WE CAN ONLY speculate what the Oakland A's would be like now if Bob Piccinini's attempt to buy the franchise in 1999 hadn't been shot down inexplicably by Major League Baseball.
One smart guess is that nobody would be talking about Fremont or San Jose.
Eleven years later, the A's boll weevil ownership keeps looking for a new home, the team's roster has had more face lifts than Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller combined, and, predictably, community involvement has suffered.
That's not what Piccinini, the Modesto-based supermarket mogul, had in mind when he deemed Oakland the ideal spot for A's baseball.
"We were under the belief," Piccinini said, "that the ownership (of Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman) had really done less than an adequate job of creating a relationship between the community and the ballclub. We thought we could go in and do a much better job in the community and getting businesses involved.
"Create action as you will ... raise the whole standard. We thought if we could raise the attendance, and make it something that everyone was proud of, we then would have an opportunity to get a new facility."
Then in October 1999, in Cooperstown, N.Y., MLB rejected Piccinini's group.
"The biggest thing I remember," Piccinini reflected Monday in his Modesto office, "was the huge disappointment. We had worked for close to a year, and through that whole process, we didn't see anything that was a stumbling block. When the rejection occurred, I thought it was bogus. We passed all of the tests. I've got several suspicions, none of which I can validate."
He'd like to suspect collusion between MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and A's co-owner Lew Wolff, the college fraternity buddies, but he can't prove it because Selig didn't approve Wolff's purchase of the A's from Schott and Hoffman until 2005.
More likely, Piccinini suspects, the San Francisco Giants ownership had a hand in convincing Selig to make sure the deal never materialized, especially since Selig has called the A's move from Kansas City to Oakland "a terrible mistake."
"I can tell you there's an executive with the Giants, who shall go unnamed," Piccinini said. "I ran into him at a Warriors game. He said, 'I hear you're getting involved with the Padres. We want you in San Diego; we just didn't want you here.' ''
Piccinini owns "a little, tiny piece" of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a "much larger piece, though not substantial" of the Padres.
"And those applications sailed right on through," he said. "So what's the difference?"
The difference? They weren't mailed from Oakland.
And Piccinini is a baseball man. At different times, he's owned minor league franchises in Modesto, Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento.
In 1999, he assembled an ownership group that included William Dean Singleton, chairman and chief executive of Media News Group, the parent company of this newspaper; George Zimmer, owner of Men's Wearhouse; Andy Dolich, a former A's executive; and Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Joe Morgan (Morgan later backed out).
At the same time, a rival group involving former major league players Steve Stone and Bob Watson, and San Mateo lawyer Michael Lazarus, also bid on the A's and was rebuffed.
Piccinini's group offered $122 million — Schott's and Hoffman's asking price was $120 million. Wolff was able to buy the team six years later for, reportedly, $165 million.
"I'd make that deal every day of the week," Piccinini said of the latter price. "I think baseball is as appealing as ever."
Piccinini, who'll turn 68 next week, was asked if he would take another shot at owning the A's if the opportunity ever arose.
"As I sit here right now, I would say probably not," he said. "However, never say never. I've had other ... I won't say opportunities, but people have said such-and-such a franchise is available. They were franchises that were Kansas City or whatever. Part of the reason I was excited about the A's was that it was local."
It's a shame Selig flubbed badly in 1999, because Piccinini has grown his grocery business into an empire that was far beyond his expectations when he became president of Save Mart Supermarkets in 1981.
He's since bought Lucky Stores and now owns and operates 244 supermarkets from Redding to Santa Maria and over to the Tehachapi Mountains. He's also in the concert business with Berkeley's Another Planet Entertainment, which puts on 200 to 250 shows a year. And he's a major sponsor of the annual Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR race at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway.
"I consider myself an opportunist," he said. "I'm involved in a lot of things, none of which I run, except for (Save Mart), which is the golden goose."
Can he imagine the A's leaving Oakland?
"If the A's went to Fremont, I think they would still be the Oakland A's," he said. "To bring the whole East Bay thing together, Oakland has to be the flag stick.
"If I were betting, I'd bet the Giants weren't as much interested in territorial rights as they were that the A's aren't successful and that they would move."
Somewhere out of Oakland, he meant, but not in San Jose.
Eleven years later, we can only fantasize about Piccinini's owning the A's. He surely would have restored the revered Haas family's team-community love-fest.
However, to get a new ballpark in any big-league town, it takes a committed mayor. Jerry Brown was the worst in that regard, and Ron Dellums falls somewhere between distracted and disinterested (until recently).
Piccinini certainly had the wealth — and he's even wealthier now — to privately lead the charge for a privately built ballpark like the one across the bridge.
So now all Oakland can do is wait for Major League Baseball's announcement about the A's future, which could come soon.
But it's hard not thinking of Selig as Oakland's executioner.
Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Metro page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.