Lew Wolff, John Fisher: Baseball’s Oakland slum lords

The Oakland A’s have always played second fiddle to the San Francisco Giants in the Bay Area baseball market, but they’ve come to resemble the neglected step child since the Haas family sold the team in 2005 to a group headed by Lew Wolff and John Fisher.


Why is Beane laughing?

Wolff, who manages the team’s day-to-day operations, made a fortune in real estate and Fisher’s parents founded The Gap, but you wouldn’t know they’re rich guys from the way they run the team out of the dilapidated Oakland Coliseum, also known as O.co Coliseum.

The A’s cobble together a roster of young players developed in their farm system, bargain basement discards from other teams, and low value free agents that are just competitive enough to draw about 1.5 million fans a year–half what the Giants draw across the bay. Long-time general manager and now team president Billy (“Money Ball”) Beane has a reputation for using sophisticated metric that uncover hidden gems, but the basic metric the team employs is low-cost.

Players who perform well enough to command large raises and long-term contracts have to ring the register in another city, as we saw once again at this year’s trading deadline. Pitcher Rich Hill was signed to a one-year free agent deal when the Boston Red Sox let him go. Hill was by far the A’s ace in the first half of the season and wanted to be rewarded with a two-year contract worth $28 million. That’s why he was traded to the Dodgers.

Outfielder Josh Reddick, their most dynamic and popular player the last few years, wanted a four-year contract extension beyond this season. He was traded, as was outfielder Billy Burns, the team’s best rookie last year. He was due a big raise next year.

That leaves outfielder Coco Crisp, a seven-year vet of the team whose the only current member of the roster who has played in an A’s playoff game. He has an option for $13 million next season, which will vest if he plays at least 130 games this year. Guess who’s been riding the bench and is on track to play less than 130 games this season?

At $52 million, the team’s payroll for its current roster is one-third of what the Giants are paying ($156  million this year) and ranks 27th among the 30 teams in major league baseball. (The average this season is $131 million.)

By contrast, the Giants made moves at the trading deadline to improve the team. San Francisco hasn’t played well since the All-Star break, but at least it is trying. Oakland’s owners are just trying to squeeze every buck they can out of the fans.

NEW HOME: Since the current ownership group bought the team in 2005, the A’s have been lobbying for a new stadium. Perhaps taking a cue from how San Francisco handled the Giants’ quest for a new ball park, Oakland and Alameda County have made it clear they won’t pay for a new stadium.

The A’s have been seeking a deal for a new stadium elsewhere in the south Bay Area, particularly Santa Clara–the city has indicated an interest in working with the team on a new facility. But the Giants are claiming Santa Clara as part of its marketing territory, and is threatening legal action if the team tries to move there. The city isn’t interested in a suit and MLB has done nothing to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, there’s a solution to the A’s dilemma just 90 miles to the east–Sacramento. The River City is eager to be considered big time and believes professional sports will give it that cachet. The city put up half the money to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings and is seriously considering raising over $100 million to secure a MLS franchise.

The A’s would be a good fit for a lot of reasons. The city’s AAA team, the River Cats, is always among the minor league attendance leaders in the country, and the A’s would essentially have the Central Valley and Northern California (as The Sacramento Bee likes to define it) to themselves. Why the owners aren’t considering such a move is beyond me.

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