CONNIE MACK dismantled his championship Philadelphia Athletics during World War I, selling off his best players for money in what might have been baseball's first fire sale. Sometimes it seems like the franchise has been just a little off ever since.

Little mourned, the A's moved to Kansas City after the 1954 season. While there, they were best known as the team that supplied the Yankees with the players needed to keep their string of championships going. After Charlie Finley bought the team and moved it to Oakland, the A's attracted as much attention for Finley's antics as for winning three straight world championships in the early 1970s.

More recently, despite general manager Billy Beane's acknowledged ability to create competitive teams out of modest payrolls - Moneyball - they have been somewhat overshadowed in the Bay area by the Giants and sparkling AT & T Park.

Lew Wolff aims to change all that.

Never heard of Wolff? That's not surprising, even though he's entering his third season as the team's owner and managing partner. He's genial and low-key, the anti-Steinbrenner, despite a career as a major developer with ownership stakes in some of the world's toniest hotels such as the Carlyle in New York, the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and numerous Four Seasons and Fairmont properties.

The 69-year-old magnate is now focused on a bold plan that would have a profound impact on the Athletics with a ripple effect that would spread throughout baseball.

His goal is to build a 32,000-seat, privately financed stadium in Fremont, Calif., as part of a 226-acre complex that will include 2,900 townhomes, 550,000 square feet of retail space and a hotel.

And while the individual components of the project might not be new, they've never been put together in quite this way.

Teams have relocated before. But the A's will respect the Giants' territorial rights and the wishes of Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig (a former frat brother of Wolff's at the University of Wisconsin) by remaining in Alameda County. At the same time, the new spot will allow the franchise to more easily tap into the rich San Jose and Silicon Valley market.

"We really tried to see if we could do this in Oakland," Wolff said in a recent phone interview. "[That city] could really use the infusion downtown, but they just don't have the land.

"We're in the path of growth, a few miles from downtown San Jose. The demand for residential and retail is fairly strong."

Owners have built their own stadiums before. Walter O'Malley financed Dodger Stadium almost 50 years ago. "But we're not kicking anybody out," Wolff pointed out, a reference to the hundreds of mostly Mexican families that were displaced in Chavez Ravine. In recent years, though, almost every new park has been largely publicly financed.

Teams have envisioned using stadiums as the centerpiece for further development. Petco Park in San Diego has revitalized a dilapidated part of the city. But the funding is coming from a variety of sources.

"The difference here is that we would control the development 100 percent," Wolff said. "We need the value of the residential to pay for the ballpark." The result is envisioned as a "Ballpark Village." Projected price tag: $1.8 billion.

Teams have sold naming rights before. The Athletics' deal with Cisco Systems goes farther than that, though. Wolff purchased 143 acres of the land for the proposed site from Cisco and the technology company, in addition to lending its name to the field, will provide its expertise to build what is expected to be the most wired ballpark yet.

And what does it man to the average baseball fan? Well, under Beane the Athletics have finished first or second in the American League West every year since 1999, including five playoffs appearances. They've done that despite maintaining a relatively low payroll that caused them to lose stars like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito who were, or were about to become, free agents.

If the Athletics have the money to retain their best players, or even sign frontline free agents, logic would suggest that even more success should follow.

Wolff isn't sure it's that simple. "It will increase our income significantly," he said. "But I think the goal of Billy Beane and myself is still to keep salaries within the parameters of 50 to 55 percent of revenue.

"This organization has a lot of pride. I inherited a very well-run organization that is very directed toward being profitable. We're profitable today and we plan to remain profitable. I don't think we'll become drunk. Some teams, I think it's fair to say, have become drunk."

The point is that, no matter what the budget, it's still important to spend wisely. "I think Billy's feelings are that just because you have money you don't have to give 8-year contracts," he said.

Maybe not. But perhaps in anticipation for what is to come, Oakland recently made a preemptive deal with Nick Swisher, signing the talented young outfielder to a 5-year, $26.75 million deal even though he wouldn't have been eligible for arbitration until the end of this season.

Development in California is a contact sport, and even though the land-acquisition portion of the plan was completed last week, Wolff still has many hurdles to jump before his dream can become a reality. The next step is to submit a development application to the city.

"I've said this many times before but, in California, if you had a cure for cancer, somebody's going to be against it," he said. "But I'm confident I can get it done. Because it should be done. It doesn't hurt anybody."

It would also give the franchise more solid footing than it's had in nearly a century. *