Selig’s Lamentations and the Law of Unintended Consequences

To hear outgoing MLB Commissioner Bud Selig explain it, he was stuck in the middle. Powerless. The issue was forever “complicated.” He wished he could’ve resolved it. So when he rolled through Oakland on his farewell tour, there was no staged ceremony near home plate, no televised gift of a rocking chair made of bats. The only real exchange was a series of questions from local media, asking him if he could’ve done more get the A’s to a new ballpark. All he could say was that a ballpark was needed. Acknowledging that the so-called Blue Ribbon Commission/Panel/Tribunal was effectively shut down, the only thing missing was a hook to pull him off the podium.

Anyone’s thoughts on how the A’s (and Giants) should be treated are largely colored by three views:

  1. Oakland’s standing as a major league host city
  2. How much power the Commissioner has over teams and whether he should wield that power
  3. The sanctity of territorial rights and baseball’s antitrust exemption

There was never a question of whether the Coliseum is decrepit enough to be replaced; of course it is. There’s also little question of whether San Jose is large enough or wealthy enough to host a team if not encumbered by territorial rights; of course it is. The three items listed above, however, are up for serious debate. And despite the A’s 11th-hour lease extension last year and the hurried extension talks this year (done to give Selig something to hang his hat on as much as anything else), those questions will continue to dominate the discussion moving forward. All we get for the next few years as A’s fans get is a brief respite. Frankly, that’s rather welcome at this point.

Selig touted the 22 parks built during his tenure as head cheese. Virtually all of those parks have a single thread in common that Oakland can’t give at this point: public funding. The notable exception is San Francisco, where the Giants were somewhat ostracized for daring to privately finance their yard. The Lodge thought that baseball was on a slippery slope to No-Subsidies-Ville, with noted baseball town St. Louis playing hardball with its beloved Cardinals enough that the team financed $290 million for Busch on their own. They didn’t need to worry, as the extortion game succeeded in Miami and Minneapolis, even through the recession.

Oakland doesn’t have cash to offer. Despite their repeated shows of incompetence, Oakland’s pols are not crazy enough to offer cash straight up (I think). But they’re showing signs of being willing to offer up a big swath of Coliseum land, which in the long run is nearly as good as cash. If the City/County hadn’t gotten so legally entangled with the Raiders, Oakland would’ve been in the position to offer a Coliseum City-like deal to the A’s. Selig would’ve acknowledged the skin that Oakland was willing to wager, and I’d be watching the game in a new ballpark right now instead of an old one. That’s not to say it would’ve been a good deal for Oakland. It would still be a big-time subsidy. But it wouldn’t have been as disastrous as Mount Davis, that’s for sure.

Selig took the acting commissioner job in September 1992, as Bob Lurie was finalizing a deal to sell the Giants to the Vincents (Naimoli and Piazza). Still carrying the scar from losing the Braves to Atlanta, he purportedly held off the deal long enough (enduring a lawsuit in the process) to allow San Francisco interests to pull an ownership group together. After failing to save the 1994 season, he worked hard to avoid further work stoppages, though he sacrificed the Montreal Expos to do it. After he screwed over the original TB Giants owners, he settled with another group to get them an expansion team in 1998, helping to infuse baseball with cash after the Lodge took it on the chin with the owners’ collusion lawsuit. In the process, he bound the Rays to practically unbreakable lease at a domed stadium. Plus he forgot that San Jose and Santa Clara County, which were gifted to the old Giants ownership when they pursued a ballpark in the South Bay, remained granted territories to the Giants after the new SF-only ownership group took over. All of that happened while he was acting commissioner.

As the elected, properly sworn-in permanent commissioner, Selig orchestrated the Expos contraction-then-expansion ownership swap among three teams that netted baseball a handsome expansion fee and brought baseball back to DC. To satiate O’s owner Peter Angelos, he and his executive team cobbled together a deal that made the O’s majority owner of a new regional sports network, MASN, which owned broadcast rights to the Nationals. Apparently Selig didn’t see the TV rights bubble coming or the conflict such an arrangement might create. The Nats, whose initial term on MASN is now up, want in on that bubble while the O’s are unwilling to pay market rates. Naturally, the teams are in court. Selig, who gave Angelos MASN to get him to stop a lawsuit against MLB, now sees two teams stuck in trench warfare, arguing over hundreds of millions of dollars. To mollify the Nats, Selig is giving the team money from his eight-figures-per-year iscretionary fund. These days $25 million or so is small potatoes compared to the riches Ted Lerner sees going forward, so the struggle continues.

It’s with that perspective that Selig has found himself stuck trying to satisfy both the A’s and the Giants. There’s Selig the legacy-protector, who would prefer to keep the team in Oakland if they could just pull out their checkbook. There’s Selig the Lodge-unity-protector, afraid to take the territorial rights issue head on for fear of reprisal from one faction of owners or owner. Then there’s Selig the procrastinator, whose blind eye towards many baseball issues (PEDs, inner city youth development, growing economic disparity among teams) made this particular outcome entirely predictable. Some want to give Selig credit for MLB Advanced Media or growing TV revenues, when really he just stood aside and let his underlings innovate for him. I mean, really, Selig and MLBAM? The guy doesn’t even have email.

Complete conjecture on my part: I suspect there was a plan at some point in which the Nats-O’s TV issue was resolved permanently and the under-the-table payments could be rerouted to either the A’s or Giants as part of another temporary deal. If the A’s were granted San Jose, the Giants would be given a “refund” of their revenue sharing payment. If the Giants kept the territory, the A’s would get the piece of the discretionary fund as financial ballast as they built in Oakland (remember, per the CBA revenue sharing goes away if the A’s build anew in the Bay Area). Over time such payments would taper off as the teams adjusted. With such funds indefinitely in use for another conflict, there was no solution to be had. Another consequence of the Nats-O’s dispute is that any thought of creating a new Bay Area RSN with the Giants in control in a similar arrangement to the O’s now has to be considered verboten.

So yes, Selig is right to an extent. The problem is complicated. Still, all it would’ve taken is better foresight to manage this and all of the other problems. They are merely ways of moving money around a table, out of one pocket and into another. Some have argued for MLB to establish a stadium loan program like the NFL’s G-3/G-4. That’s not happening soon because the NFL’s TV dollars used to establish G-4 dwarf baseball’s national TV revenue $6 billion to $1.5 billion. The big market owners see the new TV contracts, in which each team receives $50 million per year, as enough in terms of support when coupled with revenue sharing and the luxury tax. That’s enough to give the sense of competitive balance that Selig likes to tout. Then again, we all know that’s an illusion.

Competitive balance means allowing the poor teams to play as if they don’t see the glass ceiling. That’s your Oakland Athletics, now and into the foreseeable future.

Rob Manfred elected next MLB commissioner by owners

After a full day of deliberation and several trays of cookies, MLB’s owners finally approved MLB executive Rob Manfred as baseball’s next commissioner (NY Times/USA Today/LA Times/MLB/ESPN Sweetspot. Throughout the day, there were frequent reports that the vote was deadlocked at 22-8 or 21-9, 1 or 2 votes shy of the three-quarters of owners needed to approve Manfred. A late afternoon break preceded the final vote, which in true Bud Selig fashion, was tabulated at 30-0. Perhaps the so-called Reinsdorf block saw the writing on the wall and gave in knowing Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner didn’t have a chance, or they knew that Manfred, who has worked in the league offices for 15 years, was the more qualified candidate. Either way, in February Manfred stands to inherit a full plate of for now unresolved issues from Selig, who is now officially a lame duck.

Who was the swing vote that got Selig’s man, Manfred, over the top? It appears to have been Brewers owner Mark Attanasio,

Among the issues that need resolution sometime in the future:

  • Nats-O’s (MASN) television rights negotiations/lawsuit
  • The future of the Tampa Bay Rays
  • Negotiating terms of an Oakland ballpark, if it can come to fruition
  • The next collective bargaining agreement (current one expires after 2016 season)
  • Blackout rules for local broadcasts

Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to go hardline against the players’ union, despite MLB having one of the most favorable, cost-controlled deals in sports. He considered Selig to be too conciliatory in his dealings with the union. It’s hard to say how much more Reinsdorf would’ve gained in the next labor talks, though the obvious goal would’ve been a salary cap of some sort. Reinsdorf was considered the power behind Selig’s throne, the senior whip who got the votes Selig needed. Here’s to hoping that sanity, not greed, wins out in the next labor talks.

During Selig’s tenure, he sought to consolidate power, getting rid of the league president roles and the deputy commissioner, opting instead for a more vertical org chart with subordinates’ autonomy reduced. One of the rumored challenges for the owners in the upcoming CBA/Constitution talks is how to curtail the powers of the commissioner’s office, which now includes disbursements of a discretionary fund that runs into eight figures (see Nats-O’s).

Going in, it was thought that the Larry Baer and the Giants supported Manfred, while Lew Wolff and the A’s supported Werner. Early voting seemed to bear this out. They even had some discussions early in the day.

The official approval of Manfred would appear to confirm the status quo going forward: Giants not budging on T-rights, A’s forced to make a deal in Oakland. The recently approved Coliseum lease extension further keeps the A’s in Oakland at least for the next several years. After that, well, who knows? MLB has seen enough of the stadium saga to know that neither city is a slam dunk, so contingency plans are needed. And it was Manfred who affirmed the threat to move “out of Oakland” last month, supposedly going so far as to mention San Jose in the same breath. So if anyone’s thinking that any city has an ally in the MLB commissioner moving forward, they shouldn’t. Manfred’s on baseball’s side, not yours.

San Jose’s uphill battle against MLB continues in 9th Circuit court

This is how oral arguments started today.

For San Jose, it pretty much went downhill from there. City of San Jose Attorney Philip Gregory was up first, and he had a very tough time against the three man panel of judges: Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, Judge Barry Silverman, and Judge Richard Clifton. Gregory asserted that the Portland Baseball case limits the antitrust exemption to the reserve clause. Kosinski and Clifton took issue with that. Gregory argued that the prior cases often cited (Portland, Curt Flood) are more about minor league-major league system interactions/transactions than major league franchise movement. The judges didn’t appear to be swayed. Gregory was left to argue that the case shouldn’t be dismissed at this early stage, and should go to discovery.

MLB lawyer John Keker was next, and he had a much easier time. He was able to go at least 2 minutes without being interrupted, which indicates that the judges had little to question.

The most resistance Keker got into was a hypothetical that Kozinski put forward. The judge first asked Keker if baseball has an antitrust exemption, doesn’t that mean that this case automatically doesn’t have standing? Keker agreed. This was also a key tenet of MLB’s filings going into today’s hearing. There was even a playful back-and-forth between Kozinski and Keker, in which Kozinski prodded, “Just between you and me…” That was followed by a chuckle from the much larger-than-normal gallery. Keker kept to his argument.

That left the rebuttal to Joe Cotchett, who brought props. That led to this exchange:

Cotchett tried his best to take down MLB, calling the territorial distribution as outlined in the Major League Constitution one that builds an “economic wall” around San Jose (Santa Clara County) because no team is allowed to move in there. He also brought up the recent decision in a US District Court to allow an antitrust case to move forward against MLB and broadcasters over TV blackouts and exclusive territories. Judge Clifton didn’t appear to be swayed by this either.

Despite the poor outlook for San Jose, Cotchett got to hold another presser outside the courtroom after adjournment, which for him is just as important as the actual proceedings inside. Even if he loses this case in the Ninth Circuit, he aims to bring it all the way to the Supreme Court. The way things look now, getting there would be the equivalent of a six-run home run.

Courthouse coverage comes from the Merc’s Howard Mintz and Fangraphs’ Wendy Thurm.

The “new” architect and a great old Coliseum idea

Out of the formality that was the Coliseum extension news on Tuesday was a related item that got Oakland fans all excited and hopeful. Lew Wolff, in full photo op mode with the various assembled pols, mentioned that he was working with an architect on a ballpark design at the Coliseum. Wolff gave few specifics, other than saying that “several design ideas” were being considered. Wolff declined to say much else, or even identify the architecture firm he’s working with.

The general sense of astonishment I saw in articles and social media feedback, and in Damon Bruce’s lighthearted take on it on his radio show yesterday, confirmed yet again the fact that the average fan is not going to be bothered to keep up with much of the news. Not that they should be expected to, this is a fairly boring subject at the planning and political stage, and has niche value once shovels hit dirt. Still, fans called in and mused with great hope about one feature or another being integrated into a new ballpark at the Coliseum. But it seemed as if they weren’t going to believe in Wolff’s overtures until he uttered those magic words, I’m working with an architect. My goodness, an architect! Fiddle-dee-dee!

Of course, those who have been following this stadium saga for some time probably already know that Wolff has been working with a prominent architecture firm for nearly a decade. That firm is 360 Architecture, a company that had roots in HOK and created an offshoot, Heinlein Schrock Stearns, before merging with another to become 360 in 2004. They opened an office in San Francisco in the fall of 2005, as the Coliseum North plan transformed into Fremont’s Pacific Commons. Later they worked up plans for the Diridon site and the soccer stadium near San Jose Airport. And if you read SVBJ scribe Nate Donato-Weinstein’s interview with 360 principal Brad Schrock from Tuesday, you might’ve picked up a hint of what was happening next.

Donato-Weinstein: What’s your dream project?

Schrock: We’ve been working with the A’s for such a long time. I’d love to do a ballpark for the A’s. I’d love to do one in San Jose or Oakland. The A’s are just such an interesting franchise. Trying to craft a facility that meets their mojo is a lot of fun. The other one I would die to be involved in is if the city of LA ever gets an NFL team. That would be phenomenal to work on.

While there are no major league ballparks under Schrock’s new shingle, his firm is responsible for the lovely Huntington Park, which I visited a few weeks ago. During his Heinlein Schrock Stearns days he was responsible for Safeco Field, which to me is #1 or #2 in the bigs. 360 is more well known for arenas than stadia, having designed Sprint Center in KC, but with most arenas being early in their lifespans, the firm has done outdoor venues. They cut their NFL teeth on MetLife Stadium, whose soullessness is not 360’s fault but rather the design-by-committee, tug-of-war conducted by the Giants and Jets. Now they’re working an an incredibly ambitious project, the new Atlanta Falcons Stadium. They also have the upcoming Rogers Place in Edmonton under construction, and the Earthquakes Stadium, which is set to open next year.

Some of the plans under consideration in Fremont included a truly retro design featuring columns, similar to legacy ballparks Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Partly motivated by cost savings and a desire for better sightlines, the concept didn’t appear to go far thanks to the stigma held by obstructed view seats. Assuming that column-free, minimal-cantilever is the chosen path, I think there are some very important positive lessons than can be taken from being stuck at the Coliseum – not just the Coliseum of yesteryear, but the current tarped-off, Mt. Davis-eyesore version.

One of those lessons has to do with the noise level. Sure, the expansive foul territory makes the seats down the lines terribly far away from the action. The activity of the crowd, which is good even on 15k nights, makes up for the lack of line-hugging seats. Yet there’s one other thing that contributes to the noise factor, and it only really started when the tarps were installed in 2006.

Simply put, about 90% of the Coliseum’s seats (in current baseball configuration) are lower than 60 feet above the field. That’s about 32,000 seats. That vertical conservation concentrates crowd noise to a degree not known since old Comiskey and Tiger Stadium were still around. That’s why today’s MLB players are so taken aback when they come into the Coliseum, because despite the old girl’s decrepitude, it’s uncommonly loud.

Why? Just look at how ballparks are constructed these days. It’s easy to point to levels of suites, and yes they are largely responsible, but there are also regulatory standards that come into play. On the lower concourse, wheelchair rows need to be 30-36 inches above the row in front of them for proper compliance. That height grows the higher you go. Plus architects have their own guidelines to prevent people in the back rows from having their views clipped by an overhang, which happens in the back rows of both the Field and Plaza levels at the Coli.

In new ballparks, especially those that follow the familiar HOK blueprint, you have a lower deck of about 30-40 rows, then the elevated wheelchair row merged with the concourse, then decent height so standees can properly see the action. Then there are club and suite levels in different configurations. Finally there’s the upper deck, which these days is split into two decks. When you look at a cross section of a ballpark, it’s easy to identify 4 or 5 separate seating levels, all the better for the teams to separate those levels by price.

Coors Field, which is similar to AT&T Park. Top row is 105 feet above field.

Coors Field, which is similar to AT&T Park. Top row is 105 feet above field.

Take Coors Field, which is pretty much the standard bearer among the modern, HOK/Populous breed. Lower deck, Club level, Suite level, Upper deck. It’s a big building that was downsized before the start of the season. That’s good, but it won’t fix the sightline problem. The top row is 105 feet above the field, which makes the action truly look like it’s a Mile High. Add to that the limited cantilevering and it’s pretty far from the action, nearly 235 feet from home plate to that back row in the upper deck. Could be worse, though. Mt. Davis’s top row at the 50-yard line is 335 feet from the near sideline. That’s longer than a home run in the LF/RF corners.

pitch-low_two-med

A two-deck ballpark design with no suites in between

Now look at this cross-section, which somewhat mimics the first two decks at the Coliseum. It has 32-36 rows down low, 24 rows up above, then skyboxes over it. The last row is only 56 feet above the field. There is only one regular concourse, but it’s 65-83 feet wide. There are club seats and a separate club concourse up top, probably with no fancy lounge or restaurant. Above the suites is a rooftop deck, which can be used the same way the 49ers use theirs at Levi’s Stadium. Or it could simply provide expanded seating in the future. The roof is only 88 feet above the field, or almost 2 stories lower than the top row at Coors.

Overlay of Coors and two-deck concept

Overlay of Coors and two-deck concept

There are compromises. The suites and club seats are about 20-25 feet further away from their counterparts at Coors (AT&T). Does that matter? I doubt it.

To be clear, I have no idea if 360 and Wolff are pursuing anything like this. It would be a great way to go. It brings over that vertical conservation that no other ballpark in the majors save for PNC Park attempts to accomplish. If the goal is the best baseball viewing experience, I hope that this is something that the A’s-360 team is exploring. We’ll all be better off in the end if they did.

River Cats announce new indoor club at Raley Field

The River Cats organization spent much of last week hyping up a big announcement scheduled for Saturday, August 2.

Given the mysterious nature of the team’s affiliation with the A’s after 2014, some thought the announcement would have to do with changing affiliations, say to the Giants for instance. Rules set in place by MLB and MiLB prohibit such announcements during the season. Teams aren’t even allowed to formally seek out new PDC’s (player development contracts) until mid-September, after the minor league season ends. Naturally, River Cats management refused to answer questions about the situation, so nothing new on that front.

What did they announce, then? A new 5,000 square foot, air conditioned club, named the Western Health Advantage Legacy Club. Open to all season ticket holders, the WHALC will also be available for special events. The air conditioning is a key point, since that sets it apart from other spaces within the park. The club will be an extension of the suite level down the left field line, above the beer garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The River Cats are finding themselves competing with the resurgent (at least off the court) Kings, whose downtown arena is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2016 season (2017 as a fallback). A ceremonial demolition ceremony at the mall where the arena will sit was held over the weekend. It’s better for the River Cats to make such amenities available before the new arena opens, the better to lock in sponsor and entice business-type season ticket holders whose eyes may already be wandering downtown.

As for that affiliation announcement? We’ll have to wait until September.

Alameda County approves A’s lease unanimously 5-0

After a relatively brief, much less heated discussion over the A’s lease extension than was had by the City two weeks ago, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the extension. The deal keeps the A’s in the Coliseum until at least 2018, and up to 2024 if the team chooses to stay there. Though the deal is characterized as a 10-year lease, the 2014 season runs concurrent with the new deal.

Supervisor Keith Carson asked the most pointed questions of JPA negotiator Jon Streeter, mostly about the debt and the characterization of the new lease as a better deal for the County (and City) than previous leases. Streeter noted that the more money comes in upfront, plus the A’s have to pay off the lease even if they leave the Coliseum early. Miley noted that the original A’s escape provision calls for no payoff if the team pursued a new ballpark elsewhere in Alameda County. The language was changed to Oakland only, meaning the A’s would pay full termination even if they made a stadium deal in Fremont or even San Leandro. Streeter also repeated the notion that the upcoming scoreboard project, which the A’s are paying for, means that the JPA no longer has a potentially big liability item to worry about, since the JPA has been to date responsible for the outdated, frequently failing scoreboard.

To recap the major deal points:

  • A’s stay until at least 2018, up to 2024. A’s must give at least 2 calendar years’ notice if they plan to leave early.
  • The JPA must also give the A’s 2 years’ notice if a Raiders stadium deal comes to fruition and forces the A’s to vacate.
  • Lease payments are $1.75 for this year, $1.5 MM in 2015, $1.5 MM in 2016-19, and $1.25 from 2020-24.
  • A’s will spend at least $10 million on new scoreboard system. A’s retain all revenue from A’s games, Raiders/JPA can split non-A’s game revenue as they see fit.
  • JPA sets aside $1 million per year (increasing 5% annually) to establish a stadium maintenance fund (presumably for fixing plumbing, leaks, etc.)
  • JPA will pay $200,000/year for the O.co signage caps above the scoreboards. A’s may end up replacing those caps as part of the scoreboard project.
  • A’s and JPA will continue stadium discussions on land at or adjacent to the Coliseum (nowhere else like Howard Terminal).
  • The parking arbitration matter is resolved, all claims dismissed.

The JPA and County clarified that there is $191.4 million in outstanding debt at the Coliseum complex: $106.5 million for the stadium, $84.9 for the Arena. Bonds will be retired in 2025 and 2026, respectively.

Next up is MLB’s expected approval of the lease, and the City of Oakland’s next steps in negotiating with the Raiders and BayIG over Coliseum City.

A’s approve City-revised lease, await County vote

No drama this week. The A’s approved the last-minute changes the City of Oakland made to the lease agreement. When Alameda County approves next week, everyone should be square. The A’s put out a press release, in short:

The Oakland A’s have come to an agreement with the JPA on all outstanding points regarding a new 10-year lease at the Coliseum. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors, are scheduled to vote on the lease July 29.

We appreciate the cooperation and efforts of Oakland city officials in this process and are optimistic that our negotiations have led to a fair and mutually-beneficial relationship. Most of all, we are happy for our great fans who, pending the county’s vote, will know that the Oakland Athletics will continue to play its games at O.co Coliseum.

More coverage is available from SFGate and BANG.

With the lease issue very close to resolution, the NFL is once again talking about a football team in LA – at perhaps a league-owned stadium, no less. Curious timing to say the least.

Still, there will be those who keep saying to never trust Lew Wolff, don’t give in, etc. I’ll just leave this snippet from another East Bay legend here:

If I speak at one constant volume
At one constant pitch
At one constant rhythm
Right into your ear
You still won’t hear