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Lewis Wolff Athletics Nation Interview: Part I

Lewis Wolff, the managing general partner of the Oakland Athletics, was kind enough to sit down and do an interview with me last week.  The interview is long and pretty much covers all aspects of your team.  I want to just publicly thank him for giving me nearly two hours of his time and blatant honesty.

So rather than comment more on it, I'll just let you read the first part of what will be four parts that will run this week every morning on Athletics Nation.  I hope you find it as interesting to read as I did to participate in.  Enjoy Part I.

Blez:  First of all I want to thank you for sitting down with me.  It isn’t every owner of a sports franchise that will sit down with someone who runs a blog about the team.

Lewis Wolff:  It’s a very good blog and I know it’s the only one Billy (Beane) really looks at.  I look at it when I have time.  The only other one I look at is A’s new ballpark.  I think the guy is an architect or something. 

Blez:  He posts on Athletics Nation a lot.  His name is vertig0 on AN.  He’s pretty awesome and does a great job with the ballpark.  He’s obsessed with the process of the new ballpark getting done.

Wolff:  Well so am I (laughs). 

Blez:  (laughing) I can understand that.  Let me start off with a bit of a retrospective question.  You’ve owned the A’s for more than three years now and have had some serious peaks and valleys during that time.  2005 was a tough year, the team then goes to the ALCS in 2006 in a really fun and exciting year, and now a down year last year due to the record-setting injuries that led to the rebuilding which, in turn, led to a tough year this year.   How difficult has it been from an owner’s perspective to go through those peaks and valleys?

Wolff:  The difficulty comes from being a fan, which I am.  I’d rather win than lose.  Thanks to some great people here, I’ve experienced so much in the last three years that some owners who’ve owned teams for 20 years haven’t experienced.  It was a condensed experience.  We produced a winner and got to the final four which hasn’t happened with this team in a long time.  That was on my watch and it was because of Billy and all his guys.  That was a thrill but it didn’t really impact our attendance or fan interest at the ballpark as much as I had hoped.  I’m not criticizing them but we didn’t sign as many season ticket holders going into the next year as everyone in the league thought we would.  It taught me that demand in the area was inelastic.  I’m not sure if we won the World Series if we’d see a bunch of people sign up for the next year.  I mean we have 7-8,000, and I don’t even know if it’s that many, the Giants have in excess of 20,000.  What’s the difference?  The ballpark is the difference.  Barry Bonds was the difference.  In terms of record and performance, I think we’ve outclassed them since 2000.   It’s been a great learning experience.  We’ve had our ups and our downs and our payroll was over $80 million.  One year it produced a lot and the next year it didn’t produce anything.  I’ve seen the theory that Billy and his team have taught me about aging players and at my age, anyone under 60 is young (laughs).  I’ve learned a lot very quickly and I think the A’s are fortunate that we’re flexible.  We don’t have any real complicated decision making.

Blez:  What do you mean by that?

Wolff:  Well if Billy calls and says, “What do you think of this?”  I’ll ask him what he thinks of it and he’ll say it’s great and then we’ll just say, “Let’s do it.”  There’s no one else to interject.  Billy is very analytical and by the time he calls me, he’s analyzed all the potential results.  He’s got great people.  It’s a tight-knit organization and what I need to bring to it is an organization that everyone has a great time in if we can.  But still in a size that fits the market.  We’re the smallest two-team market in baseball.  I can’t go out and build a 60,000-seat facility.  In fact most of the ones that have added an extra 10,000 seats, such as Seattle, Colorado, Arizona, they’re ruing the day they did that.  We have to look at our market.  If we were by ourselves…

Blez:  It’d be different.

Wolff:  It would definitely be different.  But that isn’t the cards we’re dealt.



Blez:  What has been your favorite moment so far in your tenure as A’s managing general partner?

Wolff:  That’s a good question.  I don’t think it’s on the field so much.  Although there is absolutely the tension of being in the playoffs when we were in them and it was incredibly fun for me and it permeated every single person that works in this organization down to the peanut vendor.  That was interesting.  I find the theory of substitution that Billy has that people don’t necessarily recognize fascinating.  If you have a major league third baseman, say a rookie at $350,000 and then you have Alex Rodriguez over here at $20 million a year, is Alex worth 50 times that guy and do you have a future with the rookie at the position?  When you’re a small market club, you have to be more flexible and take more risk in order to produce a competitive team.  That’s the thrill for me.  But I do have to mention the playoff experience in 2006 as a highlight.

Blez:  What’s been the most disappointing moment?

Wolff:  Injuries.  But I don’t think we can hide behind the injury excuse because I’m sure if I lived in Seattle people would be saying, “Well, gee, we have these injuries.”  We did have a disproportionate amount last year and even this year.  So I didn’t realize the amount of injuries and just how careful you have to be with these guys.  I mean these guys are assets.  One doctor on another team said to me, “If there weren’t as many guaranteed contracts, you wouldn’t have so many injuries.” 

Blez:  The NFL does it that way.  They don’t guarantee contracts.

Wolff:  We’re not the NFL.  Our guys don’t get quite that beat up but they may get hurt more.  I’m talking about all of baseball.  I don’t know of one injury in all of baseball where the player wasn’t legitimately injured.  The biggest problem we have are the ones who want to play when they’re injured as opposed to the ones who want to take care of themselves.  But I don’t believe any of it is fake or any of that. 

Blez:  You’re leading me in a bit of a different direction here, but is the MLB player’s union a bit too powerful? You brought up the injuries and the guaranteed contracts…

Wolff:  That was a joke but yes, they are a powerful group. 

Blez:  But relatively speaking, out of all the pro sports, MLBPA is probably the most powerful out of all of them because they have the guaranteed contracts and impact on the drug policy.

Wolff:  That answer to your question is that yes, I think they are very powerful.  At the same time, you must look at a baseball player differently than other sports like basketball and hockey.  A player can make an immediate impact on a team in basketball, I mean look at LeBron James.  Guys in baseball don’t really do that.  We signed a guy out of the Caribbean for $4.25 million (Inoa) and he’s 16 years old.  I’m not sure I’m going to see him again for two or three years (laughing).  The flip side of it is that they have a longer career.  Ultimately the player’s union has power but we do too.  One thing I’ve learned is that if you have a 25-man squad, you have to use every one of those 25 men during the season.  That long season is a lot different than football.  It’s even very different than basketball.  Basketball games are short.  They know when it’s over for the most part.  I think that baseball is a balancing act.  If you’re a player you have to say, I’m going to Double-A or Triple-A and he goes from being the hero in college or high school and then no one, except his parents or girlfriend, hear about him for a little while.  It’s a different thing.  I think the contract we have (labor agreement) is good for both sides and I think it will be tweaked the next time around but I don’t think it will be a broad, sweeping thing.

Blez:  Do you find it challenging to resist the desire to just throw money at the team to try and fix it quickly?

Wolff:  Yes.  I don’t know if I can fix it.  But emotionally, I’ve learned to get away from that. 

Blez:  Does Billy have to talk you out of throwing the money around?

Wolff:  Yeah, literally I’m the only owner in baseball that I’ve run into where the general manager is concerned about the salary structure more than the owner (laughing).  I gave Billy and Mike Crowley an ownership stake and no one has ever done that in baseball before.   It has paid off beautifully for me.  No offense intended, but I’d rather change players than GMs.  Billy and these guys’ dedication is so overwhelming.  The answer is that I might say, “Gee, I love that guy and I want to keep him.”  They then say, “Well, we love him too, but he’s not going to perform the way we want him to for the next three years.”  Even if we had the money, we don’t want to do a Zito-like contract, even if Barry worked out great which I do think he will eventually (for the Giants).  He’s a great kid but I told him at the beginning of the season, your next contract is going to be so great in that even if we were awash in funds, I don’t think Billy could bring himself to reach out six or seven years with a pitcher.

Blez:  It’s just too high-risk.

Wolff:  The probabilities are so obviously tilted one way, then why would you do it?

Blez:  Are you frustrated when teams that are rich already seem to get richer?  An example being the Angels get Teixeira.  They have a huge payroll already and then they just go out and get another expensive asset. 

Wolff:  In the case of the Angels, I like the owner so much it would be tough for me to feel that way.

Blez:  I think A’s fans want to hear that you and Arte Moreno are setting up a cage match battle.  We don’t like the Angels on AN.

Wolff:  I don’t want to be chasing the Angels all the time.  We want to have a team where they’re going to be chasing us and that’s where I think we’re headed.  It’s not going to be easy. But he (Moreno) has done a great job with the fanbase, in that the stadium is filled up all the time. He’s got a very nice venue.  He’s got a lot of things going for him.  He’s not drunk and spending money in a drunken sense, but he’s getting what he wants out of it.  I think we can reach that point without being silly about it.  And I know Billy feels the same way.  It’s actually confusing to me about the downturn with this team.  We were doing really well in a rebuilding season and then the All Star break happened and I don’t see significant change in the team since then.  So maybe we were overachieving during the first half, but I think we’re really underachieving right now.  So now is the time to put young pitchers out there and see if they can do things.  The more valuable all the teams get…and I thought you were going to bring up Boston.

Blez:  Boston and the Yankees were all a part of that group I was talking about.

Wolff:  I think that benefits us all in some ways.  And when you look at it globally, the guys spending all this money don’t necessarily do very well.  This year for example the Yankees may not make the playoffs and Boston might barely scrape in, and other teams like Seattle have a $100 million plus payroll, as well as San Diego being up there.  It isn’t money that always makes it work.

Blez:  Agreed.  If it meant having a better shot at winning the World Series, would you double or triple the payroll?

Wolff:  (laughs) No, I certainly wouldn’t triple it.  If it means to win the World Series once and then having to disband because you’ve lost so much money, I don’t want to do that.  Billy will know that if we need one guy, even if we can get him cheap, that will put it over the top.  Or is it better to have our young guys getting playing time?

Blez:  So the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily the World Series once, it’s to build a team that is competitive year in and year out?

Wolff:  Yeah, it just doesn’t do anything good for the fans.  We want to build a team and a fanbase.  So that means they have to suffer along with us for a little bit but I think having a big year and then stepping backwards just isn’t the way I want to do it.  It isn’t the way any business should run including the sports business.  I’d like to have a franchise where people say that they’re going to be competitive for a while.

Blez:  Sort of like the way the Rays did it?

Wolff:  Yeah, that’s right.

Blez:   In the interview with Athletics Nation back in August of 2005, you said that winning was the top priority for you and the organization, but you qualified it as saying both on and off the field meaning that you are concerned about the A’s being profitable.  Are you willing to lose money in order to win the World Series?

Wolff:  No, not willingly.  I don’t think you have to lose money to be in the World Series.  I don’t think you have to.  You can’t have that mentality.  I used to be in with 20th Century Fox and certain people would come out and buy movie studios.  They were rich guys and who knows what their motives were.  But two years later, they would say that they’re tired of the studios and it’s costing them money.  All the fun of it goes out of it if you aren’t building something.  I want to build something and leave it for Billy and my son and the Fishers.  I want to build something that has a strong base to it.  Even if I might not partake in the World Series next year.  Billy and these guys are young men in their 40s and they have a long future.  We need to build things.  We need a better television deal.  We need a better ballpark.  All those things are pieces that I’ve been advocating for and hopefully will be falling into place.

Blez:  You mentioned the television deal.  I know the people on AN get frustrated because they live in the market and yet, the TV crew is sent out to cover only one of three Minnesota Twins games.  Yeah the audience isn’t that big and probably even lower because the team is rebuilding but…

Wolff:  We’re not totally in control of the schedule.

Blez:  No, no, no, I know that.  I’m talking about the need to just get a better television partner.

Wolff:  Yes.  Or we need to make the partnership better and we’re in the process of working on that right now.  We should have something in place in the next six months that is better.

Blez:  In time for next year?

Wolff:  I hope so, yes.

Blez:  Is local TV the way to go?

Wolff:  We only have the right to local TV.

Blez:  What I meant by that is a KICU versus a local Comcast Bay Area. 

Wolff:  I think we’d be better with Comcast in the short term.  But we need to not be the second team and we’re working on that.

Blez:  Most fans seem to realize that the rebuilding needs to have happened since the farm system was barren, but some remain angry because A’s fans haven’t had too many losing seasons of late and I’m guessing they’ve forgotten what it’s like to lose.  What do you say to fans that expect a competitive team on the field year in and year out?  You mentioned them going through suffering.  How do you talk to a fan who is angry about the product out on the field?

Wolff:  Last year for example, the players we had, if they performed, they were a good product.  Billy can’t go out there and swing the bat for someone.  Neither can Bob Geren.  The decision to rebuild, and I don’t think it was a total rebuilding.  I thought for example that at catcher, second base, shortstop and third base that we had enough experienced players that it was a semi-rebuilding.  The other thing I wanted was backups for the guys we had.  This time, I’m disappointed in the hitting of the guys who would normally be around .270, .280.  Why that happens and whether it’s some kind of flu hitting bug, I don’t really know.  Aside from that, I look at the first half and think, this was really good.  Veterans were coming through and the young guys were progressing.  The second half hasn’t been that way.  The answer is that it’s disappointing but we must stay the course. The course that was stayed is what was decided last winter.  If we didn’t do what Billy and his team decided to do last year, we’d be forced to do it this year.  And it would be much harder because we wouldn’t have the trading fodder.  I hated to lose Dan Haren, but at the same time, I believe what we got for him was fair to both sides.  Except that our side will probably take another year or so to understand just how much we got for him.  If four out of the six players we got work out, then that’s a gold mine.  With Nick Swisher, he’s a great guy and I walk in the clubhouse and he picks me up and calls me “Big Lew”.  We all loved him.  But I think Billy and his guys had a very fair trade.  One of my closest friends is the owner of the White Sox and he loves Nick too.  He told me he went to a delicatessen the other day and he was getting a sandwich and they had a big Nick Swisher uniform in the form of a cookie.  He said he bought the cookie and he went to the stadium and Nick wasn’t happy he wasn’t starting so he gave him the cookie and everyone started to laugh.  Even there I think that if someone does a balance sheet comparing the trade, I think we did as well as they did.  With Blanton and Gaudin, they’re two guys I like a lot, we’ll see how those decisions shake out, but it isn’t like all of sudden we were going to get into the playoffs.  As for Rich Harden, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball when he’s well.

Blez:  You just never know when he will be will.

Wolff:  He was definitely hurt when he was hurt.  He felt very bad about it, but you can’t ask a guy to go do something when he can’t really go out on the field and perform.  If he stays well, I think he’ll be terrific for the Cubs in the stretch run they have.  When you go over each one of the moves, and they were visible players, I can see the fans feeling like they’d want to go out and see these guys or they’d like to come out and see Kotsay.  Yet when you sit down and look at it in a very clear, analytical way, the improvement of where we’re heading is amazing.  Some guy ranks the minor league clubs, I forget who it is.  You probably know.

Blez:  Kevin Goldstein?

Wolff:  That might be it.  He ranked us 28th out of 30 in terms of minor league systems.  I think our ranking is now second.  That doesn’t mean he is right or wrong, but we didn’t have any pipeline.  We now have a pipeline. A pipeline is good for on the field.  And it is good for trading.  I can’t tell you the number of GMs who called Billy right before the trading deadline and wanted to make some pretty interesting trades for our brand new guys.  We bit our tongue and said that’s the very thing we shouldn’t be doing.  But it’s good to hear that they want them.


COMING TOMORROW:  Wolff talks about the impact of being so close to the Giants, whether or not A's fans should give up on this team for a few years and whether or not Barry Bonds would make any sense for the green and gold.