April 27, 2005

Former Bronco Takes A Look Back

April 20, 2005

By Pete Borello
Los Altos Town Crier

LOS ALTOS HILLS, Calif. -- Steve Schott of Los Altos Hills, shown in his office at Citation Homes in Santa Clara, owned the Oakland A's with fellow homebuilder Ken Hofmann for nearly 10 years. They recently sold the Major League Baseball team to a group led by Lewis Wolff for a reported $180 million. Schott, a former college pitcher (at Santa Clara University), was the A's managing general partner.

There are, of course, perks that come with owning a Major League Baseball team. You get good seats at every game, and your business seems to go up in value every year. Oh, and those wins feel pretty good, too.

But there's also a downside. Like being approached on the street by wannabe general managers upset that you traded their favorite player, or turning on the radio to hear a sports-talk host rip you for not upping the payroll. And then there are those gut-twisting losses.

Los Altos Hills resident Steve Schott has experienced it all in his nine-plus years as managing general partner of the Oakland A's, co-owned by Ken Hofmann. But no more: Schott and Hofmann sold the team March 31 to a group led by Lewis Wolff. The sale - for a reported $180 million - was approved by major-league owners less than a week before Opening Day.

Schott, 65, sat down with the Town Crier last week to discuss his days running the A's. Although the team never reached the ultimate goal of winning the World Series, Schott is proud of how many other things the organization accomplished on his watch.

"The combination of putting a great product on the field, giving a lot of young players a chance and keeping the team in the Bay Area," Schott said from an overstuffed leather chair at Citation Homes, the homebuilding company he owns in Santa Clara. "We never spoke of moving the team out of the area, and it feels good that we were able to keep that promise."

That promise was made to the Haas family, when they sold the A's to Schott and Hofmann for $72 million in November of 1995.

Schott admitted he knew little about the business of baseball when he and Hofmann - also a homebuilder - took control of the team.

"I wasn't out looking for a baseball team," he said. "I've had offices in the East Bay for years and got to know the people involved in trying to keep them there, and they asked me to look at it."

Schott has always had a love for the game, though. He grew up playing baseball and pitched for his hometown Santa Clara University (class of 1960). Hofmann brought sport-ownership experience, having once co-owned the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League.

Hofmann preferred to stay behind the scenes with the A's, leaving Schott to take on the role of managing general partner. Schott quickly realized there was a lot of work to be done. The A's were coming off their third consecutive losing season. They were barely drawing a million fans a year and losing money at the gate, according to Schott.

One of Schott's first moves was to reduce the payroll. It was out with the old players and in with the new. Schott believed younger players - particularly pitchers - were the way to build up the franchise.

"Before I came in, the team was bringing in a lot of older players," he said. "There weren't a lot of young players in the system. When I brought Billy Beane in as general manager in 1998 - and even before with Sandy Alderson in 1996 - I said, 'We have to bring in pitchers.'"

In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of pro sports, fans typically have little patience for rebuilding. A's fans were no different. When the team went 78-84 in 1996 to finish third in the American League West, the critics came out. Things went from bad to worse the next season.

"We lost 97 games in '97; that was the most disappointing year," Schott said. "We almost lost 100 games, which is kind of a death knell for a team."

That was also the season the A's sent popular slugger Mark McGwire to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline.

"People didn't realize that we had to - he told us he didn't want to be with the A's anymore," Schott said. "He didn't want to be around when we were rebuilding."

The move, which netted the A's only a few minor leaguers, drew the ire of A's fans. Bay Area sports columnists lined up to take their shots at Schott.

"Sure, they were harsh," Schott said of the media. "They didn't feel like we had a plan. But we always had a plan: regroup and bring the franchise back to the glory days by the draft - bring young players up through the system."

The A's endured one more losing season, going 78-84 in 1998, before the plan began to pan out under the direction of new GM Beane. Behind emerging stars such as infielders Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, Oakland went 87-75 in 1999 to place behind only the Texas Rangers in their division. This started a streak of six straight winning seasons, highlighted by three division crowns and four playoff appearances. Only the vaunted New York Yankees have a better MLB record over the past five years.

The Yankees also won three World Series titles in that span, while the A's failed to win a playoff series. That's a sore spot with Schott.

"The most disappointing thing was that on the four occasions we were in the playoffs, three times we were in position to win the third game of a five-game series after winning the first two, and we didn't do it," he said. "Each time we had the game in our hands and we dropped the ball."

Schott admitted that he sometimes took the losses home with him.

"I did," said Schott, who has three grown children with wife Pat and eight grandchildren. "But in baseball, you always get to play again the next day - unless you're bounced from the playoffs. ... I try not to look at the negative side. You can't get down in sports. You need to keep your head up and be positive and not dwell on the negative."

Losing games wasn't the hardest part of owning the A's, Schott said. It was losing players.

"It was tough having to see players move on because we couldn't match bids for long-term contracts - and the money - or trading people to avoid that scenario," he said. "You miss players who are the heart and soul of the team like Tejada and Giambi."

It was for that reason Schott said he never got too close to his men in uniform.

"I didn't spend a lot of time with them because eventually I knew they were going to move on," he said. "With free agency, it's difficult to keep players around for so long."

Schott had his favorites, though.

"(Tim) Hudson I really respected," Schott said of the starting pitcher traded to the Atlanta Braves this past offseason. "He has the heart of a lion and the slyness of a fox. He's a very crafty pitcher. Tejada (now with the Baltimore Orioles) was a favorite. He was a great kid who wanted to play every day. He loved baseball so much."

Another Schott favorite is Giambi, who - like Tejada - left the A's for bigger bucks elsewhere.

"He was a great home-run hitter," Schott said of the first baseman, "though he wasn't very good defensively."

Giambi, now with the Yankees, has been tied to the steroid scandal that has rocked baseball recently. Schott did not comment on specific players who might have used steroids, but admitted it was becoming a problem in baseball.

"I'm not surprised at all," he said. "I didn't think it was as prevalent as it was, but I had my suspicions. Baseball is on the right track with testing and I believe everyone wants it to be stronger, but it had to start with the (players') union. Public concern got it done."

One thing Schott couldn't get done as owner was put the A's in a new stadium. Attempts to move the A's to the South Bay failed because the San Francisco Giants have territorial rights to that area. Talk of building a new ballpark next to Network Associates Coliseum, where the A's have played for nearly 40 years, hasn't gone beyond the talking stage with East Bay officials.

Schott said not being able to work out a stadium deal played a part in the decision to sell the A's. Since he "did not feel up to challenge" any longer, Schott thought a change in ownership would be in the best interest of the team.

"Being an owner is like being the caretaker of a franchise. (This organization) is well over 100 years old, and there haven't been that many owners - I think we were the seventh," he said. "I felt 10 years, almost complete, was enough for me to carry the torch, and now the franchise can take the next step: to be more competitive. To get to the World Series on a regular basis, you need a new stadium, which will lead to more revenue."

So, will the A's soon get a new home?

"It's hard to say; I prefer not to speculate," Schott said. "The new people have to work on that. If they're going to stay in the East Bay, a new stadium is important. I think the group is up for it, but they need to build it in the next three years - that's when the lease expires."

The A's annual attendance has doubled since Schott and Hofmann took over, going from 1.1 million fans in 1996 to 2.2 million in 2004. Schott said that number would increase significantly - right along with team profits - in a new stadium.

"The revenue now is $120 million," he said. "(With a new stadium), it will be over $200 million - like the Giants."

And just like the Giants - whose attendance has ranked among the best in baseball since they moved into their new stadium five years ago - the A's could justify spending more on players.

"If they get a new stadium some way, I think they'll increase the player payroll," Schott said. "But from talking with them, I think they want to keep the system of spending in place for now. The next three years, I see them spending in direct correlation with revenues."

That's the number of years Schott has agreed to stay on with the A's as a consultant, at the request of baseball commissioner Bud Selig. In a recent MLB press release, Selig called Schott and Hofmann "excellent club owners" who "deserve a great amount of credit" for the A's success.

While Schott won't miss the scrutiny that comes with owning a pro team, there are plenty of things he will miss.

"The ability to see the young players come up through the system; we had two rookies of the year in Ben Grieve and Bobby Crosby, two MVPs in Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner in Eric Chavez and a Cy Young winner in Barry Zito," he said. "... I'll miss seeing the young guys grow into superstars. And I'll miss, especially the last five years, the great teams. We went to the playoffs four out of the last five years. I'll miss the great camaraderie of the team and the players, the excitement of spring training and the new year - and in August and September, being in the middle of the pack or near the top and being in the hunt to make the playoffs."

Schott intends to keep his eye on the A's, even if it's not from the owners' box. He plans to go to as many games as he can fit into a busy schedule that also includes running Citation Homes and tending to his many philanthropic interests.

Schott donated $4 million toward a new baseball stadium at Santa Clara University. The 1,500-seat Stephen Schott Stadium is scheduled to open April 30.