Lew Wolff On Oakland, San Jose and a Bay Bridge Series: Athletics Nation Exclusive Interview Part I

I'm going to be up front and say that I like A's owner and Managing Partner Lew Wolff. I think he's got a very likable, friendly and sincere personality. I know that he isn't the most popular person on AN for many of the things he's done with the franchise we all love and follow so obsessively. That being said, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lew last week and ask him about many of the issues on A's fans' minds right now. 

As you'll see over the next couple of days, Lew was pretty forthcoming on a wide range of topics with much of the interview focused on the proposed San Jose move. I hope you enjoy the discussion which begins after the jump and in particular the answer he gives me to Bay Bridge question.

Tyler Bleszinski:  I want to start off with the biggest question on A's fans minds right now: Where do things stand on the new stadium front?

Lew Wolff:  First of all, I wish I could give you a finite answer on that. There is actually no reason in the world that any of us can come up with that either the Giants or the baseball Commissioner should not approve us to move 50/60 miles away to San Jose so A's can get a new ballpark.  The Commissioner has a committee that has been doing whatever they have been doing for almost two years now.  The Commissioner is very deliberate in making his decisions. He is not the kind of person, for reasons that I don't know even though we are very close, that gives you a firm date on anything until he is absolutely ready to do so. So I feel embarrassed that I can't answer the question to say, "By the end of November..." but I can't.

TB:  Do you think they're looking at Oakland?  Is that the majority of the study is trying to keep you in Oakland?

LW:  I don't know.  Some fans may not agree, but we have left no option out in seeking to build a new venue in Oakland.  We have exhausted every option in Oakland. And you'd think within the last two years that somebody from Oakland would pick up the phone and say "here's a finite plan that you missed and that we wish to discuss with you." I haven't heard one word. [Whether fans believe me or not]. Look, all I want to do is have a new ballpark, and in California it has to be done with private financing.

For two years during the ownership of Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, and for two years or so after buying the team, we explored every possible opportunity to remain in Oakland. Only after that exploration failed, and it takes me almost two full hours just to review all we did to seek a way to get a new venue in Oakland, then and only then did we alter our focus to Fremont. A new ballpark cannot be implemented by political soundbites or by simply drawing a boundary around various areas. Real and expensive activities need to be in evidence and in my opinion we did not leave a single stone unturned. In fact, I would be delighted to explain to explain to any interested party the full extent of our efforts in Oakland.

TB:  It has been reported, and I have seen it in a couple of different places that you have met with Bud Selig twice over the last little while, and have somewhat of an idea of what the report might say.

LW:  First of all you are assuming that there is a written report. We are all assuming that a committee gets together and puts together a report. I have no clue if that's the case or not. They can just sit down and verbally relate their findings to Commissioner Selig.  When I meet with the committee, they are noncommittal. So this really boils down to the commissioner deciding, which he has the power to do, whether or not he will grant our request to share the Bay Area two-team market as the other three two-team markets in MLB all do. No, I haven't heard much from the Giants either, not that they need to.  And, I treat them respectfully and I think that they treat us respectfully.  But every fact that we have, there is not one item that I can think of that we haven't submitted, touched base with, sometimes two and three times. The committee is looking very hard at the location in downtown San Jose that we believe is the only one available in Northern California.

TB:  So you don't know whether the committee's purpose is to essentially go out there and relook at Oakland?  Cause from what I've read and from what I understand, that was originally the intent of it, to try and see if they can find a way to keep you in Oakland.

LW:  Well, I think that's true.  I think the committee's original charge was to find out if we missed anything, either in Oakland or in Fremont.  It's been 24 months or almost as much, no one has called up and said "Oh boy, you've missed the corner of 3rd and Elm."  So, I really think they've exhausted that.   I know that they're looking at San Jose.  Look, I'm happy to build a ballpark anywhere I can get one but there is much more to doing so than just drawing a line around a few city blocks.  The only site available to us, the only thing that we can possibly do based on the conditions that we have, which is no public money, is to be in a downtown.  We depended on the value of residential entitlements to be able to implement a ballpark outside of a downtown. When I arrived in Oakland, now seven years ago, the number one location for the new ballpark was, according to a study prepared by an outside consultant, what they called the "uptown site" (which was in downtown). Just as we began to look for a new venue the highest recommended site was designated for badly needed residential, thus the best opportunity was not available to us or the Hofmann-Schott ownership. We need a new venue to be competitive for many reasons, one being attracting players to entice them to come to Oakland. We have lost players in past years who would rather take a bit less money and play in a modern venue in a stronger market. And we are, I believe, the only team in baseball to share our ballpark with another professional sports team.

TB:  Miami is too, right?

LW:  No, I think they just play there by themselves.  I think it is a football stadium, but they play there without a team there. 

TB:  So the short answer is that you don't really know where things stand right now.

LW:  Correct.  My associates say, "Be patient."  But our options are very limited.  The biggest problem we have is that we're not told anything.  In other words, it's better to have a know than nothing.  A limbo, I guess.

TB:  For someone like yourself who's a builder and been involved in real estate for many years, it must be your own personal hell, kind of - in a way,  to be involved in limbo like that. A "no" answer is better than no answer at all.

LW:  It is, it's terrible.  First of all, it's not just me - it's our entire A's operation that's hurt.  We can't tell our fans where we're going to be.  The city or the county do not have any funds available to properly maintain the Coliseum.  It's not our building.  It's someone else's building. 

TB:  It has also been reported that the San Jose Redevelopment Agency was low on funds and that you stepped up to help out and make sure that the ballpark remained a reality.  Is that the case?

LW:  Every redevelopment agency, every city is having financial trouble.  San Jose has purchased a very high percentage of the land designated for the ballpark, everything but one or two parcels.  I don't want to commit to this, but if San Jose didn't have the funds to finish, and by the way, they have excess land that they can sell - there are several different ways of doing this, so that is not an issue of delay for us.

TB:  You don't think it is?

LW:  No, not at all.  And, we can buy the land ourselves.  And we would probably get a good deal from them because they need the money - there are numerous ways to do this.

TB:  So, you clearly have a bit of a different relationship with Bud Selig than probably most of the owners in baseball do, considering the fact that you do have a more personal relationship with him, going back years.

LW:  My partner John Fisher and I are in baseball thanks to Bud and we deeply appreciate his support for him to allow us to join MLB. I think we've exhausted whatever perception there is (of us having a special relationship).  The Commissioner has not done anything relative to this issue special for me.  In fact, it has made him more and more careful about doing it. 

TB:  You mention everything is in limbo right now.  Do you have any sort of estimate or timetable right now for when things might move forward?  You can't call up Bud and say, "Hey, it's been 24 months, am I going to hear anything anytime soon?"

LW:  I talk to him all the time on many different matters.  The Commissioner has a process and we're adhering to it.

TB:  Who is on this committee?

LW:  There are three people on the committee.  One is Corey Bush, he used to be with the Giants sometime ago - he lives in the Bay Area.  You can talk to Corey, but I doubt he's in a position to tell you anything.  The head person, if there is a head person, is a guy named Bob Starkey, a full-time consultant for baseball and different things, and very trusted very much by Bud - he lives in Minneapolis.  Then there is a terrific, and very professional guy, Irwin Raij, who is an attorney with a law firm that represents a lot of stuff for baseball.  So these are the three people on the committee.  Also Bob DuPuy, the special advisor to the Commissioner and former president of MLB, is deeply involved in the committee. All four are fine individuals.

TB:  You mention the Giants earlier - you, or the A's took out a full page ad congratulating the Giants - {LW:  I didn't see it} one of the things it said was, "We are Inspired."  {LW: Oh, that's good!}  Does this mean that we can look forward to a Bay Bridge series in 2011?

LW:  {laughter} Well, that's a great question.  The answer is yes.  Now Billy tends to want to hold down expectations, and I'm always trying to raise expectations.

TB:  Also along the lines of the Giants - do you think the Giants' World Series title has a positive or negative impact on your chances of getting a new ballpark in San Jose?

LW:  I believe that this is a very good question and it's been asked a lot.  My partners say to me, "My God - are the Giants worried saying that they're going to go out of business if we go to San Jose? The Giants are doing great and there's no way the A's having a new ballpark 50 miles away will harm the Giants."  I hope it has some influence, but it shouldn't be based on them having to win the World Series for us to be able to move.  We have a two team market - one team is playing in a terrific stadium, in a downtown stadium, where there are millions of square feet of office space, hundreds, maybe thousands of apartments, hotels and a convention center - all within walking distance.  We're 14 or 15 miles away in a decaying venue, and all we're asking, if it's a two team market, is an opportunity to move 50 miles away in downtown San Jose, and build a nice looking ballpark. What's so hard about that?

TB:  If you would look at it from the Giants' perspective, obviously one of the things, at least from a layman's perspective that makes San Jose so appealing to someone like yourself, and even to the Giants, is that obviously there is a lot of Silicon Valley money there.

LW:  If the Giants want to move there, we'll take their ballpark as is right now (laughing).  It's a two team market.

TB:   But they're asking for the whole.  In my view, they're asking for the whole pie. 

LW:  When I joined the MLB partnership, Bud stressed that he hoped our ownership would be a great part of the baseball partnership I think what the Commissioner means is that we all should compete, but on the field, not trying to stop each other off-the-field. The partners (owners) in baseball are individuals and families who seek to put the game of baseball first and their own teams a close second. MLB is a historic American institution and I believe the vast majority of owners recognize the high standards that Bud has set for MLB. I didn't put the A's in the Bay Area.  But if you landed from Mars today, and you brought a ball team with you, and you looked down and saw that there was one team already in San Francisco - where would the logical place to locate another one be?  I think in another population center that has a million people.  So, yes -the Giants value their franchise and it would be the same if it were us.  If we disappeared or moved, it would be huge for the remaining team.  I mean, it's huge now.  It would probably end up a double.  Second best would be if we ended up in an inferior location - both population wise, access wise, physical wise, you know.  But, I can't imagine why they would want to care so much.  And, I'm not saying that they do.  But the decision really isn't mine or the Giants; it really is up to baseball.

TB:  But you could see why they would be happy with you being stuck in the Coliseum.

LW:  I don't know (Giants owner) Bill Neukom that well, but I don't see him as that venal and vice versa.   The Haas family, they're the ones that when baseball said, "The Giants wanted to move to San Jose, do you mind if we give them that opportunity and area?"  - I wasn't around then.  The Haas family said for the good of baseball, they would do it.  Our situation is for the good of baseball.  There are 28 teams that are in top notch facilities, only two are not and we're one of them.

TB:  But the skeptical person, the A's fan - there is a different mentality where they think; of course the Giants are going to try to block them.  They're going to try to keep them in the Coliseum, so that eventually Lew Wolff is going to move the team out of state and they have the whole market to themselves.

LW:  I am unwilling to accept that the Giants seek such an outcome. I believe in the MLB partnership and I think the Giants do as well.

TB:  Yes, I was going to say - I don't know if all owners view it that way.

LW:  I deal with almost all the owners because of a couple of committees that I'm on.  They're not going to vote unless Bud calls a vote; on any matter - in other words, I am not going to campaign for our request.  But there is no logic that we know of - and part of it is for the good of baseball.  Why should we be totally dependent on revenue sharing for the rest of our days when we had a pretty good year ourselves - not as good as the Giants.  We have to work very hard to compete next year, the three other teams in our division, will all have payrolls north of $100 million.  We can't do that.  We can do that if we want to lose $25 million every year.  Winning the World Series and losing money would not be a win in our minds.

TB:  I was going to say, it wouldn't?

LW:  It wouldn't.  Because then you're doing sort of what Miami's done with basketball this year and what the Lakers did a few years ago - they got the stars from five different teams paid through the nose and ended up losing, by the way.  And then they broke up those teams.

TB:  It's rare these days to find a sports owner who is willing to lose money.

LW:  We can't afford it because all we would do is dismantle a team.  We would rather build a team.  This is the key part - we're building a team - and when you're building a team you also have to continue the pipeline, so where do you start?  You know, pitching.

TB:  That's how the Giants won the World Series.

LW:  The Giants have done a great job.  That's what we're doing.  The difference between the two teams is that the Giants have a revenue stream that will allow them to perhaps reach further to maintain some of their pitchers and other talent more than we can, even though we're trying to do that within our own limitations - as you know we recently signed a contract with Brett Anderson and Kurt Suzuki and we'll probably do something with a couple of others.  But those were big strains for us; they're nothing for the teams that have a decent venue and a decent revenue stream.  All we're looking for is a viable venue.

TB:  I think a lot of people feel or a lot of A's fans - the hardcore ones that are coming out to the game right now and still paying for the product - I think a lot of them feel like they're trapped in the limbo that you're trapped in, and a couple of the comments of people on AN were actually saying, "Why don't they at least do something to the Coliseum now so that we can actually enjoy the baseball that we have now, or at least do something about where you are now."

LW:  Tell us what that would be.  Here's the problem, if it was a matter of $5 million or $10 million to fix up the coliseum so that everybody has a good experience we would do it - but it's not the case. First of all, the Coliseum is owned jointly by the city and county.  Second, it's been bastardized for football, as you know - the Raiders themselves are having issues, and the Coliseum is 22 feet (I think) below sea level.

TB:  The Coliseum is 22 feet below sea level?

LW:  The problems with the Coliseum are in the hundreds. The sea level issue is not a factor as long as you want to have the seating bowl as is currently the case. But to improve the Coliseum, all the current concrete stands would have to be demolished and the seating moved closer to the field. Due to the water table, a total rebuild would be necessary. To build a new ballpark on the Coliseum land (something I assumed we could do) is not as possible as those who offer designs without an in-depth study of the site constantly teed up. There is a non-movable East Bay mud major easement that transverses the Coliseum property running between the arena and the stadium. I cannot tell how many "experts" did not take the time to locate and consider just this one factor when they presented the drawing that purported to show a ballpark and a football field on the same property. Hard study of all sites need to be expended, not sound bites from those who would rather us remain in a decaying building than be able to compete like all the MLB teams. Your question is fair and great but the answers take a great deal of time to explain. I'm happy to do so in person to anyone who is willing to listen.

 

Coming Wednesday: Lew addresses whether Fremont was ever a real plan or a smokescreen to open up San Jose, discusses how Oakland differs from San Jose in development and whether or not the team will be chasing someone like Carl Crawford this offseason.

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