This is the first installment in a five-part series on important off-field, non-baseball occurrences that helped to shape the current state of the Oakland Athletics organization. This is fifth on a list of five important off-field events, and the rest of the installments will count down to number one on each of the remaining four Thursdays in January.
On March 30, 2005, an ownership group headed by real estate tycoon Lewis N. Wolff and businessman John J. Fisher took control of the Oakland Athletics organization. It seemed an appropriate time for a reset; the A's four-year playoff streak had come to an end in 2004, and much of the fervor over Billy Beane's "Moneyball" teams died down over the course of that season and the winter that followed. Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman, the notoriously tight-fisted co-owners who purchased the club from the estate of Walter A. Haas, Jr. back in 1995, were ready to sell, and the Wolff/Fisher group jumped at the opportunity. And soon after the ownership transition, the organization's future entered some type of weird and (hopefully) temporary purgatory, and there's still no end in sight.
The pairing of ownership group and baseball club has been an interesting one from the start. Fisher is a billionaire almost three times over, and he lives in San Francisco. He's also the majority owner of the team, but despite all that, most A's fans wouldn't recognize him if they passed him walking down the street.
Wolff, on the other hand, is the minority owner (his stake is roughly 10%) and isn't even local — he lives in the Los Angeles area. Wolff is the managing general partner, and he makes the vast majority of public appearances and statements on behalf of the ownership. Consequently, he's generally the one who takes any blame or gets any credit the fanbase feels he deserves, regardless of whether or not it's actually Fisher calling the shots.
The beginning of the Wolff/Fisher era saw both negatives and positives. For starters, Wolff became the first owner in the history of Major League Baseball to include both his team's president (Michael Crowley) and general manager (Billy Beane) as part of his ownership group. Though the move may have been more symbolic than financial, it was a very positive sign. It was clear that Wolff respected the current day-to-day management and appreciated what Beane had done for the organization, and wanted to make that clear internally and publicly.
At the same time, Wolff made some unpopular decisions. A notable one was when, in 2006, the A's tarped off the Coliseum's original (Western) upper deck, reducing the park's baseball capacity to slightly less than 35,000, making it the smallest stadium in the league. The change was welcome with mostly criticism, complete with a plea from a young fan to re-open the upper deck that NPR aired and numerous letters to the editor in local papers. I personally think the move to close off the upper deck was a good one from both a business and atmosphere perspective. Financially, A's don't have to worry about paying security or concessions staff to work an almost completely upper deck, and atmosphere-wise, a crowd of 25,000 makes the Coliseum feel somewhat full if it's confined to two levels, but largely empty if it's dispersed throughout three. Nevertheless, Wolff's decision to close the upper deck was an unpopular one. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the least of his problems in terms of garnering the favor of his fanbase.
Wolff's ties to several high-end hotels in San Jose had fans whispering off a potential move to San Jose right off the bat, but Wolff claimed that he had other ideas. Ideas for ballparks at sites ranging from 66th Avenue near the Coliseum parking lot to "Victory Court", just south of Jack London Square, to two sites in Fremont, both of which eventually failed at the hands of logistical issues, not-in-my-backyard types in the vicinity of the proposed ballparks in Fremont, and several other factors. It was clear the A's were on the move, and at one point, groundbreaking for a new baseball stadium halfwy between Oakland and San Jose seemed imminent.
Amidst the turmoil surrounding a proposed ballpark, though, there were attempts at transparency. Before the 2010 season, Wolff published this open letter to fans justifying his attempts to have MLB adjust the A's territorial rights and allow them to move to Santa Clara County. It's a well-reasoned letter, in my book — in a nutshell, he says that the A's tried in good faith to get a ballpark done in Oakland, and tried after that in Fremont. At that point, he claims to have realized that San Jose was his best, albeit only, bet. Whether that narrative holds water is an entirely different discussion, but the attempts at communicating were there, and it wasn't difficult to read between the lines and see that the A's organization was very much in flux once Wolff's plans in Oakland and Fremont fell through.
This isn't an article about the A's ongoing ballpark saga, and I'll keep it that way (besides, there's another related article coming). The point is that the entrance of Fisher and Wolff into the Oakland A's realm changed the way A's fans and sports fans around the region and country view the organization. I haven't been around for nearly long enough to know for a fact, but I'd be surprised if there's a precedent for the divisiveness currently present within the A's fanbase. There are fans (few, to be fair) in the East Bay who refuse to go to games at the Coliseum because they don't support the ownership. There are others who believe that Wolff, through his closure of the upper deck and other means, has intentionally driven down attendance in Oakland to build a better case for San Jose. There are terms like "Pro-Oakland" and "Pro-San Jose", and a website dedicated to the ballpark saga. Some have brought signs and shirts to the ballpark disparaging Wolff, and some of those signs have been confiscated. Some people deal with it through humor and by making potentially the best YouTube video of all time. But the fans are divided, and if they're not divided, they're at least concerned. Previous ownerships (the Haas family, Schott, and even Charles O. Finley) certainly weren't perfect, but such strife and worry in the minds of the die-hards weren't factors during their respective tenures in charge.
But at the end of the day, there's no questioning that the current ownership's acquisition of the team represents a turning point in the history of the franchise. The trouble is this: that turn has become an all-out skid, and the current direction of the team, both literally and metaphorically, is anybody's guess. While Wolff still has a hand on the steering wheel, there's no telling how his tenure will be viewed in a decade, or five, and there are very few things more relevant to the current state of the A's than the men in charge.