one was the legitimate threat of these lawsuits, whether they were nuisance lawsuits or valid, they still happen.  We had to give up.  For sure we lost $24 million doing it.  We were so confident that what were doing was right, we bought some ancillary real estate around it so that we could make sure we had a controlled environment.  We spent a total of $80 million but we may sell that real estate one of these days.  Course it's probably gone down now.  We made a sincere effort is what I'm saying.  And we we're not hearing people say that we didn't do that in Fremont.  That's the story.  Is that clear?

Blez:  You said you spent $80 million total.

Wolff:  $80 million in real dollars.  I'd be happy to show the chart.  I just want to make sure that you understand that's non-recoverable, that what we can't recover was $24 million.  Not that that's cheap.  The rest of it is in real estate that probably isn't worth what we paid for it today, but maybe.  So I'm not counting that as lost money.

Blez:  The $24 million, what was that spent on?

Wolff:  Studies, consultants, lawyers and we have a list of that.  If somebody wants to come into our office and see where our expenditures were, we would be happy to run down a list for you.

Blez:  When you started talking about the process, you spoke about California more as a whole and how difficult it is to get anything done here.

Wolff:  Yes, it's very difficult.  That's probably true throughout the United States, but I just don't operate in other states.  I want to make it clear to the fans that we're not against the environmental process.  We're against it being used as a lever.  It's sort of like someone who moves close to an airport and then wants to stop the airplanes from flying.  I don't want to look like the mean developer trying to hurt the environment, but if the environmental studies, which they used to have a one-year time limit on, would after one year say yes or no, that would've been great.  But today you can take these suits and this process and string it out long enough so the developer finally tires and says the hell with it.  Either that or the market changes.  We have a project in Fresno where we've been delayed almost two years, with nothing to do with us, but next door a theater owner sued under CEQA and he may have sued for other things, but a six-month delay turned into two years.  We just couldn't continue.

Blez:  Yeah and at some point being a business person you have to realize that it's a lost cause and you need to start looking elsewhere.

Wolff:  I thought we were going to be under construction next year.  No matter what anyone tells you, we are not asking for any public money.  Yet blog after blog said don't believe him, but we really weren't.  Ask the city.  That's the best people to ask.  They were adamant that there wouldn't be any. 

Blez:  You told me that from the very beginning that you weren't going to be asking for any public money.

Wolff:  But what's happened is that if we can't have a site that we can get to, and there is a huge amount of what they call off-site expenditures, that pretty much ruins a ballpark too.  That's the best capsule version.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we could do in Oakland and after we couldn't do that, we looked at Alameda County.  I'm sorry we went as far as we did.

Blez:  Fremont falling through does a few things.  For people who love the Oakland area and the idea of the Oakland A's, they suddenly have renewed hope that the A's have a chance to be back in Oakland now and maybe that door is open again.  You've got the blue ribbon panel from MLB meeting with Mayor Dellums.  It seems like there is a re-investigation of that option publicly. 

Wolff:  Are you asking a question or making a speech?  (laughs)

Blez:  (laughing)  Is that where you go from here?

Wolff:  No.  This is the part where the fans get mad at me and I wish they wouldn't.  We spent almost two and a half years trying to stay in Oakland.  Remember when I bought the team from Schott and Hofmann?  I had had almost two years negotiating with just one of them and then the whole team became available.  I don't know what it is and there's been a lot of talk about this and I haven't really answered it until now and I'm not really even answering it now.  But the one thing I will say is that we spent a great deal of time and energy, more than anybody on any other side, investigating every site that we thought was available in Oakland.  It takes me almost an hour and 45 minutes to go through what we did.  We haven't had that opportunity with certain officials so they can understand what we think we've done to stay in Oakland.  And the door is open there for them to tell me about something that I missed which is not impossible.  But when there were sort of these comments that I overstated my scrutiny of the proposed stadium sites, no one asked me what my scrutiny was.  Not one person.  We finally engaged that recently, people finally said, "Oh I see what you've done here."  So we looked at the sites by the Coliseum.  Downtown was pretty much gone by the time I got there.  Although one of the press articles said I resisted going downtown, but it was already committed to housing by the time I got here.  Oakland is a built-up area.  There aren't a lot of pieces of land that don't have a big expensive component to them to make them work.   I think we analyzed them better than anyone and the only way to determine that is to sit down with me and say, "Lew, what did you do?"  One day if you want to sit down with me, I'll go through it with you.  I believe we've explored everything we could possibly do.  That doesn't mean we haven't missed something, but I can't figure out what it is.  Therefore when someone says you didn't do that, I had to say the truth.  The truth is we explored everything for almost seven years there. 

Blez:  Then how are you viewing the press around Mayor Dellums and the blue ribbon panel and some of the other stuff?  Do you think they're just trying to make noise to put public pressure on you or what do you think is going on there?

Wolff:  Mayor Dellums, at least I consider him, a very direct and understanding individual when it comes to the A's.  He's got a very good staff.  Whether or not he does other things in Oakland that people like or don't like is not my business.  They have been engaged with us recently and just what I'm telling you, we presented what we've done and we're open to hearing anything else.  It should be a two-way street and I'm trying to make it that way, but it's sort of like somebody saying I didn't read the book, but I did read the book.  I'm not sure if that answers your question, but all I'm asking for is for anyone who thinks that we haven't taken a good long look at this for a chance to sit down with me and let me show them what we've done.  Maybe that will open the door for somebody, but we haven't seen it.  We need a new ballpark.  That's all we need.

Blez:  There's already been a lot of discussion and speculation about San Jose.  San Jose remains closed off right now via the MLB territorial rights.  Is that something you're trying to look at right now?

Wolff:  The answer is that we want to stay in Northern California.  When we went to Fremont, there was hardly a word said.  The Oakland people realized we were trying to stay.  The territorial issues are really determined by Major League Baseball, not by me.  Major League Baseball and probably the blue ribbon committee, though I'm not sure if that's accurate...

Blez:  That was how it was reported.

Wolff:  Well they all deserve a blue ribbon because they're all good guys.  But the committee is looking to see if we missed something that we could live with and that's what they're doing.  I applaud them doing it.  So far I think they're working hard on it.

Blez:  Then how are you going about the process then?  Do you have a priority list of places that might have been right there when you decided to try for Fremont?

Wolff:  In Oakland you mean?

Blez:  No, just in Northern California in general.

Wolff:  That's the problem.  In the district we're assigned, it's either Oakland or Fremont.  The ideal location probably would've been, when I got here, not today, downtown Oakland.  When you go downtown you don't have the same issues of parking and traffic and a lot of single family people being concerned.  So most of the ballparks have been built in non-residential areas; San Francisco, San Diego, Denver.   When we couldn't figure out how to do it, we were sort of our own risk of creating a downtown a little bit in Fremont which would've been great but then the market changed a lot for residential and retail.  I don't know if that answers your question.

Blez:  Well you say Northern California that can include a lot of places, places like Sacramento...

Wolff:  I heard they have a pretty nice new ballpark in Omaha but I don't want to have to fly to Omaha to see our games.  The one thing we haven't done no matter what anyone will tell you is that I have never threatened to go to another city outside the state.  Every ballpark effort that I've seen the owner has always threatened to take the team elsewhere if he didn't get this or that.  We haven't done any of that.

Blez:  So do you feel handcuffed right now? 

Wolff:  I feel Major League Baseball has to give us some direction. 

Blez:  So you're waiting on Major League Baseball?

Wolff:  I'm meeting with very nice people at the city of Oakland or anyone who has a legitimate idea and anyone who wants to find out if we were legitimate.  What I didn't want to do is raise the expectation that I couldn't deliver on and for that people jump on you.  But I'm not in the business of not delivering and I haven't been able to deliver.  And I'll take the full responsibility but I want people to at least be charitable enough to find out what we did or didn't do.

Blez:  I imagine you have to be feeling pretty pessimistic after all of this.

Wolff:  In my world, you can't be a pessimist.  If I'm a pessimist then everyone around me is.  I have to look at these injuries as opportunity.  I'm not sure what the opportunity is except maybe to buy an MRI machine.  I believe the cost of indecision is greater than the cost of making a decision in California and I'm hoping it turns out to be that way.  But the sad part is that if we get going somewhere, we can get this done.  But people don't realize the details you have to look at when they say, "Why don't you just go to X?"  Then you go to X and you find out that underneath X is some sewer lines and things that can't be moved that you can't see when you drive by.  I'm just using that as an example.  The depth that we went into, and we had a study done in Oakland with various sites downtown.  Everything from Howard Terminal to the Coliseum itself, and a couple of the sites they recommended were outside Oakland.  One of them was in Fremont and I'm quoted in one of the news articles saying, "No we can't go to a suburb like that."  (laughs)  We need and Major League Baseball wants us to have a modern facility and we're going to be the only ones to not have one soon.  I don't have an answer for you except that blue ribbon committee, that they probably like that (name).  They're hard at work.   I want to keep an open mind, but I honestly think I've done all the work I can do.  But if there's more, someone just has to tell me.  Don't tell me that I didn't do any.

Blez:  Is there any sort of timetable you have in mind right now, or are you just sort of at the mercy of MLB?

Wolff:  We're always at the mercy of MLB.  (laughs)  MLB has to tell us what our next move is and they'll tell us sometime.  Maybe this committee will find something that I didn't notice.  I don't believe they will.  All I want is a ballpark.

Blez:  Is it tough to have this out in the public eye so much?  Speaking as an A's fan, it was good to know that we're secure in the team's future because I know we're moving to Fremont.  I know that's going to happen and we're going to be able to hold onto up-and-coming talent like Cahill and Anderson when their free agent years come.  You get excited about those things as a fan.

Wolff:  I was excited about those things too.  That's the survival of any team.  Part of it, not all of it, deals with the venue.  I forgot the exact date but the Raider deal, I don't remember exactly when that was, but a comment by the elected official said they were spending $38 million on the ballpark to make it a baseball-only ballpark and it seemed like overnight the city was spending $200 million to attract the Raiders back.  I think they gave the A's for their inconvenience $11 million.  This was long before me.  So all of a sudden when it looked like it was improving a facility for baseball was no longer.  I never really saw the ballpark without Mount Davis in it but I heard the view was beautiful and there was supposed to be $36 or $38 million spent and then all of a sudden it turned around and it was $200 million for a different direction.  It's stuff like that that the average fan doesn't think about, and why should they?  I didn't even know that myself.  So we're sitting in a 43-year-old place and in August, the Raiders start their preseason and it's just not good.  And more important is getting a sense of enough revenue that I don't have to depend on the revenue sharing.  There are just 100 different issues, many of which would be resolved if we had a new venue.

Blez:  My point that I was getting to is that is it tough to sell the fans on the idea of the team right now? 

Wolff:  That's a fair question.  I don't know.  We appreciate the fans that come.  I don't want to say something just for the sake of getting someone there.  I'm not the world's leading advocate for transparency, but I am transparent when it comes to the public trust which is what baseball is.  The answer is that I'm not going to say we're going to be there for a long time if we're not and I'm not going to say we're not going to be there for a long time if we are.  Right now I just don't know.

Blez:  It puts you in a tough position.

Wolff:  It's not a tough position in that every owner who needs a new venue goes through this.  I think as long as we're in Oakland and we'll be there for a while, we're a good corporate citizen and we'll be there for a while.  I really resent the fact that people accuse us of not being.  And that's their prerogative.  It's not the fans so much.

Blez:  Who is accusing you of not being a good corporate citizen?

Wolff:  Well when they say that we didn't do this and whatnot.  That's depressing to us.  But that's part of life and isn't a big deal.  I love the fans.  The ones who will still talk to me.  I love baseball.  I'm a fan.  I wish I was just sitting there watching the game and not thinking about this stuff.  Billy (Beane) stayed committed for a long period of time.  Mike (Crowley) as well.  Putting me out of the picture for a moment.  I think other ownership that I look at and not so much the owners, but the management.  I think if Billy didn't have the guys we have, we'd really have a struggle both on and off the playing field.  And we're thankful for those people in the East Bay and Oakland that come to the game but we're not the largest draw.  I hate to talk about our attendance because the people who come are the only ones who have to hear about it.  The other ones who don't come don't really care.  The main thing is that we're trying to do the right thing and if somebody feels we're not, well,  that's their prerogative. 

Blez:  One last question and it's more baseball related...

Wolff:  Yay!

Blez: (laughs) so you'll probably enjoy answering it more.  How do you feel about the team stumbling out of the gate this year and how do you feel about it moving forward for the rest of 2009?

Wolff:  I think we played eight or nine one run games, and we've only won two of them.  We should break even or so, and if we did we would be in a lot different position.  Yesterday I went into a fit of depression.  I spent all day in my house watching the game and we lost.  A lot of this has to do with injuries.  We have a lot of injuries and every team has injuries, but we have Duchscherer...our opening day starter and our closer injured.  Then you've got...

Blez:  Casilla...

Wolff:  Yeah, Casilla is hurt.

Blez:  Bullpen is a bit in shambles right now. 

Wolff:  I thought they were going to have Geren pitch in the last inning.  I felt sorry for him.  That's a game we should've won.  And Ziegler was really under the weather.  In fact all three games in Seattle we should've won. 

Blez:  I agree with you on that one.

Wolff:  One thing that is about a positive about injuries is that you have to rely on guys who might have been one or two years off and no one is an expert on that.  So we got to bring up Petit.  I like that guy and think he's very good.  All of sudden he gets more playing experience.  You have to admit that we have some threats in the lineup.  Or at least we appear to whereas last year we didn't have any.  Billy and Bob are really doing their best with a whole lot of issues.  And if I thought it was diet, training or something I'd do something.  It's just unrelated events that befell us.  Our run differential is very narrow, and the sooner the better that should even out a bit.

Blez:  As usual, I appreciate you taking the time out to speak to me, Lew and clarifying some of the stadium issues.  I know a lot of the fans care a lot about that.

Wolff:  Well I care a lot about them even though they might not think I do.  Thank you, Tyler.

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