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“We Can Afford to Dream a Little Bit”

Jon Steinberg | December 10, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

This is "Think Tank," a monthly series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Larry Baer
Job: CEO of the San Francisco Giants
Age: 57
Residence: Richmond district

After coming down off the highest of highs last October, the Giants hit a huge pothole: the loss of Pablo Sandoval. Where are you emotionally now?
We’ve all been spoiled. When a player becomes a free agent, it’s kind of a coin flip, and these guys tend to go. We love Pablo, he’s our Panda. We like to think that we have some intellectual property rights—some emotional property rights—over him. But we don’t. So our friend Larry Lucchino in Boston can now sell Panda hats. But you know, we’re spoiled, because when was the last time a guy we did go after didn’t stay here? I can’t remember. Maybe Will Clark in the early ’90s? But since then—Posey, Pence, Lincecum, Caine, Pagan, Scutaro, all these guys—they’ve stayed with us.

Do you feel like losing him was a bit of wake-up call, that now the franchise has to come back down to earth a little?
Every year is a new movie, that’s one thing I’ve learned. It’s always a totally different cast of characters on the field. We know that in 2015, somebody will exceed expectations, but we don’t know who. And somebody will disappoint, but we don’t know who. You have to have agility as an organization. How do you take a team that’s not what you thought it’d be—Pagan’s out, Blanco’s in center field, Perez is in left field, guys are playing who were in the Minor Leagues a month ago—how do you win a series with them? If you believe in a vision, it’s incredible to see how the power of collaboration can make things happen. It’s the power of human collaboration. I think the Olympics are an example of that.

What makes you believe that San Francisco can really win the rights to the 2024 Olympics? We haven’t seen all the plans yet, but it seems
pretty audacious.

I believe in my bones that San Francisco is a perfect locale to host the Olympics. It’s all in the plan that we put together, and how it all gets implemented, which is a big task. But I believe you’ve gotta dream big and aspire to big things. People said we could never build our ballpark: In the ’80s and ’90s, people thought a downtown ballpark was a pipe dream.

But the challenges with the Olympics are exponentially greater.
I don’t think so.

AT&T Park cost less than half a billion dollars to build. You’ve estimated that a Bay Area Olympics will run $4.5 billion—at a minimum.
You can’t look at it that way. You’re building something here that will be around for generations.

Well, how do you even pay for a $4.5 billion event? Surely the public’s not going to want to fund it.
There’s a formula: [International Olympic Committee] contributions, [US Olympic Committee] contributions, local contributions, ticket sales, sponsors, licensing deals. We’re not going forward unless we know that we can do it responsibly. There will always be unknowns.

But the unknowns in this case are so complex. Unlike other Olympic cities like London or Sydney or Atlanta, in the Bay Area you’re not dealing with one municipality—you’re dealing with a legion of city governments, each with its own agenda. How do you herd all those cats?
I think you could look at that as a benefit. All these communities that want to participate in the bid—Santa Clara, San Jose, Berkeley, Palo Alto—everybody has an appetite. Everybody understands that you may have San Francisco’s name on the event, but that the whole region will benefit from it.

The politics of dealing with other cities could get pretty complex for you personally. The way that the Giants have blocked the A’s from moving to San Jose—you’re not exactly a popular guy in that city.
I mean, the last thing we want is to jam something down somebody’s throat. If people don’t want the Olympics, hey, everybody has other things to do. That’s fine. But that’s not what we’ve heard when we talk to San Jose or Oakland. [New Oakland mayor] Libby Schaaf was at the USOC dinner we had recently. I think that everybody is open to it. It’s just how it gets put together. We have to create a plan responsibly and efficiently, and with discipline.

You also have to keep voters in San Francisco from throwing up ballot initiatives to block the Games. How do you avoid a scenario like that?
We’ve dealt with politics in this city for a long time. If you have something that’s going to add to the housing stock and help connect transit and create recreational opportunities, there’s not a lot to quarrel with on those premises. Where the rubber meets the road is, can you implement the plan in a way that there’s not a financial burden?

And how do you do that?
You have to create a budget that’s sustainable. You can’t have too much new construction, you have to have transportation that works. London really worked, the way athletes got moved, transit links got created in advance of the game, housing was built. Look at East London: The facilities remain and are being used and repurposed. We have the chance here to reimagine the Olympics. We’ve played around with concepts like table tennis on a platform in Chinatown, where you create this cool little platform and have people around it in a small Chinatown street. Or track and field events at Kezar Stadium—shot put and javelin, stuff like that.

Andrew Zimbalist, a prominent economist, believes that every Games becomes a financial boondoggle for its host city. You’re a businessman: When you look at his studies, how do you react?
I get the economic-impact arguments. We’ve dealt with those arguments in San Francisco for decades—the questions about how much a sporting venue truly brings into the surrounding community. But we’re not measuring the overall value of the Olympics by the potential economic impacts of tourism just during those 16 days in 2024.

You can understand why there’s a lot of skepticism about these promises, though.
Look, we can say no to everything in life. But I believe that you can aspire to having something fantastic in this area, and I think we are primed for it. We have a new football stadium in Santa Clara; we have a new basketball arena coming to San Francisco; I think chances are that there’ll be one new venue, if not two, in Oakland for either football or baseball. The economy here is extremely strong. We can afford to dream a little bit.

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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