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Lewis Wolff Athletics Nation Interview: Part IV

Here is the conclusion of Athletics Nation's four-part interview with A's managing general partner Lewis Wolff.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed bringing it to you.

In case you missed earlier parts, part I is here; part II is here; part III is here.

I do want to thank Nico, baseballgirl, notsellingjeans, monkeyball, louismg and taj for offering help with crafting several of these questions.  This was an incredible experience for me especially since I could've probably continued the interview.  Lew never gave me any indication that he was short on time or rushed.  He clearly understood the value of sitting down with this community.

Without further ado, the end of AN's interview with Lew Wolff:

Blez:  What's your favorite seat at the Coliseum?

Wolff:  What I like to do is to go to the diamond seats at the beginning of the game and people say I do that for the free food, but I like to see how the pitchers look after a couple of innings.  Then I prefer to be closer to where the players go to the dugout.  Not that they give a damn, but it makes me feel good.  I don't like the box at all.  We have a big box but I don't like sitting up there.

Blez:  You must've had some interesting conversations with fans at this point, but what are some of the typical things they say to you.  Do they come up to you and say, "How come you got rid of Swisher?" 

Wolff:  Remember I'm in my seventh decade and I'm so competitive.  Most fans will try and tease me good naturedly, how come you didn't try to stay in Oakland?  I think I give most of them the best answers I can and they're a lot of fun.  A lot of them are older who have been going to games for forever.  I couldn't ask for a better core of people.  When I went out into the bleachers, they were having a great time and I don't want to lose that if we can avoid it.  But I'll give you one story. I was by myself and we were really being beaten up by somebody in the first half of the season.  And I have to walk up all the steps to get out but most owners have secret doors to get out.  I'm walking up the steps and one guy says to me, and I don't see him but I hear him, "Why don't you sign some free agents?"  I looked over and I should just walk away, right?  Then he adds, "You cheapskate."  I turned to him and said, "You want to come over here and say that to me?"  Then I realized, whoa what am I doing?  Who am I kidding?  I should've probably went over and apologized to him.  I was just so frustrated with the game and then to be called a cheapskate.  (laughing) 

Blez:  (laughing) Did he come over to you?

Wolff:  No, it's very rare that I take anything personally like that and it was just a reaction in the moment.  I was telling Mike Crowley about it and he said, are you crazy? 

Blez:  There was a lot of controversy when you tarped off the third deck.  A lot of people complained about it.  People seem to have adjusted to it, but it hasn't created that scarcity that you sought...

Wolff:  (laughing) We're going to tarp off the second deck now.

Blez:  (laughing) You're just going to leave the section right behind home plate open.  You guys reopened a portion of it this year for the all-you-can-eat section.  Would it make more sense to open up that third deck again because you've seen that the scarcity isn't really there?  A lot of folks loved those sections up there as we've had conversations about it on AN.  Especially for games like the Giants, although not as much so this year, but games like the Red Sox and Yankees?

Wolff:  No, I don't think so.  We have one guy who works for us who says that if we advertise one game as all these seats being free, I still don't know if we'd still sell out.  I think we do pretty well even during some important series.  Very rarely do we turn anyone down.  It can get the ballplayers down because it's like looking into a vast wasteland.  It's not so great now, but the tarp does take away the fact that there aren't another 15-20,000 people there.  I went to a game in Arizona the other day, it was 120 degrees, but they have a beautiful facility, and they have these sites way up high that they just can't sell.  The ballpark had good attendance that I would take any day and yet it felt like a wasteland.  So the answer is no.

Blez:  You mentioned injuries earlier, so I'm backtracking a bit, but do you think players are usually forthcoming about their injuries in MLB? 

Wolff:  As opposed to hiding them?

Blez:  Or just trying to pitch or play through them.

Wolff:  I think most players want to play through it.  You can tell though.  Recently a pitcher we thought would be in the mid-90s was throwing mid-80s.  Sometimes they don't realize it.  They'll go out there and say that their arm feels well.  It wasn't before the game when that happens.  We'd like them to tell us so it doesn't sacrifice something down the road.  But I have to tell you the ones that want to fight and stay in I have a lot of respect for.  I can't think of any that don't want to do that. At the same time they're educated to tell us because we'd rather win the game and be competitive than have you be a hero.  If we didn't force Eric Chavez to go to the doctor now and get ready for next year, he'd be figuring out how he can play every single day and that's commendable. 

Blez:  Is it one of those things that you have to force it on them?  You mentioned the pitcher who was throwing mid-80s instead of 90s and pretty much everyone who is an A's fan knows that Gallagher wasn't right.  Most people think that (Huston) Street hasn't been right most of the year either. 

Wolff:  Two different things in that Gallagher is young and new and he's not going to go from 95 to 85 unless something is bothering him.  With Huston, I think he had some bad luck.  But his speed may have slowed down a bit and I think that might be a factor.  An interesting one is a couple of seasons ago with Esteban Loaiza.  The first year we had him something happened to him and he didn't see it.  He was happy to be there every game.  Then we finally said something is wrong here.  I don't know what it was but they sent him down and worked on it and he came back and his speed was improved.  So sometimes they're hurting and they don't know it.  It's like us if we were throwing the ball and you didn't realize you weren't throwing it as well as you can.  It's not necessarily hurting you, you just don't know it.

Blez:  I have to imagine that the injury issues the past couple of years have been frustrating from an investment standpoint.  These are guys you're paying to perform on the field and they're often on the DL collecting paychecks.  Not that they want to do that.  It isn't what I'm saying at all.  Does that really frustrate you?

Wolff:  I don't really view it that way.  I think it equalizes.  We're in a business and we're not the only team that's getting hurt.  I should've bought an MRI machine, but I didn't.  I do think the manager has to play everyone.  If we left it up to Suzuki, he'd play every day and then also play afterward.  Most of them are that way.  It's frustrating, but we can't let that bother us.  It's like the hotel business.  I'm in the hotel business.  If we allow the general manager of the hotel to say, oh well the Marriott down the block isn't doing well either.  That isn't acceptable to me.  I want to do well whether they are or they aren't.  In this case it's a physical thing.  I'd rather protect these assets than wear them out, even if they are not with us their entire career.  We do have a responsibility to them.  These are athletes who put in a lot of time to get to the major leagues.  This is not instantly success and it's so rare when it is.

Blez:  I know Billy and his team got together last year and re-examined the whole injury prevention process.

Wolff:  I was there.

Blez:  I was going to ask if you were involved in that.

Wolff:  To a point.  I have to tell you that their conversations are so deep and so involved and go on so long that I really get bored. (laughing)  I want to hear the end line.  Everybody wants to look at things like that.  Like if you aren't hitting, do you have the right batting coach?  I don't really think that's been our problem.  We did make some changes but they weren't Draconian.  This is a business that goes from year to year and what you do one year might not produce for four years. It's not like a regular business where you can check the profit and loss every quarter and figure out if you did great or you didn't.  My involvement is as much as they want me to be involved.  I do have a real estate negotiating background and Billy likes to hear how I would approach things.  And Billy doesn't even need to call me if he stays within budget and if he wants to go over it he can just give me a ring and that's it.  This is why I love baseball.  There is no one I have to ask about it.  And the commissioner doesn't have to ask about anything.  If he wants all the ballparks painted blue, he may call for a vote.  He needs a vote, but that vote is never going to go against him.  It's sort of like a benevolent dictatorship.  But you get things done that way and you can always correct them.  I think this where Billy and I really hit things off. 

Blez:  I was going to ask how your working relationship was with Billy.

Wolff:  I think the cost of indecision, and this is a keynote speech of mine, is more costly than the cost of making a decision.  I think Billy feels the same way.  Therefore we talk sometimes five or six times a day.  We never talk during the game.  I'm out with the fans and he's hiding in the workout room or driving around Oakland or something and I don't blame him.  I remember during the playoffs I went to Minnesota and David Forst was with me.  We had a box of our own, just the two of us.  We just kept pacing the box never talking to each other. (laughing)  The relationship, and you have to check with Billy, but I really like everyone that works for us and I mean it.  They're all so dedicated and capable. 

Blez:  How much do you pay attention to what the media says about the team?

Wolff:  Very little.  I like the media and enjoy debating with the media.  I think I'm pretty good at it. But I don't do what other owners do.  My God, some of them make decisions based on the media. 

Blez:  One of those teams happens to be in Southern California, but I won't name any names.  If you were to make a succinct pitch to A's fans as to how they should weather the storm, how would you do so?  The storm is not ending any time soon.

Wolff:  I think you have to enjoy the fact that we're giving opportunities to people that might be ready for the majors or they might not be.  You have to go out and look at a Gio Gonzalez and it's fun to watch him.  Before you were born, the Philadelphia Phillies had a team like ours next year and they won the pennant.  People were out there and didn't know one damn name but they were watching the hustle, the youth and the experiment.  That's what I think we have to market. 

Blez:  I will say that as a fan, I'm most excited about September call-ups this year.  I'm already looking forward to seeing some of the younger kids.

Wolff:  By the way, they're all playing now.  (laughing)

Blez:  I mean maybe someone like Cunningham comes up.

Wolff: Take a guy like Eveland.  I'm no expert, but I think he's a major league pitcher but he's young.  He gets bumped around a little and then you put him down in the minors and the other night he had no walks and doing all the things he was supposed to do.  For me all these things are a work in progress.  But to me it's got to be exciting to win.  You've got to win with a slide instead of a guy who is on a baseball card because we don't have that.

Blez:  If that is a pitch you're making to more casual fans, is there anything else you'd like to share with the most hardcore A's fans on the planet which are the people reading Athletics Nation?  You can help them sell A's baseball to their more casual friends.

Wolff:  When I read Athletics Nation, I get a kick out of it because I think the sophistication, even if the guy has 100 tattoos or whatever (laughs), the sophistication of understanding the game is in there and it isn't just emotional.  It's amazing to me whereas the other blogs seem to just be about Lew Wolff should do this or that.  But if I had a magic wand and could make people understand that we had to reload and it had to happen either last year or this year, I would.  I compare it to the luxury hotel business.  Once the chairman of the Four Seasons, we were buying a Four Seasons Hotel, his name was Isadore Sharp and he said, look at that carpet.  What do you think of that carpet?  I said it looks terrific and brand new to me.  He said that's your problem as an owner and now dealing with us you won't have that problem.  I said what do you mean?  He said in order to keep where I need to be, I need to replace that carpet before you know it needs to be replaced.  That's what Billy has done.  He's making the hard decisions. To me, I'm an owner, I don't want to put new carpet in, it looks perfectly fine to me. It's better than my house.  Do you get the idea? 

Blez:  Yeah.

Wolff:  If the fans will stick with us here and think about us replacing our assets and we have very few assets to acquire those new assets.  There are very few GMs that make these decisions.  But when you look at the GMs who have the $130 million payroll, you have to wonder how good they would be if they had a $50 million payroll.  How good would they be if the stands weren't filled every night?  I think the challenge in that is very unique.  But you have to wonder if it's something you would bring your family out to a game.  I think it would be but I'm totally prejudiced. I think it's much more interesting than seeing an aging guy that may hit a home run when you're there with your kid and you can say, I saw "blank" hit a home run.  I think that's great, but it doesn't make for a long-term investment.

Blez:  Is there anything else you want to say to A's fans out there?

Wolff:  Where we have to be very careful is with the really loyal fan who comes out to every game like the people I sat out in the left field bleachers with, that they get a bang out of the product.  They get a bang out of the David and Goliath aspect for a while and that's always going to be that way with the Tampa Bays and the Milwaukees.  The smaller market teams are going to have to be more resourceful than the larger markets have to be.  I think we have a lot of challenges, both off the field and on the field.  The new venue I would call off the field.  I'm more interested in weaving through the challenges than if we were the only team within a thousand miles and you'd have to come here or see nobody. 

Blez:  Do things change for the A's when you get Cisco Field built?

Wolff:  I think the only thing that really changes will be that we will have a consistent and predictable cash flow of revenue.  Forget about revenue sharing and all that for a moment.  When you have that and you say to somebody, we're going to give you a four-year contract and you know that you can meet it, then you can always beat it.  But then it's in the budgeting program.  That's the comforting thing the Giants have right now even though they have big debt on their ballpark.  But putting that aside, if they didn't have that, they've still got a pretty filled stadium.  That's important both from an economic standpoint, but it's also important from a morale view.  You can't measure that one.  I guess what I'm saying is that we're the Avis of the Bay Area.

Blez:  In other words, you try harder?

Wolff:  That's right we try harder.  But we're not content to be the Avis forever. 

Blez:  I appreciate the time.

Wolff:  I appreciate you coming down here.  This is a lot more interesting than a lot of the other stuff I do.