Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff had an informal on-stage conversation at the Rotary Club of San Jose on Wednesday. He answered questions from Santa Clara County assessor Larry Stone, who’s been active in the effort to get the A’s to move from Oakland to San Jose; and later from the audience. A’s ownership has been waiting for the last three years for Major League Baseball to give them permission to relocate the team. There’s been a flurry of speculation in the last few months that permission will come before Opening Day 2012. Although Wolff said he is optimistic, he was quick to diminish any hope of news his audience might have.
Thank you all for coming. I see a lot of press here. And I really wish I was here with a fantastic announcement for you. I commend you to the parable of the tortoise and the tortoise.
The tortoise Wolff is waiting on is MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. The A’s can’t move outside their territory of Alameda and Contra Costa counties without the permission of Major League Baseball. Selig appointed a committee to examine the possible Bay Area locations for the A’s — as of today, they’ve been at it for 1,061 days. And Wolff sounded slightly testy about the so-called “blue-ribbon” group’s pace.
If one more person calls it a blue-ribbon committee, I’m gonna throw up. It’s a committee. It’s not a blue-ribbon committee. The gentlemen on the committee are good guys but they are doing the bidding of the commissioner. Baseball’s gone from a $1 or $2 billion industry under Bud Selig to $7 or $8 billion. He’s a deliberative person. But that deliberation, when you view the balance sheet — he’s done such a fabulous job. We’re following the process. It’s excruciating. But I think we’re getting there. We have ways of being a belligerent owner. It’s just not in me to do that.
The A’s are restricted from moving to Santa Clara County because MLB has assigned that territory to the San Francisco Giants. Giants’ ownership contends that a large part of their ticket sales and corporate support comes from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, so a team in San Jose would cut into their support. As yet they haven’t been amenable to making a deal to give up their rights to the area.
Wolff: The Giants are trying to stonewall it, which is certainly working — for them. And we’re saying “tell us what we can do.” We think the facts are on our side. We don’t want to hurt the Giants, in fact we think the end result will be a great result for everybody, a great new venue here as well as there, and competition for them. So it’s just sort of strange, and it’s hard to answer the question of why this has gone on so long.
As for Oakland, Wolff said when he bought the A’s he had planned to build a new stadium there:
We really wanted to stay and figure it out in Oakland. At the time we started looking, we had the ability to get residential zoning or entitlements. The market was much different than today. Had that moved along, we would have had a ballpark there. Because that’s the fan base, we have very loyal fans there, terrific people — 99% of our fans are terrific, the others hate me.
Even if MLB grants Wolff’s San Jose wish, there are a few other steps to go before work on a stadium can start. The city of San Jose has acquired most of the land they’d need, but not all of it. And the ballpark plan would have to pass a public referendum. Wolff said he didn’t have a problem with putting the ballpark up for a vote.
We’ll do whatever is necessary. And if for some reason the community leaders, or elected officials, are persuaded that this is not good for the community, then we’ll understand that too. If we did nothing else but just build the ballpark and it employed people and it had construction work, that would be a plus today. And whether that ballpark is in Fremont, Oakland, or San Jose, I just think it’s obvious that we would add to the community.
The A’s traded or failed to re-sign many of their best players over the off-season. Wolff told the San Jose audience that’s because the team doesn’t make enough money now.
If you don’t want to lose millions of dollars, the rule of thumb is that your major league payroll should be half your revenue. Simply put, we need more revenue. We’re going to be playing against three teams in our division, all three will be over $100 million in salary. One I know is $170 million and one is close to that, I think. That’s up a great deal from when we bought the team, when there were,I think, six or eight teams with $100 million in salary; it’s double that now. So the quality of what we put on the field has to be based on our revenue, which puts us in the $50-$60-$65 million salary range. That isn’t an excuse, you know, maybe we’re David against Goliath for a couple of years. But once we move and have a new venue we’ll be able to be similar to the other teams.
Earlier this week, Wolff announced that he’s negotiated a contract extension with his team’s general manager, Billy Beane, that could last through 2019. Beane’s relative success with lower payrolls is the basis for the recent film Moneyball, which ends with the words “Billy Beane is still trying to win the last game of the season.” But not at any price, according to his boss.
He (Billy Beane) would feel, and I would too of course, but he would feel for sure that if we got into the playoffs or even won the World Series and we lost $30 or $40 million doing it, he wouldn’t consider that a victory. He would consider that buying a victory. And that’s great for us, because we don’t want to be in a deficit situation. Frankly, the Haas family had to sell the team because while they were winning, they were losing. And Billy’s had the opportunity to go any place he wanted. He wants to win here. I want to win here – here meaning the Bay Area.
But Wolff signaled that his willingness to wait on Major League Baseball to give the go-ahead for the San Jose move has limits.
I’m not going to continue this (waiting for permission to move) much longer. What we want is an answer. We want a “Yes, you can relocate, share the district, share the territory”. Or “You can’t.” We have a way of demanding a vote (from MLB) but that isn’t our nature. So the best thing for us to do in the next couple of months is see where we go. After that, though, I think I have to — I can’t even continue to come to these wonderful lunches, I’d feel like (Bernie) Madoff, or somebody.
For the Lew Wolff completionist, you can listen to the full speech here.