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January 23, 2010

Piccinini reflects on A's deal

We can only speculate what the Oakland A's would be like now if Modesto supermarket executive Bob Piccinini had been able to buy the franchise in 1999. One smart guess is that nobody would be talking about Fremont or San Jose, writes Oakland Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse.

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 inexplicably shot down 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. ... 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.

Piccinini is a baseball man. He's owned minor league franchises in Modesto, Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento. In 1999, he rounded up William Dean Singleton, chairman of Media News Group; George Zimmer, owner of Men's Wearhouse; Andy Dolich, a former A's executive; and Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Joe Morgan (who 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 and was rebuffed.

Piccinini's group offered $122 million when the 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. "I think baseball is as appealing as ever."

Would Piccinini, who will be 68 next week, try again to buy the A's?

"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 in 1999 because Piccinini has grown his grocery business into an empire that was far beyond his expectations when he became Save Mart Supermarkets president in 1981. He's bought Lucky Stores and 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, which puts on 200 to 250 shows a year. And he's a major promoter of the 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 flagstick. 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 lovefest.

Piccinini had the wealth — and he's even wealthier now — to lead the charge for a privately built ballpark. So now all Oakland can do is wait for Major League Baseball's announcement about the A's future. But it's hard not thinking of Selig as Oakland's executioner.

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