Much has been said and written about Lew Wolff who has been an Oakland Athletics owner through the peak of internet speculation and fan vitriol but much less is discussed about his predecessors. Over the winter, I’m going to profile previous Athletics owners and give a brief history of their success and failures. What will strike you when we discuss Steve Schott is the similarities in the tone surrounding the Oakland Athletics of today with the tone around the Athletics 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman purchased the Athletics from Walter Haas in 1995 at a discounted price and under the stipulation that they would not move the team out of Oakland. Schott quickly extended the team’s lease at the coliseum, signing for nine years and including several millions of dollars in reimbursements and enhancement costs associated with the recent Mount Davis monstrosity in the outfield. These reimbursements were to cover the costs of converting the stadium from football to baseball.
Schott and Hoffman officially get the keys to the castle on November 1, 1995 and within the month hire Ed Alvarez to seek new locations for the Oakland Athletics to build a stadium. Clearly, Alvarez didn’t find a good spot because 20 years later we’re still going to drive to the O.co to see our team play. Alvarez, an attorney and eventual founder of the lobbying group Silicon Valley Advisers, sued Schott for $20 million for reasons never made too clear in public and eventually settled out of court. Where the bad blood came from is anyone’s guess but seeing as Schott was a real estate mogul and Alvarez’s “Advisers” were heavily involved in south bay real estate, it very well may not have been A’s related or loosely related at least.
Amid all of this uncertainty over whether Schott wanted to remain in Oakland, ticket sales began to dwindle and in 1996 it was reported by SFGate that the two main reasons season ticket holders weren’t renewing was the price of parking and fear that the A’s would leave Oakland. Keep in mind, this is after one season of ownership. The organization responded by lowering the outrageously priced parking from $7 to &5 and lowering ticket prices bringing your right field bleacher seats to $4 a game. At a press conference discussing the lower prices going into the 1997 season, Schott was asked, and skirted, the question of whether growth in attendance figures (which were down about 17% from the previous year’s already low numbers) would insure that the A’s remained in Oakland at the end of their lease.
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When the Athletics’ lease was near expiration and talks were not going well with the Joint Powers Authority (JPA), the group consisting of both Alameda County and Oakland city officials tasked with operating the coliseum, Schott and company sued the JPA for $48 million seeking damages related to the Raiders’ return to Oakland and the subsequent coliseum renovations associated with that move. As reported by SFGate in 1998, the elimination of bleacher seats, west side obstructions, lack of diamond level seating, and several other smaller issues had cost the team a considerable amount of revenue in the previous season despite over $11 million in compensation related to the inconvenience of constructing Mount Davis.
While all of this was happening and while actively persuing a San Jose relocation, the Athletics still managed to commission a feasibility study for a potential move to Las Vegas. The A’s had started their 1996 season in Las Vegas and it clearly made an impression but whether the report indicated that Vegas couldn’t support a baseball team or that the MLB wasn’t going to support a team in the gambling capital of the world, no real headway was made in that relocation prospect and, in fact, on October 23, 1998 Steve Schott and company put the Oakland Athletics on the market with a lease set through the 2004 season. The announcement of the sale of the team, then valued at around $115 million, came amid bitter disputes between the Athletics and the JPA who were both trying to leverage the lease to settle disputes related to the stadium reconstruction project.
Several prospective buyers of the team were reported at the time and, after bringing in a consulting firm to scout buyers, two groups were brought to the table. One group included a former A’s marketing executive and the other group included former pitcher (and Bud Selig neighbor) Steve Stone who was set to replace Billy Beane as general manager. The consulting firm put all of it’s influence behind the Steve Stone ownership group because they had no involvement in finding the other group which included several prominent bay area business owners.
Eventually a $122.5 million bid was placed by the bay area based group and MLB owners all but killed the deal in their vote. Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball, said that votes on the sale of the team should be delayed while MLB studies the feasability of baseball teams surviving in towns like Oakland and Kansas City. This is 1999, if you’re looking to pinpoint the start of the “blue ribbon committee.” Because the new timeline set for MLB research was past the deadline set by Schott and Hoffman to seal the deal, everything came to a halt and when then-mayor Jerry Brown requested that A’s ownership extend their window for accepting an offer they cooperated, at least publicly, with attempts to bring the motion to a vote again but nothing came of it and Steve Schott remained owner of the Oakland Athletics.
In 2001 it was reported by ESPN that Disney was ready to get out of the baseball ownership game and, because team owners were pushing to dissolve two to four teams, were willing to fold the Angels and allow the A’s to move to Anaheim. As we all know, none of that happened and the idea of taking four teams out of the MLB seems to have passed as revenues and attendance have rebounded in the years since.
It is in 2003 that things take a strange turn when a nice young man named Lew Wolff is hired to be the VP for Venue Development. That’s right, I’ll bet a few of you forgot that old Wolff was hired on to find the A’s a new home before he was an owner of the team. In a 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Lew Wolff acknowledged the existence, fairness and willingness to abide by territorial rights and says that the team is committed to staying in Oakland.
Say what you will about Lew Wolff, it appears to me that as long as the Oakland Coliseum has had two tenants and Mount Davis, A’s ownership have wanted out.
While Steve Schott owned the Athletics they had four playoff appearances, had a .535 winning record, had a record breaking 20 game winning streak, increased ticket sales, increased television and radio revenue, increased charitable contributions and public outreach, maintained the best farm system in baseball and drafted future hall of famers all on a fraction of the budget of most teams in baseball. And, to top it off, there was a book and an Oscar winning movie made about that very time period. No owner is perfect and you can’t argue that he had his share of PR blunders but he also managed to put the right people in the right places to put out several competitive baseball teams and had set things up for success even years after he sold the team to Lew Wolff and company.