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Lewis Wolff: The AN Interview

Lewis Wolff took control of our Oakland Athletics on March 31, 2005. Since that time, he has made quick and decisive moves to ensure some of the key cogs of the franchise stay in place. His first move was to keep Billy Beane as the A's GM and give him an ownership stake.

But topping Wolff's priority list is to get the Oakland Athletics in a brand new stadium.

The A's new managing general partner was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about a variety of issues surrounding the team.


Blez: I am very honored to have a chance to speak with you and I appreciate the time you're taking to speak directly to the hard core fans of this team.

Lewis Wolff: Billy Beane is very excited about your Web site, so that's good enough for me.

Blez: I hope I can get you excited about it as well. I wanted to start off by talking about the transition period and when you first purchased the team. The first couple of months were tough. April was OK, but at the end of May it seemed like this team might be headed for a really tough season. Was that a tough time for you?

Wolff: You've got to remember that Billy went over all the personnel before we bought the team. At almost every position, we had one or more competitive players. I didn't know whether this kind of turnaround would happen. My problem during the time period was that I didn't want the players to get down on themselves. So I was probably the most supportive owner you could find during that time period.

Blez: Billy mentioned that you were worried about him during that time frame and making sure he was up.

Wolff: (Laughing) Well, he's a high-energy guy, so I didn't have to do that too much. I think he was more concerned about me than where the team was headed because he had been through this before. I was very pleased with the effort everybody was making. Like all teams, we had injuries and all the excuses you can have. But the thing that was amazing to me was the spirit of everybody on the team. And I think that it's because it's a young team.

Blez: Did you ever expect the turnaround to be as dramatic as it has been?

Wolff: Absolutely. No, no (laughing). We sort of needed to win two-thirds of our games after the All Star game to be competitive. I didn't think it would be this dramatic, but I'm enjoying it.

Blez: If there is any such thing as an ownership style, how would you describe yours? Being an A's fan, you look back on the Haas family and they kind of ran this team like a public service or a hobby, whereas the perception is that Steve Schott ran it much more like a business and he was always concerned about the bottom line.

Wolff: I wasn't focused on the A's when the Haas family had it. Although I know Wally and I really think he is fantastic. You know, winning is our goal. But that's both on the field and off the field. If you can have a winning team and also have it comfortable profit-wise, that's the balance I'd like to find. I like people a lot. I tend to be more of a motivator than to worry about getting upset. But at the same time, crossing the goal line with a profit is something we need in order to build the team for years to come. I would hope I'd have the good qualities of each.

Blez: It sounds like you're kind of somewhere in the middle.

Wolff: I don't know about the middle, but they both have excellent qualities. Wally I met recently and I really liked him. And Steve Schott did turn over a very well-run business to us.

Blez: That's leads to another question I have. You were able to get an inside look at how the A's are run because Steve Schott brought you in to work on the stadium issue. That's something that isn't often afforded to future owners. From an insider's perspective, what made this team desirable to you?

Wolff: It really gravitates around Billy and his people and Mike Crowley and his people. Plus, Steve was very focused on trying to stay within a budget. Steve was also a very competitive person. I believe we have equal to, if not better than, the best management in baseball. Both on and off the field. That was what I saw when I was snooping around there. (laughing)

Blez: It was obviously pretty important to you because one of the first actions you took was to sign Billy Beane to a long-term extension and give him a stake in the ownership group. Why was that so important to you?

Wolff: I got to know Billy and I'm results-oriented. I think we're the first ownership group to extend a (GM's) contract that long and also work out an equity situation. In talking to someone at the league, the last person they could remember who did something like that was Connie Mack, which is before your time.

Blez: Well, it would be appropriate for the A's organization to be the next to do it so many years later then, I guess. (laughs)

Wolff: Well, you know something about it. I have to tell you that Billy is a unique, grounded individual. Really.

Blez: That's funny that you use that word because so many of his detractors constantly use the word ego when talking about him. I completely disagree with them. But that's what they say.

Wolff: I do not see that at all. There is nothing wrong with a little ego though, let me tell you. Billy is less emotional about some things than I am. It took about two months to get the contract done and it was the single most pleasant negotiation I've ever had. Seriously. Because when Billy saw that something was fair to the ownership side, he would acknowledge it and visa versa. I love negotiating and deal-making, but that was one of the most pleasant experiences I've ever had.

Blez: How is your working relationship with Billy?

Wolff: From my side, it's terrific. He's involving me in a lot of stuff and I'm learning a lot. Obviously the tide is in our favor now, so everyone looks good. I think we have captured the best general manager in baseball and I don't want him to leave. It's much bigger than the book and all that stuff too.

Blez: I think most of the fanbase would agree with you on that. You made a significant statement by signing Mark Kotsay to an extension. Can fans start to believe this is a new era with this ownership group?

Wolff: What's interesting is that we signed a potential free agent there, correct?

Blez: Yes.

Wolff: I saw some nice positive press on it. But I didn't see as much as I would have liked to have seen.

Blez: You've got to read Athletics Nation more often. We were celebrating on there.

Wolff: I have so much to read on a daily basis (laughing). But all kidding aside, the answer is that Billy and I sat down and talked about the economics of it and the value of it to the club and so forth. It's not necessarily setting a trend and it's not necessarily not setting one. One of the things we need to do, and no one feels sorry for owners of baseball teams and I'm not asking anyone to, if you're going to make a long-term commitment to someone you want to make sure that it has an incremental fan interest, right? Over the years, the revenues and the number of fans that come to games and the number of season ticket holders has been the same over the last several years. So sometimes when you sign the hero, you think, well that guy is going to bring in 2,000 more people per game. Part of it is the venue and part of it is the size of the market.

Blez: I was actually going to ask, have you been able to really get your arms around it and why you think those numbers have remained the same?

Wolff: I think there's two things. It isn't news that we suffer in the venue situation. That doesn't mean we're crybabies, it's just the truth. We have something like 7,000 season ticket holders and the Giants have 25,000. We have comparable records, comparable division wins and wild cards, but since the new venue was built over in San Francisco-- I'm not a scientist, but I think that does have some factor. Then the size of the market. I think with a great venue and great venue support--and I'm not talking about the city writing me a check for the venue-- I think we could do a lot better. We're the smallest two market team in baseball. And even the White Sox, and my good friend owns the team, suffers attendance in Chicago. You would think Chicago would have more than enough people to be selling out and they're 14 games ahead right now! We have some challenges and I don't think Steve and Ken Hofmann spent a lot of time on that. They were busy trying to make the team work. We need a new venue and we'd like it to be in the city of Oakland. If not, then in Alameda County. One of the things you're going to see in the next few weeks is that as soon as I say I need government help, everybody thinks I'm talking about a bond issue and a check. What I'm really talking about is someone who will say, my God if we can do a new venue here, what can we do to make it work financially for the developer and the owner? How do we clean up the environment and where is the site? So those are the things we're looking for.

Blez: So what you're saying is that you aren't necessarily looking for funds to build the stadium?

Wolff: The answer is this. Cities have things that are better than funds. I'll give you an example. They have the power to clear property. When you look around Oakland, it's a pretty built-up community. And when you look around the 880 corridor, it is not the world's leading aesthetic (laughing). But all kidding aside, it has BART, it has transportation. What we're hoping for down the road is that there will be some leadership on the public side, and when I say that people immediately say, oh, you want them to pay for it and hand it to you, but that's not true. We're going to get a lot of spins soon saying that if I want some city help on zoning or entitlements, meaning zoning, right away people will be writing letters saying that he wants us to do the same thing that we did for others and the schools suffer and so forth which is true. But we need to have as much creativity on the public side as we do on the private side.

Blez: I wanted to ask how your relationship is with Oakland's public officials right now?

Wolff: So far, it's been terrific, including the county too. Right now we're operating under the JPA (Joint Powers Authority). The reason for that is that they're our landlord and it does include both county and city officials. I think everyone is for doing something. We recognize that the area, especially the city of Oakland, has huge and much more important priorities from school systems to safety. But we're still going to need some acreage to build this ballpark and it was in a blighted area. Do we have the resolve to clear out the blight? Even if we pay for it. The problem is that there are too many of these little blip statements and I need somebody to interact with. And we'll find that person or group. There's been a lot of willingness to help and I think it's up to us to say what we would like if we had a magic wand. We'll be doing that very soon.

Blez: Where do you think the process stands right now?

Wolff: Unless there's a change, I'll be giving an update report soon to the JPA which will be a little more specific than it was a few months ago. That's all I really want to get into at this time.

Blez: Can we go back for a second because I wanted to ask this when we started talking about Kotsay, but how do you feel in general about raising payroll?

Wolff: We haven't really raised it very much. This all really up to Billy and he's an owner now (laughing). And also Major League Baseball doesn't get too happy with owners going out and drunkenly spending money. So we're sort of in the middle. It's skewed by the Yankees and Boston and I think Arizona these days. We are not at the bottom and everyone seems to think we are. We're in the $60 million range. That's a pretty tough bogey for the market we're in and I think we're doing fine, thanks to Billy.

Blez: We were talking earlier and I'm not sure how true some of these things are because they're just things I've seen in the press and whatnot. Perhaps you can confirm or deny them.

Wolff: Then none of them are true (laughing).

Blez: (Laughing) At first, the talk of location for the new stadium was the parking lot of the Coliseum, then it was a waterfront location and the latest that I've read is the Coliseum south area.

Wolff: There's a number of possibilities. All require some significant action on the part of the owner and the public body involved. For example, there are some easements and some power lines involved in the Coliseum land itself, which are things we could probably get by, but at the same time the dislocation of parking while we were building a ballpark would not be very fair to the Warriors, assuming they would agree to it. That isn't the point, but we'd have to be very careful on how to do that. So there's a bunch of balancing acts. We'll need to have private development to build just a ballpark and not take advantage of what it could do aesthetically around it. It seems like a lost opportunity to me.

Blez: Two separate questions. First, are you optimistic about a new stadium getting built? Second, have you set a timetable as to when you'd like to get it done by?

Wolff: I'm optimistic that if there's a mutual vision between us and whatever governmental bodies involved, I believe we can do something unique. I'd like to know where we're headed in some defined time period. I don't want to sit around five years and find out that we can't do something. We're closer to coming up with some ideas along that line. I think the big thing is that it isn't just going to happen without a lot of work between ourselves and whoever we deal with. But so far, everything looks pretty optimistic to me.

Blez: I heard you on the telecast at Angel Stadium talking about the vision of the new stadium and you were saying 32,000-35,000 capacity and maybe even some condos as a part of the outfield.

Wolff: We actually have a pretty good design without a site. Very exciting and those are some of the ideas. Let me ask you a question. A fan heard me on the telecast and wrote in and said I was asking the city for money to lease me a facility. I don't remember saying one word about that except saying that I need governmental help and cooperation. Did you hear anything different than that?

Blez: No, I didn't hear that at all. All I heard was cooperation.

Wolff: See and that's what happens. Not that it means anything, but they've been burned in Oakland.

Blez: You have to take that into account.

Wolff: Yeah, I do, I do. I can't really do this in the press. Maybe in the blog I can, but not in the press.

Blez: You can do anything you want on my blog.

Wolff: I understand. Me and the other 3 billion people on earth (laughing).

Blez: How involved is John Fisher as the majority owner and how interested is he in the team?

Wolff: He's very interested. As you know, baseball only allows one person to have all the control. John is the most supportive person I've ever been associated with. And he's very interested in what's going on, but it's sort of my responsibility.

Blez: How often do you talk to him?

Wolff: Between emailing and stuff, all the time. But we're involved in other things together as well.

Blez: You've been involved in development for quite a while and owned a piece of the Warriors and the St. Louis Blues. How different is it being involved in baseball as compared to some of your other ventures? I know you only have a short experience with it, or a small sample size as they say.

Wolff: As Bud Selig says, baseball is held to a higher standard. The fabric of this sport touches everybody. I went to a birthday party about a year ago for a friend of mine and when I got to the hotel lobby, he was in a Dodgers' uniform. He loves baseball and little league and is a big Dodgers fan. It's just funny how it touches so many people. I think it's America's sport. I don't think anything has replaced it. I don't think the NBA has or hockey. Those are great sports too. But baseball is just special.

Blez: Speaking of being a part of America's fabric, I read somewhere that you grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Are you strictly green and gold now? Have you turned in those red tail feathers yet?

Wolff: I've turned them in. I'm so green and gold that I hang on every pitch, not just every game.

Blez: Do you see every game?

Wolff: Yeah, I live in LA. I think I've attended as many games as the former owners had (laughing).

Blez: Already, huh?

Wolff: Well, I love it. I love the city. I like it better when there's a big crowd. It drives me nuts when we're doing so well and we only have 20,000 or 18,000.

Blez: At least you're getting a lot of walk-ups lately.

Wolff: That's the worst thing that could happen to us.

Blez: Really? Why?

Wolff: Well, let's think it through a little bit. We have the highest walk-ups in Major League Baseball. That is a big black mark against us with the league. Say you're trying to get the vendors ready for the game and you don't know if you're going to have 10,000 people or 20,000. The Giants have the luxury of knowing almost every game where they'll be. This is a serious problem. It's not a plus. Obviously we have a lot of seats because of the Raiders expansion and such. So when people say, "Gee whiz, can you spend more money?", we don't want to gouge anybody but we'd like to be closer to what the Giants are able to do just by way of a neighbor.

Blez: So, when you talk about 32-35 thousand capacity...

Wolff: That will create some scarcity. Not a lot. We still have some great ideas. We want to cater to families still and we aren't looking for the last dollar. But we'd like to be able to manage the dollars that we have. And we don't know sometimes whether to have 100 people working or 200. You need to probably talk to the people that do that to get more detail. But it's just not good. And by the way, even if the Raiders weren't there, it still wouldn't be good. Without the Raiders, we'd still be looking for a modern venue.

Blez: Are you strictly focused on Oakland right now? I live in Sacramento, so I selfishly hope you'll come here, but have you explored any place like Sacramento or Las Vegas?

Wolff: We have time to look at Portland and Las Vegas and places that people keep hearing about. Our focus is in our territory, which is really a district. Our district includes, Alameda County, Contra Costa County and I think Monterey too (laughs), we're not moving down there. We don't have Santa Clara because that was somehow shifted over to the Giants. I am focused totally on our district. In order of priority, I would like to be in the city of Oakland, if we could. If not, something to do with the city and county through the JPA, and otherwise, the county.

Blez: Anything beyond that?

Wolff: I don't know where to go beyond that (laughing). That's all we have the right to do. Now, Sacramento could probably be an area. But I haven't discussed it in any detail with anybody. Right now, I'm not sure whether that's a good market or not.

Blez: Raley Field was actually built so you could build a second and I think third deck on it to make it into a major league ballpark.

Wolff: We want a ballpark without a third deck. I understand the park is great and a friend of mine owns the team. I haven't actually seen it yet but I'm going down with Billy soon to see it. When you're going to make this type of investment whether it's in Oakland or somewhere else in the area, and I'm talking $300-400 million, you should get the biggest bang out of it. San Diego's done a great job. They've benefitted a lot. But Oakland is a tough city. It's built up.

Blez: There isn't a lot of available space, yeah.

Wolff: I like dealing with the people that I've dealt with so far.

Blez: Do you have anything else you'd like to say directly to the fans? The site gets more than 12,000 visits a day and these are some of the most hard core fans.

Wolff: Yeah, but 9,000 of those hits come from me (laughing). We don't want to penalize the fans that come. We'd like to know where the fans are who don't come. One lady who was a season-ticket holder said to me, "We've been season ticket holders for something like two decades. She said to me, thank you. The only thing is we don't come to those games that are crowded." I said, what do you mean? She said, like the Yankees and stuff. Well, the parking lot is crowded and it's hard to get in and out and yet, there are season ticket holders.

Blez: I know I've always had a hard time getting in and out of that parking lot.

Wolff: I've been to a lot of them and the two good features, believe it or not, of the Coliseum is the parking and the ingress, regress. I know it's frustrating any time you dump a lot of people out anywhere. The field itself is one of the best in baseball. It's naturally irrigated because it's 22 feet below sea level. It stays that way until we have to share it with football. Unfortunately, that's usually the time that if we have a shot at the playoffs we're using a patchwork field.

Blez: Lew, I just wanted to thank you so much for taking so much time out to talk to me.

Wolff: I hope it's been valuable for you. I will tell you one more thing. We do not plan to negotiate the stadium through the press.

Blez: I think that's a good thing.

Wolff: You can quote me on that. Tyler, it's nice talking to you and I do look at your Web site a lot and it gives me a lot of insight.

Blez: Thank you so much for that Lew and the time today.

Wolff: My pleasure. We'll do it again.