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:
- Oakland’s standing as a major league host city
- How much power the Commissioner has over teams and whether he should wield that power
- 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.