Q&A with Athletics owner Lew Wolff

Q&A with Athletics owner Lew Wolff

PHOENIX -- As owner and managing general partner of the A's, Lew Wolff is the front man of a limited partnership group that purchased the club on April 1, 2005. On Saturday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, he sat down with MLB.com and discussed a wide variety of issues in a 30-minute chat. Here's what he had to say:

MLB.com: What's your background as a baseball fan?
Wolff: Well, I grew up in St. Louis, so I was a Cardinals fan forever. And I'm actually old enough to have been a Browns fan. And those were the days when they both played in the same ballpark, so I know it's possible for two teams to play in the same ballpark. I was a little kid then. But then I played high school baseball, which I really enjoyed. I'm a huge fan of baseball, but I'm not the kind of person who can remember who was warming up when Warren Spahn did this or that. [Commissioner] Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf, and even Billy [Beane], they can give you all that. They remember everything. But I really like to focus on what's happening now, and in the future. The history of baseball is fantastic, but I'm much more interested in the coming generation every year.

MLB.com: Does being a fan ever get in the way, or influence you as an owner? How hard is it to separate the human side and the business side?
Wolff: I tell Billy that I'm the only owner, I think, out of the 30 of us, who would like to spend more money than the general manager. I'm being facetious, but I'm trying to be careful about now falling in love with the players on an individual basis, but the ones we've had since I've been here have been such gentlemen, and so nice -- collectively, not just individually. So when Jay Payton leaves, or Frank Thomas leaves, or Barry Zito leaves, yeah, I feel bad. But Billy brings me back to reality.

MLB.com: How involved are you on the baseball side of things?
Wolff: Well, on trades and things like that, he loves to share what he's thinking. And we both have Blackberries, and we're either talking through that or on the phone constantly. Billy and his people make decisions with a lot of thought, and he'll share that with me. So we talk a lot about it, but I never say, "Don't do this, don't do that." If it's going to exceed our budget, we'll really talk it through. Billy's actually very respectful of the budget he sets, but he does involve me a lot, and I'm enjoying it.

MLB.com: So Billy sets the budget?
Wolff: We all set it. But it's really not that difficult, salary-wise, in the sense that we always have a pretty good idea of who's going to be with the team. But if something happens and all of a sudden you need somebody you weren't anticipating, it can be adjusted. I like deal-making, and what I do in my real-estate life is very similar to what Billy does. So it's a lot of fun. It's serious, but not to the point of going crazy -- at least for me. Other owners may be different.

MLB.com: Last year at a lunch for sponsors, it was pretty clear you were confident about the team you had because you closed your comments with, "I'll see you at the parade." How do you feel about this year's team?
Wolff: Well, first of all, I'm afraid to say anything like that anymore. I was kidding, but poor Ken Macha, from that day forward, he was upset or concerned about it. So I've been much more careful about what I say. But when I look at the team, this year and last year, I look at the competition, and I think we're in the same position -- maybe even better -- than we were last year. But you never know what's going to happen. Last year we went pretty far with two or three guys hurt, and a couple people not performing to what their capabilities were. So we deserve a year of having none of that happen.

MLB.com: Obviously, the stadium issue is front and center with most A's fans. Where does everything stand with the proposed park in Fremont?
Wolff: It's the most complicated transaction that I've ever seen. It's a win-win-win for everybody involved, but one of the problems we have in baseball is that everyone thinks the baseball teams should underwrite everything. I'm not talking about the public. I'm talking about various constituencies we deal with. So I'm confident that we have a great program, but there's a lot of constituencies we have to satisfy, and we're trying to do that. So it's hard to set a date for when it's going to happen. If everything went great, it could be 36 months before we open it. But that's if everybody was cooperating exactly the way I want them to, which I'm not expecting. On a fast-track basis, we could open in 36 months, but it's probably going to be closer to 60 months. Right now we have a certain number of issues that we need to agree to, and we're getting close. We're trying to stay in Alameda County, because that's our district, and we don't have any leverage. We can't say, "If you don't do this, we're moving to Omaha." Every other team I know of [that's tried to get a new stadium] has had an alternate site. We're trying to do this without that. We just want to get it done here.

MLB.com: How confident are you that it's going to get done?
Wolff: I'm very confident. I don't like to speculate, but there's no reason it shouldn't happen. No huge reasons, anyway.

MLB.com: What would you say to fans who say you're abandoning Oakland if you move to Fremont?
Wolff: First of all, we haven't had a lot of people screaming about this. And one of the reasons, I think, is I spent about four years trying to figure out how we might be able to do it in Oakland. The question is, "Well, did he really try? What's his real motive?" In today's world, if you say two and two is four, somebody's going to say, "What does he really mean by that?" In our case, I think informed people in Oakland that we've dealt with, or tried to, would say we gave it a terrific try.

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MLB.com: When the plans were formally announced, some fans were upset that you said "Fremont" would be incorporated in the name of the team? Are you sticking to that?
Wolff: We had one elected official in Oakland say that if we move out of Oakland, we can't use the Oakland name. If we move to Fremont, we will be like Anaheim ... "of Fremont" or "at Fremont." So that's under the title, as they say in the movie industry. And right now, I haven't given any thought to what the rest will be, whether it's "Oakland A's of Fremont" or "at Fremont." We have to see what everybody's comfortable with.

MLB.com: Your ownership group is involved in Major League Soccer now, trying to bring the Earthquakes back to San Jose. Why? Are you a big soccer fan, or is this strictly business?
Wolff: That's an excellent question. I'm a soccer fan, but again, not like guys who know every player on Argentina's B team. We have a lot of soccer fans in the organization. Billy, [president] Mike Crowley, Farhan [Zaidi, baseball operations analyst]. We all went over to the World Cup in Germany, and I was amazed at how much knowledge our baseball people have of soccer. Just amazed. ... I have a good friend who was the head of soccer for the World Cup in L.A., and he's been soccering me to death for three decades. I think we're finally reaching the point where soccer is at that platform where you can field a team, make money and start to be more competitive. It's a business transaction, but I also think it'd be great if I could be associated with keeping the Earthquakes in San Jose.

MLB.com: To that end, you're working with San Jose State on a new stadium on campus that the Earthquakes would use. Where does that stand?
Wolff: We're hoping to do that, and San Jose State's been very cooperative. It's a big deal because we'd be doing a venture that would last 50 years there. And they do need a new football venue, but it's a process that's sort of like Fremont. It's complicated. So far everybody's been fine, but we'll probably know in another month or so if we can pull it off. It's not because people don't want it, but all the intricacies of dealing with the university takes some time. We think we have a good program for it, but if we don't do it at the university, we have some other options there.

MLB.com: Some of your fans had a hard time picking up your radio broadcasts last year. You've added a station to increase the reach this year, but how happy are you with that situation? Would you, at some point, like to own a station with a big signal to make it your flagship?
Wolff: First of all, I was one of the fans who couldn't always get the game. So I understand the frustration. I'm not an expert in this, but I will tell you that from the first day we took over, we've been looking to [buy a station]. We are so secondary to the Giants, and one of the problems is there aren't any stations available, and the Bay Area has some very big signal issues with the mountains and such, so every year we're kind of patching it together. And that's not what we want. There just hasn't been anything available. It's one of our huge goals, one of our main goals, to get ourselves a single station that reaches everybody. So if you run into one, let me know.

MLB.com: Are you going to be tarping off the third deck again?
Wolff: Yes. And I have to tell you, I was astounded by the amount of articles written about that. And we're still talking about it today. But we were happy with the way it worked out. The fan experience was better, the players liked it. If we get into the World Series, we'll open it up. But having the tarps up is something that we felt went well. You can control the fans a little better, and the players really did seem to enjoy it. When we build our ballpark, it's going to be the smallest in baseball -- 32,000 seats. But if you do an objective analysis, take [Camden Yards in] Baltimore, for instance. The first five years, everything was fine. But now, you watch a game on TV from there, and when the camera sweeps around, it's only 60 percent full. A couple owners I've talked to said they put an extra 10,000 seats in at the last minute, and now they wish they hadn't. I think intimacy is the name of the game. It's why Spring Training is so popular. So we're trying to get that, and at the new park, our fans, on average, will be closer to home plate than the fans at any other stadium.

MLB.com: What's the most difficult aspect of being a big-league owner?
Wolff: The most surprising thing to me is all the injuries. This is such great talent, but when I was young, Yogi Berra would break his thumb and just rub some dirt on it and finish the game. People were expected to do that. But that's not how it is anymore. I always tell people, "We should have bought an MRI machine as well as a baseball team." So that's been a surprise. But I think we inherited, thanks to the former owners, one of the most smoothly run, disciplined operations. Much more disciplined than I am, and it's usually the other way around.

MLB.com: What's your favorite part of being an owner?
Wolff: Watching the games. Baseball's a sport, in my mind, that something could happen in every game that's never happened before. You have to go to a lot of games, but when I'm out there, something like that always happens. And what I also like about it is there's so many chances for someone to even up. Like a guy makes an error, and the next inning he hits a double. I like that. And there's just so much thought going on out there at every stage. I really enjoy that part of it.

MLB.com: Anything we haven't talked about that you'd like to get across to the fans?
Wolff: Yeah, and I appreciate the chance to do it. I think the need for a new venue is clear, so if we can get the fans' support on Fremont, that would be great. If it goes a different direction, we'll figure out a different direction.

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.