Monday, August 1, 2011

Analysis of Interview, Vol. 1

A's managing partner Lew Wolff sat down recently for an interview with's Marine Layer, who is breaking up the sitdown into five parts. Part 1 was published Monday.

As we did with Athletics Nation's interview with Wolff last year, we're going to correct any errors and refute any factually incorrect statements that Wolff makes about the A's, their stadium situation and the cities involved.

One quick note: We don't like being negative, believe it or not. All we are is a group of baseball fans who just want to talk baseball and root for our team. But our favorite team is in danger of being ruined. And we're not going to let hugely inaccurate statements, specious arguments and very flawed logic about A's off-field history and the city of Oakland go by without a fact-based rebuttal.

Without further ado, here's our take on Part 1, free of charge:

In answer to the first question about the ballpark development process, Wolff said:

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 property for residential" -- not for our developer. The reason this escapes everybody is because nobody's going to take their time to look into except you.

Not true. The reason why Wolff's entitlement process has been understood by so few people is that Wolff has never taken the time to fully explain the process.

Check out this excerpt from Patrick Hoge's S.F. Chronicle article on Wolff's Fremont plan from 2007:

Wolff has proposed that Fremont rezone the land around the stadium and allow him to develop a "ballpark village'' with 2,900 units of housing, mostly townhomes, and a retail development comparable to Santana Row in San Jose.

But another excerpt from the Hoge column is even more telling:

Wolff did not provide details about how he plans to pay for what he said would be a small ballpark of roughly 32,000 seats.

In Fremont, Wolff never did provide Hoge or the city's residents much details in a public setting. They just were never fully provided. Besides, it's still not clear why these entitlements are necessary for a ballpark in Oakland or Fremont, but not in the South Bay.

Wolff also said:

With all the delay and difficulty in both Oakland and Fremont -- Oakland in the sense of land availablity because it's a built up city ...

That's false. In October 2009, a report was issued stating that Oakland has "1,200 acres of vacant and underutilized public land." Plus, even if Oakland really is too built up, remember that ANY major metropolitan city is built up. Yet, stadiums and large projects get built all the time in cities with fare more density and less land than Oakland has.

Wolff also said:

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 liked, he never did anything." That person hasn't come and sat down and asked, "Tell me what you did do?"

Actually, he did meet with you, Lew. That fan is Jorge Leon. And he left his meeting with you feeling unimpressed with your answers and efforts. (Here's Leon's take on that meeting.)

Then Wolff talked in detail about various Oakland sites, incuding his "North of 66" plan, the impossibly ambitious East Oakland plan he introduced in August 2005, but quickly ditched. Here are some excerpts:

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. ...I drove through there (around the Coliseum) 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.

Don't those two thoughts from Wolff contradict each other? In other words, here's what we don't get: If Wolff was so concerned (as he states above) about driving up land prices if he reveals he wants to buy it for a ballpark, then why did Wolff publicly announce his "North of 66" plan in August 2005 before buying a single parcel of land there in East Oakland? It's just one more excuse he gives that doesn't really add up.

Also, even though Wolff announced the plan in August 2005, at Fanfest the following February, David Forst and Billy Beane were already talking about Fremont. Also, according to a 2006 East Bay Express story:

"... Wolff was introduced to Cisco CEO John Chambers in the fall of 2005 by former A's co-owner Ken Hofmann. Wolff and Chambers quickly began discussing a deal for the 143-acre Cisco-Catellus property, to which Cisco still held the rights."

So he makes the big Oakland announcement in August, and just two or three months later, he's seriously looking at Fremont and talking to Cisco. Does Wolff sound like a guy there who's serious about Oakland?

Wolff also said:

I also didn't expect them (Oakland) to just draw a line around six blocks and say, "Oh there's a ballpark."

Simply not true. Oakland officials and others have done much, much more than that. Unfortunately, Wolff has refused to sincerely work with Oakland officials on a new ballpark.

Wolff also said:

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?

Interesting hypothetical (that Wolff got from a Monte Poole column last year written in defense of Oakland as a baseball town). But still just a hypothetical. Getting back to the reality of the situation, the fact is that Oakland has been the A's home for 44 seasons. And history shows that when the owner makes a commitment to Oakland and merely tries to be competitive, then A's fans respond positively with attendance that matches or exceeds the Giants', and the team thrives.

Wolff later said:

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." ...I don't think that's the way to do one of these things. I still don't think that's the way to do it.

That's not true, Lew. According to this S.F. Chronicle article from September 2008, you said to an A's Booster Club crowd:

Instead of just saying, 'If you don't have a BART station, you can't survive,' we're trying to figure out if we can. If we can, we will. If we can't, we won't. Of course, then we wouldn't be in California any more.

That's clearly a threat to move the team out of state. And we're not misinterpreting anything. Ray Ratto wrote a column the next day criticizing Wolff for making the threat. Ratto wrote: "And to alienate the fan base with a threat that he cannot carry out for the foreseeable future is just plain daft."

Wolff also said:

If our entitlement program worked in either Oakland or Fremont we would've been there. ... As much as I love San Jose I wasn't thinking about San Jose at the time at all.

In short, Wolff wants us to believe that from 2003-2005, he was looking only at Oakland, and from 2006-2009, he was looking only at Fremont. But if that's true, why did San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed say this in a May 10, 2011 letter to Bud Selig regarding Wolff and the A's: "Even though a lot of time has passed, seven years to be exact, since the A's first considered moving to San Jose, we remain enthusiastic ..."

Seven years ago was 2004, right around the time that Wolff says he was trying to work with Oakland. Hmmm.

Also, if Wolff was working only with Oakland during those years, why did Wolff (according to this 2006 article) say that he had given up on moving to the South Bay because he had spent the previous three years (from 2003-2006) trying to buy out the Giants for the territorial rights to San Jose?

Also, San Jose has not done any of its ballpark work on its own because Wolff was talking about San Jose as far back as 1998, as this Chronicle story shows.

Also, A's blogger White Elephant Parade wrote in a March 2011 blog that San Jose leaders started their ballpark process in 2005 by banking land in an "undercover" way. White Elephant Parade discovered that tidbit in this 2006 Almaden Times Weekly article in which Baseball San Jose chair Michael Mulcahy, who is related to Wolff's business partners and A's minority owners, is quoted.

Wolff also said:

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.

This is not true.
(Note: To his credit, Marine Layer noted on his website that Wolff was factually incorrect with this statement.)

Also, the facts also dispute Wolff's overall point that Oakland isn't populous enough to be viable. Since the Bash Brothers of the late '80s and early '90s, Oakland today is actually a much wealthier and safer city than it was during the successful LaRussa/Canseco/McGwire years. And if the A's can draw 2.9 million fans in 1990 (Oakland accomplished this before the Yankees accomplished it in New York, by the way) during a rough economic time in the city's history, then they certainly can match or exceed that success now in 2011 when Oakland is enjoying a renaissance in many areas.

Wolff then added:

St. Louis is the city where I came from, and the city used to be 800,000 people, it's 300,000 now. There used to be ten, twelve major company headquarters there. Now there aren't any except Anheuser Busch ... There's been a shift.

If Wolff is comparing Oakland to St. Louis, then he is making the Oakland boosters' main point. St. Louis is considered by most to be a great baseball town that feverishly supports the Cardinals and gets great attendance. Wolff seems to be saying that Oakland isn't viable because it's like St. Louis, which is one of the most viable baseball towns in the country. Following Wolff's train of thought: if Oakland is just like St. Louis, then it is -- or has the potential to be -- a great baseball town.

Wolff also said:

Even if there were a site in Oakland ...

But there is a site in Oakland. Wolff would know about it if he hadn't stiff-armed Oakland leaders back in March 2009. People forget that the formation of the three-member committee to study the A's situation started back then because Wolff wouldn't work with Oakland leaders, who then went over Wolff's head to Commissioner Selig.

Lastly, Wolff said:

Give me Robert Moses for one year and I'll have a new ballpark anywhere you want. (laughs) ... This great metropolis (New York), that great ability to create, we don't have that today.

Robert Moses, huh? It's a strange reference because Moses' work in recent years has been largely viewed as negative. He demolished large swaths of urban areas and his idea to build freeways in previously thriving neighborhoods has made him the target of blame for the damaging flight to the suburbs and the decline of cities from the 1950s to '70s. He also did the Brooklyn Dodgers no favors. That Wolff looks back on Moses with nostalgia is, well, kind of silly.

Well, that's it for Part 1. We'll tackle Part 2 tomorrow.

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