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AN Visits with Lewis Wolff

Lewis Wolff has had a very eventful first 10 months as managing partner of the Oakland Athletics.

He took ownership of a team that was suddenly tabbed with the rebuilding label. The 2005 team was supposed to struggle and did out of the gate. But then something remarkable happened when the team suddenly got healthy and had the best record in baseball for a couple of months. The team faded at the end, but that has only buoyed Wolff's hopes for this 2006 season.

Wolff also unveiled a new stadium design and proposed location and, well, he addresses that stadium proposal status below. Then Wolff recently made the decision based on a Mike Crowley recommendation to close the third deck for the entire 2006 season. That decision has been met with a mixed reaction ranging from furious anger to conspiracy theories.

Wolff took the time yesterday to talk with me for 45 minutes. What follows is my Valentine's Day present to you. Enjoy.

Blez: How has your first year of owning the A's gone? I think it's coming up on a year now.

Lewis Wolff: We're in our tenth month and I think we've accomplished, thanks to Billy Beane and Mike Crowley and the staff, a tremendous amount and much more than I anticipated would happen in such a short period of time. I asked the commissioner for something the other day and he said, "You haven't even been in a year yet." I said, "Well we've put in about five years' work in one year, so I think we deserve it." (laughing)

Blez: What were you asking him for, if you don't mind me asking?

Wolff: We'll stay off of that one.

Blez: OK. What do you think are some of the highlights of this past year?

Wolff: It was my goal to have the ownership bond as much as possible with the community and the fans and the staff and the vendors and so on. Immodestly, I think we accomplished some of that. On a very practical level, I don't want to sound self-serving, but the contracts we did with Billy and Mike were unique to baseball and extending their contracts and working out an ownership interest and the length of the extensions were both a first. I'll have to say the results of that have turned out even better than I thought. We're very comfortable with our management for many years to come. Thanks to Billy and our support, we've signed a couple of free agents. If you look at our age and our contractual commitments, we can pretty much say who the key people on our team will be for the next three seasons which is also a big accomplishment. We got our manager back, which was an accomplishment.

Blez: Were you involved in that (Macha) process at all?

Wolff: A little bit. Whatever people think, we're seeking a more intimate ballpark. The more intimate it is, the more demand there will be, the more competitive we'll be. At least try and be. I think our new ownership has looked pretty good in the Bay Area. At least tried to. We try to listen to everybody. We realize the responsibilities we have. I think we've been as transparent as any owner in baseball.

Blez: In terms of what you guys want to accomplish and whatnot?

Wolff: I mean with everything. We don't have double agendas.

Blez: That's interesting. I was going to ask you this question later, but I might as well aks now. I think a lot of people, and I'm not sure whether it's the times we live in, but people are just skeptical of sports ownership groups these days. I think especially a city like Oakland who was burned in the past by a sports owner. People have a tendency to think that there are these hidden agendas and that there are Machiavellian efforts in everything you do. I get the feeling that it's not the case at all with you and that what you say is what you mean. I just wanted to give you a chance to respond to these allegations. I'll talk about the third deck closure later, but you have people saying that the team is closing the third deck to prove you can't sell out even a smaller venue and lay the groundwork for the team to move. How does something like that make you feel, especially with how forthright you've been with things?

Wolff: First of all, let me give you an overall view. In dealing with cities and people these days, my theory is that if you have a cure for cancer, someone will vote against it. (laughing) You have to start at that place.

Blez: Why do you think that is?

Wolff: Well, this has nothing to do with baseball. The process has become the end product. Very few people care about getting to the end product, but they like to live off of the process, consultants and whatnot. I don't think it's their fault. For the last few decades, government and private people have used the process in a way that wasn't as appealing to as many people as they could've. So now people distrust the process. They now just want to be a part of the process whether it ends up with something or not.

Blez: So, in other words, things aren't nearly as simplistic as they once were.

Wolff: No, they're not. I do think that people feel detached from federal and state government, so the only voice they have is at the local level. It's good in some ways. There's just lots more activists and opinions, which is part of the democratic world we live in which is a good one. So I think it's not baseball or team owners or anything else. Somebody wants to put up a Wal*Mart, somebody is for it, somebody is against it. Somebody wants to open a liquor store, somebody is for it, somebody is against it. It's difficult, but it requires people who persevere and it's worth the effort, I think depending on what the objective is.

Blez: So I'm interpreting what you're saying as no matter what you are doing, there is always going to be opposition to it these days because that's the tendency.

Wolff: Yeah, especially with sports. People love to identify with sports. So if you can't be identified positively, another way to be identified is negatively.

Blez: That's a good point. Let me bring it back to baseball. How disappointed were you when the team faded down the stretch last year?

Wolff: I was disappointed only for the players. I think the fans got a great season out of it. At both ends of the season, we had very key injuries. Now everyone uses injuries as an excuse. But we really had key injuries. The proof of it is when we had those players, and I won't name them all, we were doing fantastic. It wasn't like you were looking for an excuse. I wasn't disappointed at all. It was a very enjoyable season. The run in the middle of the year was fantastic. It said to me that we have all the tools to be even better this year than last year. I think we put a good, interesting and exciting product on the field. There's a film they used for the sponsors luncheon recently and it shows a lot of the players rushing out of the dugout when Kendall scored from third on the dropped ball, and Ken Macha pointed out the tenseness and interest in each player watching that play; it was just really interesting to me. We have players who just want to win. And they're just decent human beings on top of it. Maybe all teams are that way, but certainly ours is.

Blez: This was your first hot stove season as a baseball owner. Are you happy with how it has gone?

Wolff: When the season ended, I thought camp was over. (laughing) But I can understand why Billy said that I'd be busier in between seasons than during the season now. Billy has made such great moves.

Blez: Did you have input on decisions to get players like Bradley, Thomas and Loaiza?

Wolff: Billy included me on everything. I think he'd tell you that. You better check with him, but we both love the art of negotiating.

Blez: He's told me he consults with you on moves in the past.

Wolff: Take Loaiza. Billy wanted to make that move quickly and we did. We probably were aggressive in it and beyond baseball's desires, we were in the market. But it seemed like a day later or two days later, there were so many deals being made that overshadowed ours in terms of how much was being paid and how long the contracts were for, that we quietly had a great victory while others were probably incurring the wrath of the commissioner a little bit.

Blez: I think if you look at the offseason, a lot of folks are talking about the White Sox, the Yankees, the Mets and other teams and their moves. Do you think that this team relishes flying under the radar and being an underdog?

Wolff: Oh yeah. Why not? But when I talk to a couple of the real baseball people, especially my friend Jerry Reinsdorf, he thinks that we had a great team to start out with and we've improved it. I think if you went down a list of teams that really improved themselves, I think we'd be very high on that list.

Blez: I agree. The decision to close the third deck has created a bit of an uproar with the folks who had season tickets up there and the press hasn't exactly been kind to the decision either. I wanted to give you an opportunity to discuss the reasons behind that decision.

Wolff: First of all, it's not to fail and say we're going to move because we couldn't fill it. Anyone who thinks that is sort of silly. The answer is we can move anyway, whether we fill it or not. That's a decision that isn't based on whether the third deck is used or not. Going to that ballpark and seeing that massive third deck and it's rarely occupied very much, we looked at the displacement as we're also looking at the size of a new venue. There are very few days where we displaced beyond 35,000 people or even 27,000. What we've done is not a new thing, but we want to be in a ballpark that is much more intimate if we could be. The Coliseum is a very difficult place to accomplish that. This is a test to see if we can accomplish it. We've taken, and you can check with Mike Crowley, the ticket prices subject to whatever escalation they've put on them this year are replaced downstairs. So it isn't like we've eliminated those seats in terms of the ability of the fan to pay and come in. We've done it in a first-class way if you've been to the ballpark. It's done really well and it will just look like a baseball park. That's a plus. It wasn't done to try and get rid of the cheaper seats. It's expensive to open that third deck when people don't show up. There's a bunch of very good reasons to do it. One man wrote me a letter saying I knew you were going to do this, I just thought it would be in the new venue.

Blez: You mean cutting down the capacity?

Wolff: Yeah, having a smaller venue. But his address was on Montgomery Street, so I was assuming he was a business man. He says, "I love to go to games at the last minute." He said he gets on BART and can get into the upper deck on certain nights cheaper than his BART ticket. I don't know if it's true or not, but that's what he said.

Blez: If you are talking about the two dollar tickets, it makes sense.

Wolff: Yeah, that's the first thing he said. The second thing he said was that he brings his own food because ours isn't healthy. (laughing) You aren't going to find a vegetarian diet at a ballpark. Although we do have a really good balance. It was just cute the way the letter was written. Then he says, "For me to do that at the Giants which I could almost walk to, it would cost over $50." Now, people can still come to our ballpark for way below that on BART or whatever they come on the way we've reconfigured the seats. We have the highest walk-in traffic in baseball. There's nothing we can plan for that. It's just a nightmare every game. Therefore, that's one of many reasons. It's a subjective decision on my part to do that (close the third deck), and I'm hoping fans still come to the games.

Blez: Were you afraid of alienating any of the fans who bought tickets up there for years?

Wolff: I knew that not everyone would be in favor of anything. But we have to move forward. If that's a step backwards, we'll find out, but I don't think it will be. We don't want to alienate anyone. But it's hard to please everyone. And if you compare our prices to the Giants, we're still a lot cheaper than they are. And we have a better team. (laughing)

Blez: I've heard season ticket sales are up. First, is that true and second, do you think closing the third deck has pushed some fans who fear scarcity?

Wolff: It is true that people are anticipating a terrific year for us. I wouldn't know how to relate that to the third deck.

Blez: Well, I think the inevitable impression is that tickets will be more scarce.

Wolff: It is, it is. But when we look at displacement, and I don't have the records in front of me...actually look at the White Sox. They didn't have too many games where they sold over 27,000 seats, I think. They had displacement too and I was surprised to see them on this list. This is sort of the second team in their community, although maybe it isn't this year, and we're sort of the second team in our community. We want to be the first team in our community.

Blez: How do you get there?

Wolff: We get there by winning. That's the first thing. We get there by having a fan experience that's consistent with where baseball stands today. That's lots of conveniences, clean restrooms, the ability to go from one concourse to the other. There's just so many issues with the Coliseum, which was probably so great when it started. We just don't feel comfortable sharing a venue with another sports team and I'm sure they (the Raiders) feel the same way.

Blez: Some people out there have said that the A's exaggerate the overbudgeting for security and whatnot with the third deck.

Wolff: That's not the only reason. It's just one factor. It's minor, actually.

Blez: That answers my question right there.

Wolff: Yeah, it's not the end of the world and I don't want to make that the huge reason.

Blez: Would you call this a trial run for a new ballpark?

Wolff: Yes, absolutely.

Blez: Many think that the A's are turning business away especially against teams like the Yankees, Giants and Red Sox and that having that third deck allowed the team to sell tickets in the 40,000's. Would it make sense to have closed the deck for all of the games except those traditionally high-attendance games?

Wolff: No.

Blez: Would it have been too much work?

Wolff: No, it's just that it's inconsistent with what we're trying to do. We're looking to build a 32,000 to 35,000 seat ballpark and when you build it, you live with it like Wrigley Field or Fenway. So we're going to live with this.

Blez: Going back to people being skeptical about sports ownership, can you tell A's fans definitively that this ownership group is focused 100 percent on the East Bay in terms of a new stadium right now?

Wolff: I can tell you that for two reasons. Number one, we are. We like to drive over and see our team play and some of us live in the Bay Area. The other is that we have no choice. In other words, Major League Baseball has not opened the door for us to talk to any other community like Las Vegas for example. I guess we could talk to Sacramento or Portland, but we haven't asked. You better watch what you say about Sacramento too, because didn't you ask about it before and people...

Blez: People got all over my case about the Sacramento thing last time. (laughs)

Wolff: We have the problem with the district and the Giants being Santa Clara County. We are focusing on the East Bay because we'd like to stay there. There's still opportunity in Oakland and we're still looking, but it's just difficult because it's such a built-up area. The answer is yes that it's 100 percent. It isn't totally based on being good guys.

Blez: If Major League Baseball was to open up another market, would you explore it or is that too hypothetical right now?

Wolff: I think it's too hypothetical.

Blez: You came out with a new stadium proposal last year that got a good reaction in terms of the fan's standpoint. I've read various reports that it is dead because of the reluctance of some of the tenants to sell their properties. Is that proposal alive and well or are those reports correct?

Wolff: First of all, we were hoping that Oakland would suggest a particular site that would work for us.

Blez: And they never did?

Wolff: They tried, but it's very difficult. Remember that this is a built-up community. So we came out with something that we thought would be an A+ in planning and hopefully a B in implementation. It turned out to be an A in planning and an F in implementation. But it was a challenge. It was a challenge to all of us to appease the property owners and do something great. It didn't get any traction. I blame myself more than anyone else for that. You can only do so much these days on your own.

Blez: Why do you blame yourself for that?

Wolff: I had trouble overcoming. There are 80 property owners and that's tough right there. I thought we were going to be eliminating and cleaning up an area that was a redevelopment project and offering something that was going to be great for the community. It would require that those people be fairly compensated and give them opportunities to relocate elsewhere. I should have measured that challenge a little more than I did because it was just too great to accomplish. And that's all I'm going to say.

Blez: So I can assume that it's dead.

Wolff: The ability to manuever around the Coliseum area we're still looking at. As you know, we're looking at Fremont and other places. But our goal is to have a new venue. That will be better for the fans and the team and everyone else as long as we keep it in the East Bay.

Blez: So you're focusing largely on the Coliseum area right now?

Wolff: Yes, largely. Everybody's tried really hard, I think. Property rights are very important. We're not interested in having the government take people's property without their approval.

Blez: Am I correct in saying that the stadium lease expires in 2007 or is it longer than that?

Wolff: I think we have three one-year options to be honest with you.

Blez: Would you like to have plans in place by then for a new stadium? Do you have an ideal timetable in place?

Wolff: We'd like to take those three year options and make them firm. For some reason we're having some resistance about those options.

Blez: From the JPA?

Wolff: Not all of JPA. When I say resistance, I really haven't pursued it that hard. Frankly, my recommendation would be that they should offer both the Raiders and ourselves that opportunity. Even the Raiders may have gotten something that they regret or don't feel good about. They need a modern facility themselves. I don't know what's going to happen the next five years.

Blez: You would like to be in the Coliseum through 2010?

Wolff: No, it's really up to the JPA. They've been as cooperative as they can be.

Blez: The city of Oakland has a mayoral election this year. From all reported accounts, De La Fuente is a friend to the new ballpark search whereas the current administration doesn't seem to have it on the radar screen as much. Is that election impacting how urgently you're approaching matters now?

Wolff: You know every big project, whether it's a ballpark or an IBM plant or something, is going to go through probably one or more city councils and elections. It's sort of like blaming the season on a hangnail. (laughing) The answer is that it is just a fact of life. We've had just as much cooperation as we've asked for from the current administration and from Mr. De La Fuente. They have lots of issues that are on their minds. I can't set their priorities, only they can.

Blez: Do you still stand firm on the A's ownership paying for the stadium and just have the area provide the land?

Wolff: That was never the case. The answer is that that was never it. It has to do with the use of entitlements, which gets very technical. What we don't need are bond issues and things of that nature, but it is something like that. It takes a creative public and private cooperation. The answer is we haven't changed our mind. I've explained it so many times that some people get it and some don't.

Blez: You mentioned Fremont. Is that a realistic option right now?

Wolff: We're hoping it is. They have sent out welcoming signals. If we can't stay in Oakland, we want to stay in Alameda County and if we're going to stay in Alameda County, that area would be very good for us. It's close to our existing fan base, it has BART and it's close to San Jose as well as the freeways.

Blez: I want to lighten it up a little because I know some of these questions haven't been easy.

Wolff: Oh, I don't mind.

Blez: I want to hear what your predictions are for this upcoming season in terms of the divisions and wild card from the American League.

Wolff: (Laughs) The Wild Card to me is irrelevant to me because we're not a part of that anymore.

Blez: I tend to agree with you, but I'm a bit biased.

Wolff: Yeah, me too. (laughs) In our division, I think, aside from ourselves, the Rangers have improved quite a bit.

Blez: More than people have been giving them credit for?

Wolff: I haven't read too much, that's just my feeling.

Blez: Do you think they'll beat out the Angels for second place?

Wolff: I think they might. The Angels aren't too different from last year. They're a strong team with a great fanbase there. Seattle has improved a little. All the ships have gone up. But I just think our ship has gone up more with the addition of the three players. I hope our guys understand the value of being rested. We have too many guys who want to play every inning. That's a commendable asset.

Blez: The depth this year should help with that.

Wolff: Yeah, except we need to have guys who say, "I'm glad I'm not playing today, I'm resting." It is a long season.

Blez: Has total payroll gone up for you guys this year?

Wolff: Yeah, it's gone up about $10 million, which I think is significant. We've delivered for Billy and Mike and everyone exactly what we said we'd do. But there is still a lot of (financial) discipline. Our biggest problem is that we have guys who want to play 162 games except the pitchers...and they want to pitch every third day or something. (laughing) I was over at our spring training facility a couple of weeks ago and Huston (Street) was there. A lot of guys were there on their own, but Huston comes up to me and hugs me and says, "Thank you for this great team for next year." I thought it was just wonderful.

Blez: That's really cool.

Wolff: Yes, it was cool and it made me feel really good.

Blez: You want to predict the East and the Central?

Wolff: I don't like commenting on other teams. I think the White Sox are very strong. Here is the problem, and Billy would disagree, is that baseball is all probabilities. It's probable you'll win 100 games. Probabilities come from a big database. So if baseball just started this year and was brand new... the probability of winning 100 games is X or Y because you don't have any history. This is statistical and I don't know if it's of interest for your fans.

Blez: I actually think it is.

Wolff: A lot of these events are exclusive. There's an old story about statistics where these guys are in a pirate ship. You know, one of these old fashioned ships? A cannonball comes through the side of the ship and leaves a big hole. One guy says he is scared to death and says he's going to put his head in that hole because the probability of another cannonball hitting that hole is very rare. He puts his head in and the next cannonball kills him. It comes right into the same hole. Now that's an exclusive event. I like thinking each game is exclusive. By the way, that would not do me any good in attracting players or anything. (laughs) When I sit at a game and they practice and do their thing and Ken and the other manager do their thing, I think gee whiz, this is an exclusive day. We're not going to win or lose because we won 50 games or lost 50 games before today. That's my thinking whether it's right or wrong. It's wrong because it's disproven by probabilities, but if there wasn't any database behind us which Billy uses better than any, ANY general manager, any. That's how I view the games and that's why each one is fun for me. When we lose, the next day, I think about the cannonball. That's just me now, I'm not saying it's for everybody.

Blez: So are you saying there's a 50/50 chance every day?

Wolff: No, I think your odds are significantly improved by talent both on and off the field. So I think our odds are much greater than 50 percent (on a day-to-day basis). Much greater of winning every game.

Blez: Of getting hit by that cannonball...

Wolff: In a positive way. Or not getting hit by it.

Blez: If you don't want to talk about individual teams and division...

Wolff: I can, but I don't follow them that closely. The Yankees are constantly getting stronger all the time. Toronto will either be strong or at least expensive. (laughs) I think even Kansas City has improved this year. It's going to be an interesting year.

Blez: Well then, let's just cut through the regular season and ask who you think will win the World Series?

Wolff: We are. The only problem is where to hold the parade.

Blez: You've already thought about that?

Wolff: I'd actually like your blog readers to let me know what route we should take. They know the streets up there better than I would. I mean do we hold it in downtown Oakland? Do we hold it around the Coliseum? Do we hold it in Miami? I don't know, they need to tell me.

Blez: (laughing) I'll make sure I leave that as an open question to the readers. Finally, I thought I'd ask you this question for fun. I had a long conversation with Billy about his music tastes. He likes music like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones. What kind of music tastes do you have?

Wolff: I really like folk music and country western, but probably dating back before you guys were born. I like Willie Nelson and things like that.

Blez: Willie Nelson and who else?

Wolff: I like folks like Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger and people of that nature.

Blez: I think a lot of people know those folks. Do you have an iPod?

Wolff: Nope. Just a Blackberry.

Blez: Haven't stepped into the iPod age yet, huh?

Wolff: My grandchildren have. I frankly don't listen to that much music.

Blez: Are you more into movies or other types of entertainment?

Wolff: I'm more into going home and being horizontal instead of watching...actually working out and then falling asleep.

Blez: I really appreciate you taking out so much time to talk with me, Lew.

Wolff: I really loved what you guys did in helping kids go to games. It was absolutely terrific and I was happy to hear about it.

Blez: Yeah, we wound up with eight tickets and meals for both organizations. We also raised about $5,000 for the Smuin Ballet in honor of Bill King.

Wolff: That's absolutely wonderful. I'm really anxious to get going with the season and I look forward to keep on talking with you.

Blez: Thanks again for your time and good luck this season. I think people are going to be really happy with how confident you are.

Wolff. Thanks and take care.