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Former A’s owner Steve Schott reflects on ‘The Streak,’ winning on a budget and more

By the time the most memorable home run of Steve Schott’s tenure went soaring toward the seats in Mt. Davis, the A’s owner was long gone from the ballpark.

Schott was at the ballpark for the start of the A’s record-breaking 20th straight win on Sept. 4, 2002, but as the Royals mounted a mind-blowing 11-run comeback to tie the game going into the bottom of the ninth, Schott was on his way to an ownership meeting.

“I left thinking that we’d lost the game,” Schott said over the phone in a recent interview. All he missed was an ending fit for a movie, as pinch hitter Scott Hatteberg lifted a 1-0 Jason Grimsley pitch into the bleachers in right-center in front of more than 50,000 delirious A’s fans to secure the historic win.

Schott’s decade as A’s co-owner (along with Ken Hofmann) — which spanned from September 1995 until March 2005 — was filled with many highs, from “The Streak” to four straight playoff appearances to many individual player accomplishments. But there were also lows, some out of his control and some self-inflicted, as he details in his new autobiography, “Long Schott.”

From 2000-04, the A’s won 483 games, had players win a Cy Young, two MVPs and a Rookie of the Year award, and revolutionized how teams approached player performance evaluation. They also traded Mark McGwire the season before he broke Roger Maris’ home run record, had an inelegant split with Hall of Fame broadcaster Lon Simmons, and watched as face-of-the-franchise Jason Giambi spurned the A’s for the rival Yankees, among other things. It was a busy 10 years, to say the least.

Schott says he really enjoyed his time as owner, but regrets that the team never won a World Series, bowing out in the divisional series all four times, losing Game 5 of a best-of-five series all four years.

“We did a lot of good things. We had a lot of fun,” he said. “Once it’s in your blood, you want to go all the way and I felt the players and everybody else did the best they could, but it wasn’t just our time to go further, I guess.”

The 2002 season may have best epitomized the highs and lows of the Schott/Hofmann A’s era. The 20-game winning streak — which began 20 years ago today — captured the country’s attention and the team’s 103 wins were their most since 1990. Behind the scenes, the A’s were taking a new approach to how they evaluated players, something that would be captured by celebrated author Michael Lewis and eventually turned into a Hollywood movie. But the storybook “Moneyball” season had a sour ending when the A’s lost to the Twins in five games in the ALDS.

After the A’s fell to the Twins, Schott details in the book that he had a terse, emotional exchange with general manager Billy Beane and the A’s coaching staff about why the A’s continued to struggle in the postseason. Not long after that, Beane almost left the A’s, coming to terms with the Red Sox to be their general manager. Schott planned to promote assistant general manager Paul DePodesta to the top job, but when Beane had a change of heart about leaving the A’s, Schott welcomed him back, putting him in the uncomfortable position of taking the general manager job away from DePodesta, who eventually got that same position with the Dodgers. Schott says he hasn’t spoken to Beane in many years.

“I guess I could pick up the phone but I don’t have any reason to. I’m not going to tell him how to run the A’s right now,” Schott told The Athletic, “though I’d probably like to ask him what it’s like running the team the way it’s being run now (under current owner John Fisher) compared to how it was with me. It’s a lot worse.”

The story of the Schott/Hofmann ownership era began in 1995, when Walter Haas Jr., the beloved A’s owner who saved the A’s from moving to Denver in 1980, put the team up for sale as he was battling prostate cancer. Schott and Hofmann, both Bay Area real estate developers, were targeted as local owners for the A’s. They split the $85 million cost to buy the team equally, but Schott was named the managing partner. It was an uneasy partnership at times, Schott details in his book, as Hofmann didn’t always accept Schott’s role as the main liaison to MLB.

Even if the partnership had been easy, the duo would have had a tough act to follow. Under the Haas family’s ownership, the A’s not only won, making three straight World Series appearances and winning one title, but they were one of the highest profile teams in the league. They had big personalities and handed out big contracts, even if sometimes begrudgingly. By the time Schott and Hofmann took over the team before the 1996 season, however, MLB was feeling the after-effects of the 1994 strike, the team was aging and coming off two losing seasons. It was clear from the beginning of the new ownership’s regime that the more free-spending days of the Haas era were over.

Schott says the first thing he did as an owner was to ask the various A’s department heads for their budgets so they could start planning for the coming year.

“And everybody looked at one another and said, ‘we’ve never put a budget together before.’ I said, ‘What?’ That’s just basic Economics 1A for me,” he said.

After the initial shock wore off, however, everyone eventually came around to the new modus operandi. “Everybody bought into it, whether they liked it or not,” he said.

There were a few personnel losses, most notably the departures of manager Tony La Russa and team president Sandy Alderson, and a few personality clashes, as Schott delves into in the book, most notably with Beane. But ultimately, the majority of the brain trust and player development staff remained, including Beane. It is perhaps one of the biggest juxtapositions in sports that the A’s — known for not being able to keep their star players — have arguably the most stable front office and player development group in baseball. Earlier this month, the A’s inducted two men who spent more than 50 years in the organization (Keith Lieppman and Steve Vucinich) into the team’s Hall of Fame. Beane joined the organization as a player in 1989 and has never left, while general manager David Forst is in his 22nd year with the club, scouting director Eric Kubota has more than 30 years with the team and assistant general managers Billy Owens and Dan Feinstein each have more than 20 years with Oakland.

“We didn’t have a tendency to go out and just fire people,” Schott said. “We thought everybody had a position to fill and did it well, or they wouldn’t be there. And I guess it was a reciprocal thing where the other side felt the same way. We all felt like we were part of a team and wanted to win, and they all bought into the fact that we’d try and win under the circumstances we bought into.”

It is perhaps ironic that one of the owners Schott was closest with was the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, best known for his quick trigger with managers and his financial largesse. Steinbrenner would always save Schott and his wife, Pat, a seat in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium when the A’s were in town. There was no red carpet in the box — Steinbrenner would use yellow tape like the police use at crime scenes to block off seats until the guests had arrived. Even Hall of Famer Yogi Berra got the same crime scene treatment when Steinbrenner would save seats for Yogi and his wife, Carmen.

Schott says Steinbrenner had mellowed by the time he got to know him, but still had that competitive edge.

“He always treated me well, except for the time he jinxed me and said, ‘(Tim) Hudson is throwing a no-hitter, in case you didn’t know,’” Schott said with a chuckle. “George was a character and we understood each other.”

It was Steinbrenner’s Yankees that stood in the way of the A’s reaching the World Series in 2000 and 2001. After that 2001 season, the Yankees poured salt in the wound, signing away Giambi, who seemingly had come close to an extension with the A’s that spring. Though it was reported that only a no-trade clause stood between the A’s and an agreement with Giambi, Schott says the team always knew Giambi was heading for pinstripes.

“We felt very confident that he was moving on because he had asked the Yankees something about Mickey Mantle’s number, or something along those lines,” Schott said. “He was very adamant about going to New York, I think he wanted the opportunity to go there, and we weren’t in any way, shape or form able to compete with the Yankees. So we just said, ‘OK, good luck. Get the best deal you can.’”

Ultimately, Giambi cashed in, signing a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Yankees. He wore the number 25 in pinstripes because two and five equaled Mantle’s number 7.

Schott was able to sign another homegrown star, Eric Chavez, to a six-year contract extension before the 2004 season. As Schott points out, the $66 million deal is still the largest ever given out by the A’s. But it was Chavez’s infield mate on the left side, Miguel Tejada, who held the biggest place in Schott’s heart. As Schott attempted to talk about his relationship with Tejada, his voice choked up and he had to pause for a moment.

“He was my mother’s favorite player. She passed away a few years ago. She really loved him like a son, and he felt the same way about her,” Schott said, and then noted with regret that he hadn’t been in touch with Tejada in some time.

While winning on a budget was one of the defining characteristics of the Schott/Hofmann ownership tenure, the lasting legacy is the A’s seemingly endless quest for a new stadium. In the book, Schott says they had originally planned to renovate the Coliseum, but when the Raiders moved back in and Mt. Davis was constructed, those plans were scuttled and Schott began to publicly push for the A’s to move to Santa Clara, his hometown. He had even zeroed in on a spot for a stadium — the land that ultimately went to the 49ers for Levi’s Stadium.

Schott’s quest to move the A’s to the South Bay was halted by the Giants’ claim of territorial rights over the region, a claim that MLB commissioner Bud Selig supported. But while Schott asserts that his ownership group was firmly committed to keeping the team in the Bay Area unlike the current group, the flirtation with Santa Clara served to split the A’s fan base to some extent, alienating East Bay fans and beginning a disconnect with ownership that has only grown since then.

There were several groups interested in buying the A’s when Schott and Hofmann decided to sell in 2005, including current Warriors owner Joe Lacob. Ultimately, MLB approved the Fisher-backed group — led by Lew Wolff, a friend of Selig — instead. Schott believes Lacob would have been an excellent owner of the A’s, but also notes that a Lacob A’s ownership almost certainly would have meant he wouldn’t have bought the Warriors.

“He claims that he thought it was the best thing that ever happened to him was that he got turned down,” Schott said of Lacob. “Then he focused on the Warriors.”

Values of MLB franchises have skyrocketed since Schott and Hofmann sold the team for $180 million. But Schott has no regrets about leaving baseball when he did.

“I was kind of tired of the rat race, if you want to call it that. You’re focused on trying to win, and if you don’t win, then it’s a real disappointment, and I just felt it was time to move on,” Schott said.

Schott wasn’t able to get the A’s a stadium, but he did build a field of dreams for his college team, Santa Clara University. He says doesn’t get any great thrill out of seeing the name Stephen Schott Stadium, — “I guess I’d feel better if they would win more” — but did relish when Tony Gwynn came to visit with San Diego State and told him it was the nicest college facility Gwynn had seen. Schott’s life has extended well beyond baseball, though his time as A’s owner has left a lasting impact on him.

“It was a very interesting and challenging 10 years of my life, but it’s hard to rate it up there with what’s important with all the rest of the stuff I’ve done,” he said. “That’s why the book is kind of like an adventure (book). Some of them were short adventures. The A’s were kind of a long-term adventure.”

(Photo of Steve Schott (left), Eric Chavez (center) and Billy Beane (right) at Chavez’s contract signing: Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

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