The Big Lew Wolff Interview, Part 1

This interview, at 12,000+ words long, is an order of magnitude longer than the typical posts on this blog. Because of that length, and because of my desire to confine the discussion to the topics within each post, the interview is being split into five parts. However, you can also get copies of the entire interview right away if you donate via the PayPal button on the right. The interview is available in PDF, ePub (e-reader), and Mobi (Kindle) formats for you to use on your computer or preferred device (Kindle uploads require calibre or similar software). Here are your options:

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Last Monday, I received an email from A’s PR man Bob Rose. He indicated that his boss, A’s owner Lew Wolff, wanted to have a chat with me. After some back and forth, we arranged for a meeting at the Fountain Restaurant inside Wolff’s Fairmont San Jose early Wednesday morning. The discussion went two hours long and covered a wide range of topics. Wolff expressed his interest in having an unedited conversation to explain what he’s been doing, and I was more than happy to have that chat. The transcribed discussion below has minimal editing – only to clean up incomplete sentences, the inevitable “uh” and “um” moments, and for me to add brief editor’s notes when I felt the need. My comments and questions are all in bold, while Wolff’s is in regular font. Editor’s notes are in italics/square brackets. I have intentionally not included links so as to not distract the reader. The interview runs more than 12,000 words. This is Part 1 of 5. The topics covered are as follows:

  • Part 1 – History of working in Oakland, 980 Park site, Process
  • Part 2 – Oakland now and what it takes, Earthquakes, contraction
  • Part 3 – Territorial rights, Giants’ motives, Dodgers/Mets, Coliseum
  • Part 4 – Tarps, discounts, player development, CBA, payroll, T-rights again
  • Part 5 – Redevelopment, Target Field, Cisco Field, Keith Wolff, museum and history

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. I think you’ll feel that there are many revealing answers in there, and plenty of stuff for Oakland and San Jose backers to dislike. I’d also like to thank Lew for allowing me the opportunity to do this Q&A.

- Marine Layer

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ML: You became managing partner in 2005, after a year-plus stint as VP of venue development. Coincidentally, I started this blog in 2005, partly as a writing exercise, and to inform fans. Over six years have elapsed. Did you think it would take this long?

LW: No, obviously I didn’t. Prior to buying the team I was working on the thing. I’m not sure the title meant anything. I thought that we would figure out a way to do it on the Coliseum site or one of the sites in Oakland. At the time the economy was booming and the value of residential entitlements or zoning was huge. There were a lot of public companies, all these big homebuilders, were dying for the ability to get more and more residential rights, to build apartments or homes.

We came up with the idea. The very first editorial which I saved in Oakland – this was before I was even the owner – said “No public money in baseball.” Which is okay. Except for the Giants and Dodgers, all teams’ new ballparks have had some form of public help (financing). So we had an idea that if we brought a new ballpark to Oakland or any place, we could say to the community, “You don’t have to write a check, but we’d like to entitle certain property for residential” – not for our developer. The reason this escapes everybody is because nobody’s going to take their time to look into it except you.

The idea was this: Say someone wanted to build 1,000 apartment units. And they’re going through the process. You entitle that – assuming the city wants that – those entitlements back then were worth $100k per unit just for the right to build, sort of like land value. Instead of the developer taking that money, that money would go into a small joint powers unit (authority) and be used to fund a baseball park. That’s a double win there. The city gets more housing and those entitlements don’t have to be by the ballpark. They could be in Dublin or Fremont, they could be anywhere (in Alameda County). This was a very interesting concept and we checked it legally. It was very clearly stated in an article in the Chronicle, so it wasn’t a hidden idea. With all the delay and difficulty in both Oakland and Fremont – Oakland in the sense of land availability because it’s a built up city – to get land assembled, and then all the issues with traffic and freeways and off-ramps and so on – so time went on and of course the economy changed. So this entitlement approach to build a ballpark is a dead issue, and we don’t see it coming back for a long time. That says, “Oh my goodness,”  instead of putting up $100 million, which we were hoping to do at the most, we now have to do the whole thing ourselves. That pretty much requires us to be in a central business district (downtown) because the infrastructure is already there. We don’t have to rebuild the freeway or an off-ramp. The entitlement aspect of it – somebody should’ve jumped on it. We couldn’t do it by ourselves. We weren’t looking for money, we were looking for process. So we spent the time before we bought the team and about a year or so after. I think I told you before – I don’t have the book with me- that it takes me one hour, forty-five minutes to go through everything we did in Oakland. Even though somebody has a sign in RF saying, “Lew lied, he never did anything.” That person hasn’t come and sat down and asked, “Tell me what you did do?”

The other side of it is that side – Oakland, Richmond – that whole area was built up rapidly during WWII, shipbuilding and so on. (Land) ownership is very diverse. Just land acquisition alone is difficult. Even though some of the areas look blighted, as soon as you say we’re trying to build a ballpark there, immediately the land values go way up. Some people say that the “North of 66″ plan was just a gimmick. What they’re not willing to do and be fair about is that we looked at every possible site – Coliseum, Laney, even the Victory area – all that stuff and somebody at the City said to me, “We can’t help you here. What do you think?” At the same time Councilman Larry Reid was looking at another area around the Coliseum where he was going to acquire a lot of stuff. I drove through there and it looked pretty blighted. All I wanted to do is start a dialogue with 50 property owners or 30. Except for one or two people, nobody wanted to even discuss it. There was relocation, we could’ve moved people to the (shuttered Oakland) Army Base. People will just say, “Oh he just made that up.” If I had my material with me you’d see that before even looking at that we looked at every opportunity that was available. We wouldn’t do it if everybody didn’t want to do it. We couldn’t even get traction.

It’s very simple. One of the very first things any city should do is look at their (county) assessor’s office. Draw a boundary around Victory Court or something. It takes a day or two determine there are 20 property owners and their names. Some of them are in a trust or something. If you just took the assessed value – and because you’re going to buy the property add 50% – you’d have a good idea of the that (total value) is and if you really wanted to, you’d call each person and say, “We’re just thinking about this. You’re a property owner here. We’re not doing anything yet.” Then you’d get an idea of the desire to participate from the beginning. Someone might say, “Oh my god, that’s my business, I can’t take it.” If we gave you that assessed value, and then we paid for relocation to the Army Base and a nicer (newer) facility – I mean it’s a lot of work. I didn’t expect Oakland to do that. But I also didn’t expect them just to draw a line around six blocks and say, “Oh there’s a ballpark.”

ML: We get that too much now.

That’s all we’re getting, because I believe – and this is not a defense – it’s because we’ve explored everything more than once. For two years now this committee, which I ‘ve had very little access to – and I’m sure they haven’t talked too much to the Giants either – guys I know, they’re good guys. They’re supposed to step in and check out if I did everything, and if I missed something. I haven’t heard that I missed anything. You could’ve written a PhD dissertation by now.

ML: Certainly.

There’s other reasons that perhaps Bud Selig is contemplating this. He’s my friend, and he’s involved in lots of stuff in baseball.

ML: You’ve had that information that you showed me last time we talked here two years ago. Because it’s taken this long and you have access to this panel, do you feel that the you and the argument you’ve made have been somewhat rebuked?

No, just the opposite. I think they can’t find a flaw in it. If they can, tell me what it is. They’re not rebuking me. I think it’s so overwhelming. If someone flew in from Mars and you were going to put a ballpark somewhere and one was already in San Francisco, where would you put the next one? [laughs]

Had they come up with a different approach that could be refuted or digested, I think it I would’ve seen it by now. At the same time, I can’t give a reason why a decision hasn’t been made. It’s a baseball decision. The commissioner is a very contemplative person. I’m an owner that wants to cooperate with baseball. When I got into this Bud Selig told me, “What I encourage owners to do is to put baseball first and their teams a very close second.” Instead of putting a team in bankruptcy or whatever’s happening in other cities. I’m just not cut out for that. I feel that being in baseball is a privilege, and we’re enjoying it.

ML: We’ve already gone plenty into my second topic, which is a lot about the pro-Oakland crowd who’ve said you’ve lied. I’ve written that the only thing you’ve really lied about is that you didn’t have a Plan B. Is that right, or am I off-base there?

Well, the word lie is a very strong word in my life. I don’t call people liars. The Plan B would be that if someone says to us – no fault of Oakland by the way – that “you have a team that you can’t move and you have to stay in this facility and make it work with the Raiders there.” Plan B is fairly simple, it’s just that we haven’t addressed them. Moving out of the state to other markets, of which there aren’t many. Selling the team to somebody that can do what we can’t do.

ML: Which a lot of them are hoping that you do.

That’s fine, but that party should also have a real plan, go through what we’ve gone through. The one thing that I wanted to do, because I’ve been in public dealings with cities my entire life, is that I didn’t want to be the owner who says, “If you don’t do what I tell you we’re moving to San Antonio.” Also, I didn’t want to get on a plane and start schmoozing with the mayor of San Antonio or Portland or Las Vegas or Monterrey, Mexico. I don’t think that’s the way to do one of these things. I still don’t think it’s the way to do it. But almost every new ballpark, including the Giants’, has been done under the threat of leaving town. So Plan B, the options are obvious. I think a better way to phrase your question is, “Have you spent time doing that?” The answer is, “We have not.” We still don’t feel like we’re moving out of the market.

ML: I’m in the market and I just took the train down here.

Exactly. Frankly, I don’t have the energy to start discussing with another city council outside the state of California. If we were dead in the water, we’d have to ask baseball what they’d want us to do.

ML: You’ve led into my next subject already with the discussion about what’s been done in Oakland. What is the difference between getting something done here, in San Jose, and in Oakland right now?

Very simple. One, we have a downtown location. When I say “San Jose” all I’m talking about is a specific site in San Jose.

ML: That one. [Ed.: I point in general direction of Diridon]

If somebody that you could go to San Jose instead of Oakland, that doesn’t mean it just happens. San Jose acquired land and went through the process of acquiring it in a downtown area where the off-site costs are minimized. They would be in downtown Oakland if there was a site. There’s a demographic difference, but if our entitlement program worked in either Oakland or Fremont we would’ve been there. I don’t care what people say. We would’ve been there. As much as I love San Jose I wasn’t thinking about San Jose at the time at all. We wouldn’t have spent the amount of time and money we did on Fremont if we wanted to get out of our district. People don’t remember that.

There have been huge demographic changes since the Bash Brothers and the A’s drew X attendance. Back then the population of Oakland was probably twice what it is today. [Ed.: The 1990 population of Oakland was 370,000, slightly less than the current figure of 390,000.] I don’t track it. St. Louis is the city where I came from, and the city used to be 800,000 people, it’s 300,000 now [Ed.: This is correct]. There used to be ten, twelve major company headquarters there. Now there aren’t any except Anheuser Busch, who is rumored to be leaving. There’s been a shift. Even if there were a site in Oakland, if we didn’t have the entitlement program it would be very hard to rationalize it. It’s even hard now. $400-450 million for a privately financed stadium – which it should be private, why should the people pay for it. The process that the public can help you with it can be huge. San Jose, through whatever reasons, has gotten the process so that we can go ahead.

If we started in Oakland, whether it’s Victory Court or floating over the freeway – I want to talk to you about that one.

ML: Yeah. We’ll get to that one (980 Park).

Can I tell you my quick stance on that one?

ML: Sure, go ahead.

It’s an A+ in planning and an F in implementation. [laughs]

ML: Okay!

I love concepts like that.

ML: Well, it came from an architect.

Geodesic dome over a city so that you can control the climate?

ML: [laughs]

I like that stuff, but I’ll let somebody else do it.

ML: That reminds me of a documentary on Robert Moses. There were all these concepts for a Dodgers’ stadium. One of them was a geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, which would’ve been interesting for 20 years until they got tired of it.

Two things about that. One thing I think you’ll like intellectually. Housing filters down. So if the Rockefellers live in a mansion with a roof and spread out. I did some work years ago in Guam. A subdivision house with a carport and so on is what filtered down. Now if the Rockefellers were living in a geodesic dome we’d have geodesic domes everywhere.

ML: Makes sense. 

Give me Robert Moses for one year and I’ll have a new ballpark anywhere you want. [laughs] He had more power than the mayor and the president. This great metropolis (New York), that great ability to create, we don’t have that today. I always give a speech that if you have a cure for cancer somebody will be against it. I like the democratic approach to things, but it’s inhibiting the state getting things done.

ML: Sure is. State. Country.

You know when the President said, “shovel ready?” If he meant shovel ready after the environmental work, we’d be talking about a decade sometimes.

73 Responses to The Big Lew Wolff Interview, Part 1

  1. eb says:

    @tony d. While I don’t think the population comment is earth shattering, I don’t see how the comment is irrelevant. Wolff is an owner that is in the process of trying to get a stadium built in a possible variety of locations. Having a negative perception of a region’s population size/growth or in fact just being ignorant about these numbers could have an impact on what ultimately gets done. Again, not information that is mind blowing or that will likely be the end all be all in terms of building a stadium, but I think it’s curious and totally relevant.

  2. jeff-athletic says:

    To those worried about San Antonio –

    No facility, or any facility on horizon.

    Population and corporate base less than Alameda and CoCo counties.

    Would violate Rangers and Astros T-rights, at least their TV rights.

    Really not feasible.

    Other ones – Portland, again smaller population and corporate base, and no facility or any on horizon.

    Sacramento – same thing, but even smaller. Nice AAA situation though (I’m a Sac area resident, and enjoy the River Cats.

    Monterrey Mexico – seems very far fetched. Population is huge, don’t know about corporate base. Probably lacks a facility, and probably very unlikely to build one. Could see appeal of expanding North America Market, however.

    I’ll reiterate what another poster said Plan B might very well be to build on the current Coliseum site.

    To me, that has always, always made the most sense. I understand MLB wants a downtown or waterfront stadium. I know the corporate base in SJ is very attractive. I know LW prefers SJ. But I do believe he made a very strong effort to build in Oakland or near – his time and huge amount of money put into the Fremont site proves this – it was only squashed down by special interests/voters. I even think Wolff is probably open to the idea of building at the Coliseum site, but MLB has been against it (because they want downtown stadiums).

    But building a new baseball park on one of the parking lots of the coliseum would be by far the cheapest and the easiest option. The infrastructure is already there. It’s right off the freeway. It’s right by BART. It has tons of parking. There are no T-rights issue. No relocation of businesses. It would have a great view of either the Oakland hills, or the bay (depending on alignment).

    We already know that the A’s are capable of attracting 2+ million a year – they’ve done it before. With a brand new stadium, they would easily attract 2.5+, and no longer be on the MLB dole.

  3. Marine Layer says:

    @Mike – I’m not going there. I agree with Wolff on the silliness of these soundbite/quote gotchas. Going there would play right into that silliness.

  4. tony d. says:

    JA,
    Coliseum aint happening! Already ruled out.
    RM,
    When’s the interview with Keith Wolff? That’s the most important ? at this point.
    Time to get excited around here!

  5. jk-usa says:

    @ML–how about during that Doug Boxer interview with CT a few months ago, when he had some attendance figures wrong, the pro-SJ crowd was going nuts saying that he lied and slipped that in there. He apologized and corrected his misstatement. Wolff truly believes that Oakland’s population has taken a tailspin like all those rust belt cities. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
    I’m done with this population thing and look forward to the other parts of the interview. I can only take this guy in small doses and can wait for the rest.

  6. Robo says:

    Did anyone see the article in the Tribune a few days ago about the Oakland council authorizing more money for a new Stadium design plan and an Enviromental Impact Report for the Raiders at the Coliseum site? While I know the city wants to keep both teams, I get the impression that if they had to choose they would pick the Raiders over the A’s. I think that part has been covered here before.I just don’t see how Oakland could get two major projects of this size accomplished at the same time.If the Raiders move to Santa Clara, then Oakland could concentrate on the A’s situation. But I don’t see that happening. It also mentioned that City Councilman Reid said that this new plan doesn’t include a new arena for the Warriors.That could mean the exsisting arena stays or is torn down.Even if the Warriors left they should still keep the Arena.It’s amazing that there are so many obstacles that are not in control of the A’s..

  7. jk-usa says:

    @TonyD–yes, MLB did rule out the Coliseum, and have also ruled out SJ 19 years ago, but SJ is somehow still back in the picture, and I believe the Coliseum is still too if SJ stays in SFG’s territory and VC/980 fall apart.

  8. Jeffrey says:

    jk- I called Doug Boxer out on his number. It led to him and I having a lunch and talking through a lot of stuff (which was the published on this blog).
    .
    This population thing is lame. Just like the Doug Boxer attendance thing was lame. It is all beside the point. It really isn’t all that relevant because most folks who come to games won’t be coming from the city the team plays in (which is true in Oakland, San Jose, or even San Francisco). I am pretty sure he knows what the Metro population is. I’d be shocked if he didn’t at least have an understanding of how many folks are within a 10 mile circle, 20 mile, 30 mile, of any stadium location. What the median incomes are within those circles. How many corporations are in the given circles… etc. Those are really important numbers when you are trying to build a stadium with 100% private financing.
    .
    The main point, which he segued into, is that the Corporate buyer doesn’t exist in Oakland. At a minimum it is a fraction of what exists in the South Bay. That isn’t really debatable, though people will try and debate it with press releases about solar companies and Pandora. The larger point he makes is entirely valid.

  9. Dan says:

    jk, I know you’re still stuck on the population comment and not to defend Wolff, but he didn’t ever specifically state 1990. And while it is true Oakland’s population has gone up 4.5% since 1990, it’s also gone down 2.5% since 2000 which was far closer to when Wolff got involved with the whole affair than 1990. His comment was still patently wrong on it’s face regardless of which year you’re talking about, but the idea that Oakland has grown and is a healthy city is also wrong. Oakland is currently a shrinking city, in fact one of only two such cities in the Bay Area which I’d suggest might have been the idea behind what Wolff was saying, and has said previously.

  10. jk-usa says:

    Hey Lew, 20 property owners(VC site) is a lot easier to deal with than your fantasy site (N of 66th), where you have over 100 owners to deal with. Add to this the population gaffe and this guy has me shaking my head over and over again.

  11. jk-usa says:

    @Dan–LW said Bash Bros. era, that’s around 1990. Population up a little since then, not half like LW said. He said a huge demographic change since then. What does he mean by that? It’s actually more diverse than ever now and incomes have gone up quite a bit with empty nesters and the hipsters moving in.

  12. Tony D. says:

    So now some have come full circle to champion (once again) the Coliseum option? Wow! That’s all I’ll say about that. Read all five parts and then get back to me on Friday.

  13. jk-usa says:

    @TonyD–i will. Talk to yah on Friday, bro.

  14. doctorK says:

    Nice job, ML. Looking forward to reading the whole thing.

  15. The Mystro says:

    Just get something done…as much as I want the site in Oakland, at this point I just want a new park. I’ll still show up to the Colliseum & the A’s as the team I love.

  16. Mike says:

    Just finished the whole thing. You know you’ve done a good job when the reader wants more. Was saddened when I got to the end, because it was a good read.

  17. Notsellingjeans says:

    Reading this blog is such a treasure. I am grateful, ML. As a former journalist myself, this interview is a tribute to how a source will open up to you and provide thoughtful, candid responses when the interviewer is very hardworking, fair, and highly educated on the topic.

    To those who wonder why Wolff prefers to grant this level of access to ML, rather than an east bay columnist: keep in mind how much ML knows about city planning, architecture, stadium construction, etc. I’ve learned a ton about those topics in the last few years reading this blog. From wolff ‘s perspective, it makes ML enjoyable to talk to for two hours, because they are two guys talking on the same level.

    Basically, it’s the opposite of how beane probably feels when he talks to Lowell Cohn. The exasperation of an intelligent baseball man being forced to waste his time explaining obvious concepts is palpable even in the transcription of their back and forth.

    Anyway, it’s a treasure ML. Thank you.

  18. A's observer says:

    To Marine Layer and anybody else:

    why do you think there’s been ‘negative coverage’ by local media?

    This just randomly happened, right? The media just decided to take a negative tone for no reason?

    Actually, the premise that ‘local media’ have been ‘negative’ is WRONG!

    Mark Purdy, John Shea, Gary Radnich and Chris Townsend have all been very supportive of moving the team to San Jose.

    A’s observer.

  19. Marine Layer says:

    @A’s observer – I don’t think Lew has done himself any favors in terms of how he’s handled this over the years. He would’ve been better off if he fully explained everything to the fans from the get-go via fan forums and sit-downs. He did some, but only for select groups. At the same time, I think most columnists have fed into the negative coverage, and that works because it gets clicks and hits based on activity at SFGate and other sites. Nobody feels sorry for the rich guy, and almost no one is going to read a dry explanation of a ballpark financing plan over an easy-to-identify-with rant.

  20. A's observer says:

    To Marine Layer:

    you have valid points but columnists – overall – haven’t “played into the negative’ coverage.”

    They’ve simply pointed out truisms and contradictions.

    For example, LW can’t say that Oakland/East Bay can’t support a team when the numbers say otherwise.

    A’s observer.

  21. Jeffrey says:

    A’s observer… When did Lew Wolff say Oakland/East Bay can’t support a team and what numbers show otherwise? I guess “Slumlord Owner” is a new integer.

  22. Jesse says:

    “I always give a speech that if you have a cure for cancer somebody will be against it.” Oh Ok Lew now you’re curing cancer. idiot. Some people have cancer reading this blog, idiot.

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