With an ugly, dilapidated ballpark and an unexceptional roster, the new owners of the local baseball team knew their only chance of realizing their vision would require everybody on the payroll to roll up their sleeves.

They'd have to upgrade the roster. That would cost money.

They'd have to develop a personality. That, too, would cost money.

They'd have to clean up the yard. That would take time and cost money.

They'd have to reach out beyond the fan base and into the community, a task that would require time and a sincere effort to bond with the locals.

This was the blueprint followed in 1992 by new Giants ownership — behind then-managing partner Peter Magowan — to achieve the goal of building a ballpark in San Francisco.

In one nine-day period that December, the Giants spent $43.75 million to sign free agent star Barry Bonds, a Bay Area native, and rewarded popular coach Dusty Baker with a promotion to manager.

With a few coats of paint, some rearranging of seats, a thorough cleansing and clever marketing, Candlestick Park suddenly was less objectionable. More to the point, the owners had crafted a warm, caring image — and saw a dramatic jump in attendance, from 1.56 million fans in 1992 to a record 2.6 million in '93.

That's how Magowan and his partners turned the dump that was Candlestick into the privately financed jewel that is AT&T Park, which opened in 2000. In less than a decade, the Giants had remodeled themselves and doubled their attendance.


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This brilliant strategy was envied by some, reviled by others — and totally dismissed by the men who five years later bought the Oakland A's.

When Lew Wolff and John Fisher took over the A's in 2005, they made clear their discontent with the Coliseum. They got little argument. Even the most devoted fans conceded the old gray bowl off the Nimitz at 66th Avenue might be the ugliest yard in the big leagues.

But the tactics of Wolff — though Fisher owns the greatest financial stake in the team, he's a mostly silent partner — have been clumsy at best. That, along with the team's declining performance and several other factors, has driven away an appreciable percentage of A's fans. Attendance has dropped every year since 2005 and currently, despite reasonable prices, Oakland ranks 28th (averaging 16,415) among 30 teams.

What happened?

(1): With vociferous criticism of the Coliseum, Wolff alienated part of a community that was willing to spend its discretionary income on a quality baseball product. Bit by bit, statement after statement, he drove a wedge between the franchise and some of its fans. The team is on pace to draw fewer than 1.3 million for the first time since 1998, when it wasn't competing against a palace across the Bay.

(2): Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the prince of the sport a few years ago, has assembled only one captivating, winning roster since 2004. Though the '06 A's went deeper into the playoffs than any other team under Beane, who became GM after the 1997 season, the nucleus lasted only one year. That was the last of eight consecutive winning seasons, which have been followed by three straight losing ones.

(3): Once the king of promotions under owner Charlie O. Finley, the A's have been less than creative in peddling their product. Some promotions, like free parking on Tuesdays, are not marketed especially well. Others, like $12 tickets dedicated to the home area code of pitcher Dallas Braden when he's pitching, are discovered late.

(4): The Coliseum experience has become increasingly unpopular, with fans griping about expensive parking ($17 per car), limited access to concessions and surly concessionaires. Fans who used to arrive early to watch the A's take batting practice, which can be more spectacular than the game, now moan that the gates customarily open too late for this.

(5): The economy has taken a precipitous dive, especially in California.

These forces have combined to slow A's attendance, but friction with ownership seems to be the easiest to correct.

"What (Wolff and Fisher) don't seem to understand," said a longtime sports executive who requested anonymity, "is that fans own the team — not financially, but emotionally."

Some of the A's most devoted fans believe Wolff is disingenuous and insincere in his efforts to stay in Oakland, that he and Fisher don't like the demographics, prefer to be elsewhere and are far more committed to exploring alternative sites — despite Oakland being the geographic center of the Bay Area and drawing mainly from a 75-mile radius.

"I feel, in some regards, the cow is out of the barn," said Oakland's Garth Kimball, a co-founder of BaseballOakland.com, a website devoted to the A's and the heritage of baseball in Oakland. "Wolff made a huge mistake slamming the fan base after the city of Oakland went to Major League Baseball for assistance after he stopped the Fremont plan."

With the team in Oakland, where there is a facility, and the owners investing most of their money and energy on San Jose, or Fremont as a compromise, much of the established fan base feels neglected while a new fan base has yet to be cultivated.

Though some hard-core fans like Kimball are convinced Wolff never seriously considered building a new ballpark in Oakland, others, like Mike Sobek, of Dublin, won't complain and won't consider withdrawing support.

"To me, that's a cop-out because a true fan doesn't give up that easily," said Sobek, a longtime season-ticket holder. "The owners have a right to run the business the best way they can. Even if I don't agree with some of the things they do, that's not going to stop me from supporting the team."

It hasn't stopped Kimball and others, like Jorge Leon, the San Leandro lab analyst who was ejected from the Coliseum on April 7 for holding up a sign critical of Wolff. He has twice met with the managing partner and remains dissatisfied.

"I wouldn't have a problem if they just said they're going to work with the city, really look at viable sites and show they care about the fan — and market the team like the A's used to," Leon said. "I understand they need a ballpark, but I don't think they ever wanted to stay here."

The sore point is that Wolff occasionally has talked up Oakland but has acted almost entirely in the interests of Fremont or San Jose.

Magowan and his partners talked up San Francisco — and backed up what they said. Though previous owners considered selling to interests that would have moved the team — it came within a league vote of moving to Tampa in 1992 — this group said it was committed to staying in town.

And, yes, the new owners knew San Francisco voters in 1987 rejected a proposed downtown stadium. Previous owner Bob Lurie studied Santa Clara in 1990 and San Jose shortly thereafter and got nowhere. That's how the Giants almost wound up in Florida.

The new owners, however, would not be denied, Candlestick notwithstanding.

"I dragged (then-Mayor) Frank Jordan into the bathrooms," Magowan recalls. "We wanted him to see how bad it was and we wanted to believe we could do better.

"We asked fans for their ideas. We brought the fences in. We added an old-fashioned fence design. We put in the foghorn. We added bleachers in left field. We got involved in AIDS fundraising. We wanted to be community- and fan-friendly, which meant improving employee-customer relations. Our employees responded."

The purpose, Magowan said, was to charm the non-sports fans who had voted down previous proposals.

Some thought the owners were more concerned with image than quality. But there was a vision. Courting potential customers, and keeping them satisfied, was believed to be the best way to get a ballpark. Even though the 49ers were the big dogs in San Francisco sports, voters approved a 1996 ballot measure to build a downtown yard with private funds.

"The Giants were fighting the same battle the A's are fighting today," said the sports executive. "They were in a substandard facility and they talked about it as a substandard facility. But (the Giants) acted to rectify it and ended up with a ballpark.

"In this situation, ownership's message is clear: 'This is not for us.' At the same time, the message being sent by much of the fan base is: 'We think there is a future here.' It's a matter of getting the owners to believe there is as much or more potential in Alameda (County) and Contra Costa County than there is in the South Bay."

Leon, who last met with Wolff on Mother's Day, when Braden pitched a perfect game, said discussions convince him that Wolff is more interested in residential-retail development than building a contender.

Kimball and Leon, however, still go to the games. They still support the team, even while denouncing the ownership. They just don't have a lot of company at the ballpark.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.