SAN FRANCISCO — Over breakfast in a penthouse at the Fairmont San Francisco hotel on Thursday, Oakland A's co-owner Lew Wolff stuck a fork in the long-term future for the team in the East Bay, saying he still hopes to find a new home in Northern California, but that it will be up to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, his old college fraternity brother.
Wolff, doing nothing to quell widely held speculation that he is angling for a stadium in San Jose, said he expected to know from Selig by season's end what the future may hold for the team. For the A's to move to San Jose, Selig would need to push Major League Baseball team owners to override the territorial rights that the San Francisco Giants have held in Santa Clara County for about 15 years.
Wolff has strong ties to the Bay Area's most populous city, with major downtown investments that include the Fairmont San Jose. He also owns the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team and is bidding to build a 15,000-seat soccer stadium near San Jose International Airport.
Last month, he aborted plans for a new baseball stadium in Fremont following staunch opposition from residents and several businesses, and the threat of a drawn-out lawsuit over environmental approvals. After Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and City Council President Jane Brunner sent a letter this month urging Selig to help resuscitate a bid to keep the team in Oakland, Wolff issued a blunt response, saying the team had "fully exhausted our time and resources over the years with the city of Oakland."
In a klatch with a handful of Bay Area reporters, Wolff said no viable options remain in Alameda or Contra Costa counties. He also defended himself against numerous media attacks that followed his March 13 statement. Team officials studied a host of options on and off the Coliseum site, he said, but were stymied each time by land problems or economic issues. The city has proposed nothing new, he said.
"I'm not blaming the community. Even if the market was there, we don't feel there's a physical opportunity for us," Wolff said. "The effort we put into finding a spot in Oakland was tremendous. They're still talking about sites we were studying in 2001. "... We're asking for direction from Major League Baseball. We tried in Oakland, despite the sound bites. Now we need some help."
Wolff has said the aging Oakland Coliseum, shared with the Raiders, has led to weak attendance and a season-ticket base that ranks among the league's lowest. Even with playoff-caliber teams, attendance rarely ticks up for long, he said.
But some fans and critics say it's the incessant talk of moving the team that has battered enthusiasm. Attendance to A's games slid more sharply last season — a drop of 250,000 to 1.9 million — as talk of the Fremont move took hold.
The Giants, meanwhile, attracted 2.9 million fans to AT&T Park — a significant decline that mirrored the team's slide in the standings and the absence of Barry Bonds.
Brunner said that Wolff overstates his scrutiny of the city's proposed stadium sites. Officials now are looking at several new ones and hope to meet with Wolff after the season starts April 6, Brunner said.
"I know when a developer is really looking at what we're doing and evaluating it. Lew Wolff did not do that. I don't think he ever took them seriously," Brunner said. "He thought Fremont was going to be the easier site. And he always was concerned about luxury boxes, and I believe he always wanted to get as close to San Jose as he possibly could.
"We're not ready to give up, and we also think we have options."
The San Jose issue would pit the two teams in a battle over access to Silicon Valley's wealth of potential corporate sponsors and luxury suite-holders. A few weeks ago, Giants officials reportedly came away from a meeting with Selig with the understanding that his support remained for the team's territorial rights to Santa Clara County.
"Baseball's constitution defines Santa Clara County as the Giants' territory. It was on the basis of this that the Giants financed the ballpark," said Giants spokeswoman Staci Slaughter. "It's the heart of our fan base in many respects, and our position remains clear on that."
Wolff, meanwhile, said that Selig has not been definitive with him on the issue, pro or con. But he said he would encourage a San Jose referendum on an A's stadium if it became a possibility.
"From a preparation point of view," Wolff said, "they are in as good a position as any city in California."
Selig's office did not return a call from MediaNews.
Remaining in the Coliseum indefinitely is no option, said Wolff, at least not for him and A's co-owner John J. Fisher, son of Gap founder Donald Fisher. Wolff insisted that they want the team to remain nearby and suggested they could sell the team if only distant options emerge.
"All we want to do is have a filled-up ballpark and have fun with it," he said. "If it got too far away, we'd have to think about it."
He dismissed recent reports that team officials were in talks with officials in Las Vegas — either to move there or use it as leverage in the Bay Area.
"I hated that when I used to read it, before I got in baseball, and I swore I would never do that," Wolff said. "We don't want to go to Las Vegas anyway."
Wolff said he never expected such forceful opposition to the 32,000-seat stadium plan in Fremont, and he bemoaned a process in which "Not in my backyard" opponents could stall good projects, particularly in rough economic times.
"It just kills me not to have this stadium because it's so much fun. "... We should have been under construction next year," he said. "I think that failure in Fremont was my fault. I misjudged it, big time."
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