To many A’s fans, team owner John Fisher is the ultimate villain.
Fisher has slashed the team’s payroll in half while increasing ticket and parking prices for a dwindling fan base to watch his last-place team careen toward the second 100-loss season ever in Oakland. But a recent revelation from one of the richest and most successful owners in sports points the finger for the A’s woes at none other than former baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
Warriors owner Joe Lacob offered A’s fans a potential alternate reality by disclosing he once had an agreement to purchase the A’s years ago — only to have Selig torpedo it.
In “Long Schott,” a remarkably insightful book by and about former A’s co-owner Stephen Schott, co-authored by the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea, Lacob talked about his failed 2005 deal to buy the A’s from Schott for $180 million.
“I’ll never forget it,” Lacob told Shea, before describing how Selig not only dismissed the deal out of hand, the commissioner didn’t bother calling him back. “So I had the Oakland A’s agreed to … and it got yanked from under me. I was really pissed at Bud Selig.”
Selig, meanwhile, steered Schott and his late business partner Ken Hoffman toward two men he knew, Fisher and Lew Wolff, Selig’s old fraternity brother at the University of Wisconsin, who essentially copied Lacob’s term sheet to complete a $180 million purchase.
“Nothing against Joe Lacob. I thought John Fisher and Lew Wolff would be a great combination,” Selig told Shea.
Now 83 years old, Schott appreciates being successful and healthy enough to still do what he wants, when he wants. For the longtime, hard-charging Bay Area home builder and land developer, this usually means working three partial days per week at his company’s office in Santa Clara.
That left him plenty of time for a recent phone conversation about one of the greatest “what ifs” in Bay Area sports history, even if Schott himself wasn’t taking the bait. Schott was more open to answering questions about his decision to write an autobiography – he wanted his grandkids to have a reference point for his triumphs, travels and travails – than dissecting what’s wrong with the A’s 17 years after he sold them.
Schott knows exactly what Fisher’s going through, for he too was once a cost-conscious, reticent A’s owner who couldn’t navigate his way out of the Coliseum and into a new ballpark.
For Fisher, tangible solutions for a dilapidated stadium, dwindling crowds and mounting losses still may be years away. In the meantime, Fisher simultaneously keeps alive his threat to move to Las Vegas and his hopes for a Howard Terminal ballpark while still presiding over his team’s giant mess in Oakland.
“I’m not here to criticize what’s going on with the A’s,” Schott said of Fisher’s plight. “I don’t know what they’re trying to do, if they want to move or not. It’s not my headache.”
Despite Lacob’s ever-growing acumen as a team owner, Schott wasn’t willing to play revisionist history about his failed deal with the Warriors owner.
“Gee, I don’t know,” Schott said when asked if the A’s would have been better off if he’d been allowed to sell to Lacob. “I don’t want to speculate. But (Lacob) sure landed on his feet pretty well.”
Still, there’s no avoiding what Selig’s misguided belief that Fisher and Wolff were more qualified than Lacob did to the A’s, Oakland and the team’s fans. Can you put a price tag on what 17 years of mostly missteps and miscalculations under Fisher and Wolff has already cost?
What about juxtaposing it with Lacob’s transformation of a moribund Warriors franchise into a four-time champion and perhaps the model organization in all of sports?
“I do think it’s sad that we didn’t get the A’s over any time in the last 17 years,” said Lacob, who also revealed he’s had a standing offer for more than a decade to purchase the A’s from Fisher. “I think we would’ve done a really good job with the A’s. But look, obviously I’m biased.”
One thing’s for sure: The old commissioner’s denial of Lacob was one of a string of decisions showing Selig never really was Oakland’s bud.
Selig, who retired before the 2015 season, for years has said permitting the A’s to move from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968 was both “a horrible decision” and “the worst mistake” baseball has made. He didn’t believe the Bay Area could support two baseball teams, despite both the A’s and Giants drawing more than 2 million fans per year multiple times while enjoying long periods of success.
During his 23-year commissionership, Selig also created a pair of Blue Ribbon panels, each portending doom for the A’s.
In 2000, Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics recommended contracting the A’s and Twins franchises to save money. During this time, Schott and Hofmann reached a tentative deal to sell the A’s to a local group headed by Bob Piccinini, the late chairman of Modesto-based SaveMart Supermarkets and frontman Andy Dolich, a renowned former A’s team executive.
Piccinini and Dolich’s group had designs on building a new A’s stadium right on the Coliseum’s 120-acre property. But, Selig tabled their offer.
Then things turned magical in Oakland as the 2000 A’s team began a four-year stretch of playoff appearances that created the “Moneyball” brand which eventually led to the movie starring Brad Pitt.
“Then baseball said, ‘How are we gonna contract a team that’s popular?’” Dolich said of the A’s franchise-saving turnaround.
Selig’s other Blue Ribbon panel, set up in 2009 and finally dissolved five years later, wound up having the most devastating effect on the A’s. It involved territorial rights to the South Bay and whether the A’s would be allowed to move into the perceived territory of the Giants. While waiting for the findings, Fisher and Wolff were confident of using 13 ½ acres near the Diridon train station to build a $500 million ballpark in San Jose.
Long story short, Selig pondered the panel’s long-awaited findings and quickly put up a permanent roadblock preventing the A’s from moving there. He decided to honor the rights once given to the Giants by the A’s as a goodwill gesture when San Francisco was searching for a new home in the early 1990s.
“There weren’t really any territorial rights. Strictly arbitrary on the part of Bud Selig,” Schott said in his book. “(He) claimed the Giants had the rights to the South Bay, but nothing gave the Giants full rights to the South Bay. It should have been wide open. It really wasn’t anybody’s territory.”
The argument was personal for Schott. A few years earlier, the Santa Clara-born businessman was pursuing a potential deal with the city to build a baseball-only ballpark in his hometown, next to Great America, right where the 49ers wound up moving in 2014.
“I knew the city-owned land well enough to know the A’s would flourish there,” Schott said. “I was in talks with the Santa Clara City Council, which was on board.”
Unfortunately for Schott, neither Selig nor MLB was on board with Santa Clara. The denial turned out to be one of the bigger reasons Schott decided it was time for him to get out of baseball. It didn’t help that he and Hofmann often bickered with baseball decisions or that their ownership group was constantly targeted by fans and others for not investing enough in the club.
“I made the mistake of saying I’m going to set up a budget because I’m not interested in losing my personal money. I really got criticized for that,” Schott said. “But I decided, ‘Here’s the budget,’ and that’s how Moneyball started because Billy had to live within the budget.
“It worked out OK. Where there’s a will, there’s a way sometimes. … It was a fun run when we had it. We almost won some championships.”
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