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A's Busy Moving Ahead With Stadium Plans

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AP
Lew Wolff had some non-baseball business to attend to in Arizona, yet he made sure to show his face at spring training to get an early look at his Oakland Athletics.

He loves this time of year, even if he's a little nervous to shag fly balls with his new glove.

The A's owner, dressed casually in gray athletic gear, has good reason to be in high spirits these days. Not only did Oakland finally advance out of the first round of the playoffs last October, the team has almost its entire roster from 2006 intact and he is furiously working on plans for a new, state-of-the-art, baseball-only stadium.

The project is consuming most of his time _ and it's the greatest challenge he has faced during five decades in the real estate business.

"It's the perfect time to do it," Wolff said in an interview Wednesday before the A's workout. "We worked hard in Oakland to try and do it. Some people thought we didn't, but most of the thoughtful people agree that we did. I told the current mayor we're going to be there at least through his first term."

In November, the A's unveiled plans to move south and build a long-awaited ballpark they hope will soon transform the small-market club into a big spender and a more popular choice for fans in the Bay Area while remaining affordable.

The A's, in partnership with Cisco Systems, Inc., agreed to purchase 143 acres of land from Cisco in suburban Fremont, about 20 miles south of their current home at the Coliseum. The team intends to break ground in the coming years on a new ballpark to be called Cisco Field, with a goal of opening in time for the 2011 season.

Wolff believes the buzz surrounding the stadium design is helped by the team's recent success.

"It's a little ways off, but it would do so much for us. I think we're going to do it," he said. "It should be a triple bonus for everybody: the county, the city, ourselves, our community. I've said that if California had a cure for cancer, somebody's going to be against us. We haven't had too much of that, but people were waiting for us to answer questions. You want to earn the right to do it, not demand the right. It's working."

There are still plenty of unresolved issues to do with logistics, such as transportation along the already clogged Interstate 880 and city permits that must be approved. Wolff recently met with the City of Fremont, and both sides described the session as "getting through the first inning," he said.

In that case, 24 outs to go _ and there will certainly be some long innings on the horizon. Commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly said the A's can't remain viable without a new ballpark that's on par with other new stadiums.

"We need to tie down a few things with the land," Wolff said. "I'm involved with this new ballpark almost every minute, plus my son is 100 percent working on it. It's complicated, but it's fun. It means so much to get a better fan experience. This is the biggest (project I've done). It would be so good for the area. I just hope I'm not drooling."

Wolff has demonstrated he is a hands-on owner, standing with general manager Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst alongside one of the Papago Park fields Wednesday to get an update on the team.

Wolff took batting practice last spring and plans to shag fly balls when he returns to camp next week. His son, Keith, who is deeply involved in the stadium project, gave Wolff a new mitt.

"I can still throw the ball pretty well. I don't know if I can catch a fly ball anymore," he said.

No matter. More importantly, he likes his team's chances. Oakland lost slugger Frank Thomas and ace left-hander Barry Zito, but has most of its core back as the A's look to defend their AL West title. They signed Mike Piazza to replace Thomas as the designated hitter, and Shannon Stewart to compete for the starting job in left field. Alan Embree is a reliable new addition in the bullpen.
Wolff hopes to build off a trip to the AL championship series, in which Oakland was swept in four games by the Detroit Tigers.

"I think it was huge. If you get to the playoffs, whether you spend $200 million or $80 million, the odds change so fast," he said. "Just getting over that hump changes the probability of possible success. Billy has filled the holes we had. Getting Shannon could turn out to be another brilliant move. And Piazza, and I like our new pitcher, Embree. Everybody else is here and happy."