Time for MLB to let the A's move

June, 18, 2013
6/18/13
11:00
PM ET

I don't know how much sewage has leaked from the pipes at the O.co Coliseum since Bud Selig formed a blue-ribbon panel in 2009 to find a solution for relocating the Oakland A's to San Jose, but the smell apparently hasn't yet reached Park Avenue.

The A's want to move, San Jose wants the A's, but the Giants own territorial rights to Santa Clara County, creating this messy situation that finally led to the city of San Jose suing Major League Baseball over its antitrust exemption that allows it to control the movement of franchises.

If only Al Davis had owned the A's maybe this would have been resolved years ago. But A's owner Lew Wolff has been a good corporate partner to the other franchises, as well as bud to Bud, sacrificing the wealth of his own franchise for the betterment of ... well, I guess, the Giants. The Giants have won two World Series titles in three years and have grown into one of baseball's big-ticket franchises, all because of the A's.

As Maury Brown explains at The Biz of Baseball site:
Based on Major League Baseball’s constitution and by-laws, there are defined physical territories for all 30 of the clubs. The Giants currently control Santa Clara Co. where the A’s are seeking to relocate. At one point the A’s controlled the county but Walter Haas relinquished it in the 1990s when then Giants owner Bob Lurie sought to relocate that team to San Jose. Two referendums for stadium funding failed, and only a last minute effort for a new ballpark in San Francisco saved the Giants from relocation out of the region. Even though the Giants never relocated to San Jose, the rights to Santa Clara Co. were reaffirmed, and they have stayed in the Giants control to this day.

Why do the A's want to move? Santa Clara County has a population of more than 1.7 million and is one of the most affluent counties in the nation. Alameda County has a population of 1.5 million and a median household income $20,000 less than Santa Clara County according to the 2000 census. While the A's have had several periods of success in Oakland, the team has never drawn consistently large crowds, peaking during the Mark McGwire-Jose Canseco era, perhaps not coincidentally when the Raiders were playing in Los Angeles. This year, building off last year's division title, the team is ninth in the AL in attendance, its best ranking since 2005. The team also hasn't earned high local TV ratings; last year, only the Astros and Padres averaged fewer viewers per telecast.

[+] EnlargeO.co Coliseum
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe A's have often had trouble drawing fans to the outdated O.co Coliseum.
Whether a move to San Jose would improve attendance and TV ratings is only speculation, but as this weekend's embarrassing sewage incident showed, the A's can't exist much longer in their current ballpark.

But it all circles back to the Giants. When Walter Haas surrendered rights, the A's were being generous from their position of strength at the time. They had won four division titles in five seasons from 1988 to 1992, topping 2.2 million fans each season, and reached peak attendance at 2.9 million in 1990. Until the Giants finally moved into AT&T Park in 2000, they had drawn 2.2 million fans once since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

The Giants could simply give the rights to Santa Clara County back to the A's -- having drawn 3 million-plus fans in 11 of 13 seasons at AT&T, their popularity in the Bay Area seems assured -- returning the gift once given them. Plus, many suggest that considering the traffic patterns in the region, it's not like the Giants are drawing legions of fans from San Jose on a daily basis, though Caltrain runs from San Jose almost right up to the Willie Mays statue.

There are, however, baseball fans in San Jose and if they're not attending games in person they may be watching on TV or buying Madison Bumgarner jerseys. Many believe the ultimate goal of the Giants isn't to prevent the A's from moving to San Jose but to eventually kick them out of the region altogether. The Giants opened a team store in Walnut Creek -- A's territory -- in 2011, a symbol of the ultimate goal of Bay Area domination.

Of course, the A's maintain they still hold rights to Santa Clara County. In a press release from March 7, 2012, A's ownership stated:
Of the four two-team markets in MLB, only the Giants and A’s do not share the exact same geographic boundaries. MLB-recorded minutes clearly indicate that the Giants were granted Santa Clara, subject to relocating to the city of Santa Clara. The granting of Santa Clara to the Giants was by agreement with the A’s late owner Walter Haas, who approved the request without compensation. The Giants were unable to obtain a vote to move and the return of Santa Clara to its original status was not formally accomplished.

We are not seeking a move that seeks to alter or in any manner disturb MLB territorial rights. We simply seek an approval to create a new venue that our organization and MLB fully recognizes is needed to eliminate our dependence on revenue sharing, to offer our fans and players a modern ballpark, to move over 35 miles further away from the Giants’ great venue and to establish an exciting competition between the Giants and A’s.

When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C., Orioles owner Peter Angelos was appeased by giving him rights to Nationals games. The Orioles are majority owners of MASN, the network that televises Nationals games. Not surprisingly, the Nationals, Orioles and MLB are now entangled in a dispute over the rights fees MASN should be paying the Nationals.

Could the Giants be similarly appeased, perhaps by a lump-sum payment? Maybe, but rumors there suggest a fee of at least nine figures would be required -- $100,000,000 (or more) that the A's can't pay or don't have.

So that gets us back to the lawsuit. I have no idea if the suit is viable. FanGraphs' Wendy Thurm -- a former attorney for 18 years -- has an excellent breakdown here. She sums up:
But this is a complicated case with complex issues. I’m just not in a position now -- before any motions are filed -- to say which parties have the better of the argument. It looks like San Jose is on pretty shaky ground, but if the city can get past the motion stage of the case -- and into discovery -- the chances for a settlement that results in the A’s moving to San Jose go up.

And at the end of the day, San Jose cares much more about getting an MLB franchise than about blowing up baseball’s antitrust exemption.

Which, for Bud Selig, could take him full circle. After all, he was the guy who led the move of the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee in 1970 -- a move made possible, at least in part, due to plumbing problems at Sick's Stadium in Seattle.

The Mariners, by the way, came into existence after King County sued the American League for breach of contract. For Selig, the master manager, some of his old shenanigans may come back to haunt him in the end.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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