The other kind of walkoff
The A’s made hay in July via a series of walkoff wins. It’s fitting that the team is capitalizing on a phenomenon coined by former Athletic Dennis Eckersley, almost karmic (I’d rather have won the ’88 WS). The A’s soccer brethren, the Earthquakes, have also gotten into the act, stringing together several winning and tying goals in the waning moments of numerous games this season. Let’s just say that the organization is no stranger to theatrics.
That comes in stark contrast to the neverending ballpark struggle, which has entered its 41st month according to our counter, but really has gone on for more than twice that long if you count back to when the Wolff/Fisher group took ownership. And if you believe Jayson Stark’s take coming out of the owners meetings this week, there’s no end in sight:
For about the 78th consecutive meeting of baseball’s problem-solving owners, there was no resolution this week of the A’s-Giants standoff. But if it wasn’t clear before now, it’s more obvious than ever that, in the words of one baseball official, that moving the A’s to San Jose is, most likely, “never going to happen.”
One sports attorney who has looked into this told Rumblings that the Giants have “a hell of a case” — centered around a document signed by the commissioner defining their territorial rights to include San Jose. And that’s critical, because any move by the A’s, or by the sport, to ignore or override those territorial rights could open a messy can of larvae for baseball.
How? Well, if the Giants’ territorial rights were suddenly deemed to no longer apply, it could set a precedent that might inspire some other team to attempt to move to New York or Southern California, by arguing the territorial rights of the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers and Angels were no longer valid, either.
So if the A’s aren’t bound for San Jose, what is likely to happen to them? Behind the scenes, baseball people are predicting they’ll eventually have to give up on this battle and settle for a new, Pittsburgh-size park in Oakland — and then do their best to beat up on the Giants in interleague play.
Stark didn’t articulate how this ballpark would be paid for. It’s a legitimate question. Oakland isn’t alone here. Field of Schemes’ Neil deMause pointed out in a recent Slate article that Seattle is facing the same dilemma.
Stanford economist Roger Noll pegs the operating profits of a typical arena at somewhere between $20 and $30 million a year. That could be enough—barely—to pay off $400 million or so in arena debt. But then Hansen and his as-yet-unnamed investors will still need to put down a huge amount of money to purchase an NBA franchise to play there. If every penny of revenue is going to pay off construction debts, that will leave nothing to offer his moneymen as return on their investment. “The gross revenues of an NBA team in Seattle could not possibly be sufficient,” says Noll, to cover the costs of both building an arena and buying a team.
Replace Seattle with Oakland and “NBA team” with “Athletics” and you have the first half of our local quandary. The crux of the argument to keep the A’s in Oakland is that some sugar daddy ownership group (Don Knauss & Co.) will swoop in, buy the A’s from Wolff/Fisher ($500 million) and pay for a new ballpark ($500-600 million). Using deMause’s corollary, which we’ve espoused here repeatedly, how does this new ownership make money, or even prevent themselves from being buried in debt? Even in San Jose a $500 million ballpark will require tons of upfront commitments to ensure that Wolff/Fisher aren’t leveraged to the hilt.
Moreover, this ongoing stalemate does no one any favors except the Giants, who must love the status quo – except for that pesky drug suspension thing. If the other big market teams are truly afraid of breaking precedent, then the naysayers are right, there is no way to San Jose. We’ve never heard anything directly from any owner to confirm this, so it’s just more grist for the mill. Funny thing is that there are protections in the Major League Constitution to keep the two-team markets safe. From Doug Pappas’ old article dissection the Major League Rules (emphasis mine):
Under Rule 1(c), either league can move into a territory belonging to a club in the other league, so long as (a) 3/4 of the affected league’s teams consent; (b) the two parks are at least five air miles apart unless the two clubs mutually agree otherwise; (c) the newcomer pays the existing club $100,000 plus half of any previous indemnification to invade the territory; and (d) the move leaves no more than two clubs in the territory. This provision dates to late 1960, when it was adopted to establish the terms for the expansion Los Angeles Angels to play in the territory claimed by the Dodgers in 1958.
That leaves Boston and Philadelphia as the only “vulnerable” markets, and any move to either city would face just as many political and logistical obstacles as the A’s face going to San Jose, if not more. Even with that technicality out of the way, the big market owners may be looking at T-rights as sacrosanct and untouchable, nevermind the actual language.
Bringing us back to Stark’s blurb, what can Wolff do? He seems content to play the nice guy role among the owners and not push the matter. If the Giants are lined up looking to sue, the A’s can do the same. San Jose is putting together its own legal resources should a decision come down not in their favor. But there is one maneuver, one trump card that Wolff can play that we’ve only skirted around, and it’s fairly simple.
Wolff could refuse to negotiate a Coliseum lease extension.
Fitting that this last bit of “inaction” could finally force action. It worked for the Minnesota Vikings. It most certainly won’t get the kind of results Zygi Wilf got (a publicly financed stadium), but it would at least force the powers that be to act. It would absolutely burn the last bridge Wolff had with Oakland and would be the worst PR move ever on top of many other missteps, but as we’ve seen in the Vikings’ case, it’s practically standard operating procedure for owners looking to get new stadia. Oakland pols have bragged that the A’s have nowhere to play besides the Coliseum. Do they really want to make that bluff?
Wolff’s refusal would create a nightmare for MLB. MLB could proceed one of two ways, either A) rule once and for all on the T-rights matter and let the franchise move forward, or B) try to assume control of the A’s by alleging that Wolff was not acting as a proper caretaker of the franchise in the market. The A’s can’t be contracted through the rest of the current CBA. Two teams would have to be contracted as a matter of practice and the Rays are locked into their lease, making contraction impossible in the near term. If MLB rules for the Giants, then at least Wolff would be able to decide if he wants to build in Fremont or give up completely and sell the team. And if MLB rules for the A’s, then Wolff will have gotten what he wanted, although he had to be a dick to Selig and the Lodge to make it happen, and Selig would have to deal with the Giants’ legal onslaught.
Selig could try to buy Wolff’s silence by subsidizing an East Bay stadium (also unprecedented) or having the other owners buy out the Wolff/Fisher group, which won’t be cheap. Wolff/Fisher are in a strong position in that they don’t have to sell, at any price if they don’t like.
Now, if MLB were to try to wrest control of the A’s from Wolff, the league would land in litigation hell. Wolff could easily point to Selig’s committee’s 41 months with no plan or decision, and it would drag out for a long time. Unlike the McCourt-Dodgers fiasco, the Wolff/Fisher group are more than solvent (underneath it all A’s ownership is the 4th richest in baseball). T-rights would finally be dragged out into the open, in court. Meanwhile, MLB would have to step in and negotiate lease terms with Oakland/Alameda County for some unknown period. They can’t go around Wolff to negotiate a lease while he’s still the franchise’s control person, since he still has to sign on the line which is dotted. MLB can’t get an injunction on Wolff not doing something. Can they force him to negotiate a lease? We’ll see. Beyond the Bay Area, there will be at least one mayor who’ll look at the ending lease and make a play for the A’s, even if the resources aren’t there. Effectively the A’s would turn into the Expos, a team in limbo for an indeterminate period.
All of that’s possible from Wolff making a simple declaration. He doesn’t have to make it now. He could wait until the end of the 2013 season if he likes. The chaos would put a great toll on the franchise and the fanbase, and you’d have to wonder if, in the end, it’s worth it. Walking away from the lease could be the first domino. At least someone would be playing. We’ve been talking about post-2013 for a while now. The closer we get to that point without a resolution, the more likely someone’s going to make a move out of desperation. Often large bureaucratic organizations don’t make moves until things reach crisis mode. If Selig wanted to end his tenure without drama, this definitely wouldn’t be a way to do it.