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Lewis Wolff on Fremont, Free Agency and 2011 Team Budget: Athletics Nation Exclusive Interview Part II

BBG: The A's have just acquired OF David DeJesus (Royals) for Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks. I love him. 

Yesterday was part one of my interview with A's owner and managing partner Lew Wolff. Today is part two and much of it continues to revolve around the ongoing stadium situation. Unfortunately, it's the most pressing issue regarding the future of the Athletics franchise.

Without further ado, after the jump is part two of my interview with Lew Wolff.


TB:  There are some conspiracy theorists out there who claim that you never really had any intention of moving to Fremont.  They say that the Fremont stadium effort was an effort to get the Giants and baseball to consider San Jose more seriously.  Someone even in the piece I ran yesterday about favorable/unfavorable put up a story from 1998 from the Chronicle, where you were quoted as saying, "I wouldn’t spend five minutes in any other city in California outside of San Jose."

LW:  That was long before I was an owner, years ago.  Yeah, we were trying to get the Giants to San Jose at that time. I was a business person in San Jose at that time so I was just trying to attract the Giants.

TB:  Yes, it was 1998.

LW:  Not sure what that has to do with it?  Anyone who even remotely suggests that were not serious when we had to look at Fremont if 100 percent wrong. First just ask the Mayor of Fremont. Second, we spent $80 million in Fremont, at least $30 million that we will never recover.

TB:   The land, right?

LW:  No, $40 million of the $50 million on buildings around the area.  We were going to deal with Cisco on the land, we had no problem with the land but you say, "Gee whiz, if you’re going to build a ballpark, why not control near-by land?"  A lot of people – the Giants didn’t buy any land around them, maybe they couldn’t, you know what I mean?  Why would we do that as a head fake?  Then we spent…

TB:  So you spent $40 million on…

LW…just on the real estate.   Not on the other exploration we did. 

TB:  What would you estimate the total spent?

LW:  As noted before we spent close to $80 million, of which, just give me a second – I have that number exactly someplace.  I’ll give you a sheet with the number, I just can’t find it but I have it.  We spent say $80 million of which roughly half is ancillary real estate, of which now that $40 million is worth $20 million – but we didn’t know that.  And, we’ve written off another $28 to 35 million for EIRs (environmental impact reports) and hundreds of architectural costs.  So anybody who says that that was some kind of head fake is totally, absolutely wrong.  But I will submit to you at sometime if I can’t find it here, the exact number that we are out.

Here, I have a sheet with the numbers on it – and remember, this is about a year ago now.  $80 million to the city of Fremont.  $25 million to $30 million absolutely non-recoverable.  Now I talked to one owner who told me that nobody would do that without knowing they can go ahead – and the A’s did not have a single option to support being mistaken.  The number could have been $78 or something but it’s serious business.  That’s why when I read – I won’t name the person – but some official in town say I’m lying…I’ve lived my entire life developing properties in cities.  Never blaming others for what I can’t get done.  So when someone says, "Wolff overstates his scrutiny of the city’s proposed stadium.  I know what a developer is really looking in what we’re doing and evaluating.  Lew Wolff did not do that."  Now, it is this person who simply making up a story for their own grandstanding purposes.

TB:  Would you say that Oakland’s leadership in that sense is a lot more complicated than the leadership in San Jose?  Or obviously less motivated. 

LW:  No – I would say this – historically, the whole East Bay from Richmond over to Oakland was sort of haphazardly developed during World War II, so it wasn’t planned growth.  Now you go and you want to assemble enough land to want to build a ballpark – either you have eight owners or 80, and each one of the land parcels may be in different ownerships which makes it all quite complicated.  So when these people that are saying that Lew Wolff didn’t do anything they are just drawing a line here or there.  The simple question is to go and ask each person that’s involved are they willing to sell their property and for how much?  Take a little bit of time to do that.  At least you get the first part.  So all this flack about what I did not do is shadow without substance and all I’m trying to do is deliver a ballpark, which is what I committed to developing.

TB:  If you do get approval for San Jose with the plans that you currently have in place for a smaller ballpark still be ideal?

LW:  Yes, about the same size. 

TB:  Have you changed it all that much?  I know you were thinking about putting apartment buildings.

LW:  You’ll see it there – it may be a little hard to read. No more apartments, just a great ballpark.

TB:  I’ll look at it later.

LW:  That’s another thing – we’re recognizing that it has got to be a little smaller.  We’re in a two team market, but why should anybody care if we have 32 – 34,000 seats?

TB:  I know that this is kind of putting the cart ahead of the horse, considering especially where everything is here but if the new ballpark come to fruition, how would you anticipate it impacting team spending? 

LW:  Huge.  We will be able to do so much we can’t do right now.  However, I still don’t think we would be in a position or even interested in going after free agents on a large scale.  The ideal for us, because we have guys that can spot talent pretty well, just like the Giants have, we would rather – after we know that they’re pretty good, buy them out of arbitration years and get a couple of extra years and pay for that.  And even that still gives the player another bite of the free agent apple if we can’t keep them.  The point is that we’d rather invest more money in younger people.  I don’t think we’d go after (Mark) Teixeira for seven years or eight years, although who knows?  But we would be in a much better position to attract and retain the players we want.

TB:  So does that rule out going after say somebody like Carl Crawford this off season?

LW:  I don’t want to get specific.

TB:  I was saying someone like him.

LW:  The problem we’re going to have is that if we have another person close to that that you may recognize he may be out of our reach.  We feel that we’re close and we’re prepared to reach a bit. But the problem that we face all the time is that the guy says, "Well, that’s great but I got three other offers and I’d rather be in a great venue for a little less money."

TB:  Well, one of the things that Billy has always said to me is that, and you mentioned it earlier, is that people run into issues when it comes to seeing the facility and not wanting to be a part of the facility, and he mentioned specific names to me over the past couple of years that you guys actually offered more money.  Furcal.

LW:  Yes and Beltre. Look, we don’t know if that’s the reason – some of these guys say that their wives say that they want to be near their mom who lives in San Diego.  There are a lot of reasons.

TB:  That’s true.  But at the same time…

LW:  We’re at a disadvantage that I’m sure most knowledgeable baseball fans will agree.

TB:  Yeah.  The team has gotten better obviously, clearly the young pitching is there, I remembered seeing and hearing about the fact that the A’s are basically two bats away from being a serious World Series contender. 

LW:  Somebody on ESPN this week said that we were the sleeper for next year.  I hope they’re right.

TB:  I was going to say, from several perspectives, you’re that close to a World Series, with such a young team, a relatively inexpensive budget and somebody like Eric Chavez coming off of the books this year, who I believe you were going to be paying $12 million or something if I remember off the top of my head.

LW:  Right.

TB:  Do you go out there and go crazy and overspend on somebody?

LW:  The one thing that you may be missing – first of all we agree with you, we’re a couple of bats away from great success.  Number one, great bats aren’t that easily available – even to the Yankees.  Two, when people say, "Look at all the salary you have coming off."  That’s for a year, but most great players want very long term contracts.  If I can have one rule that I can see happen in baseball it would be to limit the contract length, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  But basically the answer is that we need some hitting and we have identified a few people – Billy has.  Now, there could be eight other teams looking at the same players, but we’ll know soon about that. 

TB:  Going back to the stadium just really quick and I’m probably beating this horse to death…is it challenging for you as an owner to simultaneously be looking ahead to a new stadium while trying to maintain the satisfaction of a fan base now.  I mean, I think part of why you get 67% of people saying your ownership group is viewed unfavorably is because all they see is the looking ahead and they feel neglected now.  Even though in my eyes as a fan, one of the things I appreciate you as an owner is that you are clearly a fan.  You are at the games, you’re sitting behind the dugout, not to disparage Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, but how often did we ever see them at games?

LW:  Here’s what I think I’ve accomplished, whether people agree or not.  Number one – the first thing I did within 60 days of taking over the team was make a long-term contract with Billy and give him equity – now, that has never been done in baseball.  In fact, a lot of owners said, "Oh, you shouldn’t have done that!"  But, it was one of the smartest moves that I’ve made and I sensed that Billy’s capabilities were not just in baseball, which was huge – but he’s a fine, caring and intelligent human being.  I call it our "little company" and I did similar things with Mike Crowley, our president.  I don’t think that our fans care one way or another, but I feel that it’s really important.  I can’t imagine, for example, if we sold the team to somebody and they came into run what we have today, to do as well as Billy has done.  He gets a challenge out of it.  That’s a major element.  I can’t think of anyone that Billy has wanted that we haven’t tried to get.  Obviously if you paid some guy whose worth $10 million, $20 million, I guess you can get him – but Billy simply will not make unsound baseball or business decisions.  So we did that.  We spent a lot of money exploring, trying to get a new ballpark within the market area.  I don’t know what else we can do to enhance our potential.

TB:  Do you regret any decisions like things that seem to create ill will right off the bat like the tarping off of the third deck?

LW:  You know something; let’s assume that we didn’t tarp it.  Let me read you another statistic.  The tarping flack is just a straw man in my opinion – I don’t know if I have it right here – yes.  The A’s put tarp in the entire deck to reduce stadium seating availability to a capacity of 35,067 seats.  We had five sell outs only in 2008 and two of them were in Japan.  The empty seats looked so bad to the players and everybody - it’s a football stadium when you have that third deck there.  So that was the reason and if that bothered people, I apologize but we still haven’t had any sell outs. 

TB:  The team seems to have made progression though over the last year and if I remember the attendance numbers – you probably know them better than me – but the attendance seems to continue to go down, but the team actually performed better last year.

LW:  When we won the division and we were in the "final four" three years ago.

TB:  2006

LW:  2006, right.  We didn’t sell out any of those games in Oakland.

TB:  Any of the ALCS games? 

LW:  If we did, you have to check on that I’m not exactly sure.  But the most interesting part was we didn’t change prices significantly and we had less season ticket holders interested in buying season tickets for the next season than we had the year before. Hard to believe.  You tell me why that is.

TB:  Did the A’s turn a profit in 2010?

LW:  This year?  We just about broke even.

TB:  is that a little over or a little under?

LW:  I’m hoping it’s over.  There are a couple of items that the league sends us that we never know whether we’re going to get all or not.  We will be plus or minus around a million dollars one way or another, that’s where we’ll be at. We invest as all of our available funds back into the team.

TB:  Will you be increasing the team budget for 2011?

LW:  Yes.  I’m not going to tell you by how much.

TB:  Is it going to be significant?

LW:  To us, all increases are significant.  But what we don’t want to do is budget for it to lose.  Because this is what I’ve seen happen, the one team that actually won the win the World Series but lost a fortune and then they had to get rid of players they probably wanted to keep.

TB:  Everybody knows - the Marlins.

LW:  If that happens then you’ve got four or five years or maybe longer of nothing.  We’re not going to do that.  We want to be competitive every year, if we can be.

TB:  Curt Young reportedly left the team to pursue other opportunities.  There are some whispers and rumbles that the reason that he left was because he was only offered a one year contract.

LW:  On the coaching staff, I think they are all one year contracts but I’m not sure.

TB:  They’re all one year this year?

LW:  I’m not sure.  That’s a question you have to ask Billy.  I think we probably do not have a firm policy. Most of the personnel that leave move to a higher position somewhere else. Billy has always supported those who have done well for us, like Curt, who wish to move to other and perhaps greater opportunities.

TB:  As a fan, not necessarily as an owner, what kind of job do you think Bob Geren has done with the A’s?  There has been a lot of hand wringing, at least on Athletics Nation about him, at least as a manager.  I wanted to get what your opinion is.

LW:  That’s what I say, you have to go on the road to understand how important the manager is, not just with how he decides to have a runner go from first to third or steal a base, but how he handles the ballplayers, how he handles the personalities, how he handles himself, how he handles the coaching staff, how he keeps the spirit up when you lose six games in a row, you know what I mean? Things of that nature.  I think Bob is simply outstanding.

 I’m very pleased with Geren.  Putting Billy aside and all that when we really sit down and look at all these managers who are more famous than the players you have to look at the budget that they’ve been given.  Somebody may win the World Series with the Yankees and he may be on the cover of every magazine in New York and he moves someplace else where the budget isn’t the same and lo and behold he may not do as well.  So, we’re nurturing young people – Geren has two sons – one just went to Princeton on a baseball scholarship and he’s got another one going there.  I like the whole atmosphere, and his knowledge of baseball and instruction ability.  He’ll drop everything to talk to somebody, whether it’s a player or an owner to explain why he did this or what he looks for here and there.

TB:  So there’s a lot of thought behind the things that he does.

LW:  It’s a job that I wouldn’t want to do.  It’s huge.  I go on a plane with Bob, with all the coaches and they all have their laptops – they’re studying everything.  One thing you might want to do is spend a day or two with them one of these days, if you have the – it might be interesting.  I am very pleased Bob is with us.

TB:  Oh, I would be happy to spend a day and just see.

LW:  Let me see if he would let you.

TB:  To see how he does his job.  I would love to do that. 

LW:  He is upbeat, which you have to be.  For Bob, performance counts.  When some famous name doesn’t get playing time – Bob has a sign in his office that says, "Performance Counts."  I don’t know any player that doesn’t like him, but he also treats them all evenly and I just like the way it is.  I’m sure that others have a different way of doing it.

TB:  Any regrets about maybe not going with Ron Washington, seeing Ron in the World Series?

LW:  This is another wonderful example of former A’s talent moving forward and getting an opportunity.

TB:  I’m asking you more as a fan than an owner though.  I mean, you are a fan.  You’re at the games, you wear the cap.

LW:  I have to tell you, I don’t feel that managers account for winning 50 games, you know?  I think what they really need to do is to nurture players and teach them.  Ron and Bob are both very good teachers.

TB:  Is Bob so good with the young players that as the team ages, you look at getting somebody in there that works better with veterans?

LW:  Interesting question.  I wish it was such a fine line but I don’t see it.  I don’t see it at all. 

TB:  Are you happy with Billy’s performance since you took over as managing partner?

LW:  Absolutely.  I think there are very good general managers in baseball, but I don’t think there are any that I’ve seen that have done better than Billy. I truly do not know where we would be without him.

TB:  Do you view them strictly in terms of wins and losses or…

LW:  I view them on…

TB:  Revenue?

LW:  No.  First of all, I view loyalty to their staff and second I judge on budget performance.

TB:  Would you prefer a caring human being or someone who would bring you a World Series title?

LW:  I think you can have both. 

TB:  Do you think – I mean obviously there is a lot of buzz and discussion about the Moneyball movie since it’s coming out in 2011, and although you weren’t around for that period of time, do you think that there will be a lot of additional pressure on Billy in 2011 because of that movie?

LW:  Pressure to win? 

TB:  Yeah, exactly.

LW:  I hope so.  Then I’ll make sure that there’s a movie every year. In all seriousness, I have never encountered another person who is more dedicated to winning than Billy, movie or no movie.

TB:  You’ll make it yourself, right?  Directed by and starring Lew Wolff.

LW:  I used to be head of real estate for 20th Century Fox.  I’ve read the script.  I used to read scripts at Fox for fun all the time.  I could never translate them onto the screen though.  It takes a special talent. 

TB:  Did you read the script?

LW:  Yes.  I think most of the hard work on this has been done.  And Billy hasn’t spent that much time on it.  From my lay person point of view, the script looks great.

TB:  I think it’s going to rehash a lot of the old – there was kind of a holy war back in the day between the stats people…

LW:  Let me tell you, I’ll give you a little hint – if you had Moneyball (the script) sitting here, you might as well have the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary.

TB:  Are they really that different?

LW:  Well to me they are.

TB:  Cause you can’t really go through the numbers that much. 

LW:  It’s sort of like making a movie out of a dictionary, you know?  How can you do that? 

TB:  If you’ve read The Blind Side, the movie was obviously very different.  It was obviously much more focused on the human element of things.  Do you give Billy a hard time about Brad Pitt playing him at all? 

LW:  A little bit, but Billy is a good sport.  It is going to make him even more popular than he is. 

TB:  So in other words it’s going to get people to woo him.

LW:  I had this very interesting job years ago at 20th Century Fox. So my first day I got there – I go up and park my car and just because of the way it was set up I had my parking space and it was bigger than normal, and one of the older guys there at the lot that took care of the people at the facility came up to me and said, "How do you want your name on your space?"  I looked across to see how others had it and said, "Oh, like that is fine."  And he said, "You know, you have a double space, you should have a double size sign."  And I asked, "Why?"  And he said, "Around here, anything you get that is different and bigger you ought to do it."  So I said, "OK."  What I learned there is that Hollywood is one of the few industries, and I think baseball is another one, that appreciates ego – that nurtures ego, and instead of looking at somebody and mocking, "Look at that, they want their big name put on that."  But there’s a value to that.  Sports is entertainment too.  I think nurturing ego in a positive is positive – high achievers, baseball players. I never thought of it because I was in normal business before that until this guy came up to me and said that to me – of course as long as a person doesn’t get crazy to a point where…

TB:  …to a point where they’re unmanageable. 

LW:  Exactly.



Coming Thursday: The thrilling conclusion of my exclusive interview with Lew Wolff when he talks about how to attract casual fans to see this team, what he'll do if San Jose fails and the process he and Billy go through in attracting free agents.