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A’s Owner Lew Wolff Waits For Commissioner’s Call

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Oakland Athletics owner Lew Wolff. (AP Photo)

Oakland Athletics owner Lew Wolff. (AP Photo)

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OAKLAND (CBS / AP) ― Oakland Athletics owner Lew Wolff has the spot for a new ballpark all picked out. Funding is in place and the San Jose mayor is on board with Wolff’s plan to relocate his club some 40 miles south.

Wolff has been waiting two years for his old fraternity brother, commissioner Bud Selig, to tell him whether he can go ahead with his proposal to move the A’s from Oakland into Santa Clara County even though the San Francisco Giants hold the territorial rights in technology-rich Silicon Valley.

Selig appointed a committee in March 2009 to evaluate the issue facing the Bay Area teams, yet he has provided no timetable for when he might announce a decision. Thus far it appears Selig doesn’t want to make a decision that would anger the A’s or Giants.

“I think the Giants have a position they believe in and we have a position we think would be great for us,” Wolff said. “Those positions are well known to the commissioner, and he has to decide.”

Understandably, Wolff is getting anxious. He is determined to move the small-market A’s as soon as possible and begin breaking ground on an intimate, privately funded new ballpark, but San Francisco’s ownership has no plans to hand over Santa Clara County — which includes many of the club’s big sponsors. The Giants are coming off the franchise’s first World Series title since moving West in 1958 and first overall since ’54 in New York.

“The South Bay is the single-most compelling part of our fan base,” Giants President Larry Baer said. “It’s densely populated with the strongest representation of our sponsors, the strongest representation of our ticket buyers and the strongest representation of our television viewership and radio listeners.”

Selig — who has repeatedly said the A’s can’t survive financially playing in the run-down Oakland Coliseum they share with the NFL’s Raiders — has indicated in the past he considers territorial rights to be sacred. The A’s and Giants play about 17 miles apart, separated by picturesque San Francisco Bay.

Selig formed the task force to analyze the situation and report back to him, and Wolff believes that process is done.

“The committee is working and I do not know when their work will be complete,” said Pat Courtney, Selig’s spokesman.

In the A’s view, how could the Giants be upset about them moving 40 miles farther away?

The Giants don’t consider it that simple when their South Bay fan base is taken into account. They declined to provide exact numbers of their ticket sales in the South Bay, but acknowledge having contributed financially to the group “Stand for San Jose” — which is supported by San Francisco’s Class-A San Jose club and opposes the A’s moving to town.

“We solidified a fan base and the core is the city of San Francisco and straight directly south those 50 miles,” Baer said. “This is our focus.”

Selig has asked the two clubs not to publicly debate the issue. Many San Jose city officials are on board, with Mayor Chuck Reed a big proponent of professional baseball in the South Bay — and he is on record saying he would welcome the A’s. But if this process takes too long, the A’s risk that he might no longer be in office.

“I’m patiently waiting for the commissioner to rule,” Wolff said. “The committee hopefully has finished its work and Bud is contemplating his decision. That’s all I know. I think it will be sooner rather than later. I don’t think it’s another year off.”

A’s majority owner John Fisher doesn’t speak out about the situation, though Wolff has expressed his frustrations at times.

Wolff, the savvy Los Angeles real estate developer and a fraternity pal with Selig back in their days at Wisconsin, is ready to break ground on a ballpark projected to cost between $400 million and $450 million — if and when he gets the OK to relocate. There are working drawings of the venue and an architect has been chosen. Wolff expects getting building permits to take about nine months, then the actual ballpark would require another two years to complete.

Wolff would like to hear from Selig either way, though the A’s “don’t have a Plan B,” Wolff said.

“I’m in baseball because of Bud, and I believe he’s the best commissioner in baseball by far, even though he’s my friend,” Wolff said. “Baseball wouldn’t be where it is without Bud. I respect his reasoning.”

The city of Oakland in December 2009 unveiled three waterfront sites as potential spots to build a new ballpark for the A’s and ultimately keep the team from leaving town.

Yet Wolff and the ownership group, committed to keeping the team in the Bay Area, feel they have exhausted their options in Oakland after years of effort.

In the past they haven’t been able to find a suitable spot to build and were set to leave blue-collar Oakland and move to nearby Fremont until that plan fell through. Wolff said it cost his group $30 million.

“It takes me an hour and 45 minutes exactly to go through (the paperwork) of what we did in Oakland,” Wolff said of his efforts in the diverse East Bay city.

This isn’t the first time baseball has dealt with territorial rights. The Baltimore Orioles were compensated in a complicated transaction when Major League Baseball bought the Montreal Expos and moved them to Washington, D.C.

Baseball’s other 29 teams purchased the poor-drawing Expos for $120 million in 2002, and the commissioner’s office initially operated the team before it sold. The franchise was moved to Washington for the 2005 season and renamed the Nationals.

In the Bay Area, former A’s owner and well-known businessman Walter Haas — a third-generation San Franciscan who ran the Oakland franchise from 1979-95 — gave the Giants the OK to assume rights to San Jose in a favor of sorts to former San Francisco owner Bob Lurie when his team was considering moving to Florida. The deal basically happened with a handshake and then was approved by baseball’s owners.

Haas’ son, Wally, sold the A’s to the group that preceded Fisher and Wolff: Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann.

The territorial rights have been defined several different times, beginning when former Giants managing partner Peter Magowan bought the team before the 1993 season.

Magowan and his group, which included Baer, quickly made the decision to bring in slugger Barry Bonds — who broke Hank Aaron’s home run record in August 2007 and played a huge role in revitalizing baseball in San Francisco. Bonds’ presence helped the club build a privately funded downtown ballpark.

The Giants are paying for that privately built waterfront ballpark, which opened in 2000 in what has become a bustling area at China Basin. San Francisco drew 3 million fans every year until reaching only 2.8 million in the 2008 and ’09 seasons, then got back to 3 million in its championship 2010 year.

“We felt it (those two years at 2.8 million),” Baer said. “We’ve got to be at 3 million to break even.”

It’s not that the Giants don’t feel for their cross-bay rivals. They had their share of lean years, losing $115 million from 1993-99 at Candlestick Park after Magowan’s group bought the team for $100 million and took over before moving into AT&T Park — and drawing Oakland-like crowds of about 9,000 fans a night when things were especially dire.

“We were there before, in this situation,” Baer said. “We know the need to have a modern and fan-friendly ballpark. We were there. It reminds us when we came into the Giants in 1993. The reality is that we have many case studies, including the San Francisco Giants, where a new ballpark was built very close to an old ballpark and became a success story — San Francisco and Seattle to name two in the last decade.”

Now, it’s up to Selig to make his call.

(© 2011 CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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