Winter/Spring 2009 Progress Report

It’s a “quiet period,” so you know what that means. It’s time for the seasonal ballpark progress report.

First up, the home team. All of the indicators have been reset back to zero, with the exception of funding. Cisco’s continued pledge to provide naming rights for a new ballpark in the Bay Area is the one factor here. One thing we don’t know is whether the substance of the naming rights agreement will change as the site changes from Fremont to somewhere else. The deal between the A’s and Cisco included a real estate component, and while Lew Wolff maintains interest in the Fremont land for future development, that component may be worth less than when the deal was originally struck.

San Jose is just getting started on much of the political stuff. Yes, the initial EIR is done, but I won’t nudge the Political Process indicator over until an updated EIR is certified. In addition, Site Acquisition won’t be moved until both the A’s and the City come to terms on the Diridon South site or an alternative.

Note: Good reading can be found in articles by Glenn Dickey and former NY Times baseball writer Murray Chass.

A crucial vote by the Miami city commission is scheduled for tomorrow. The last vote was deadlocked, as one of the commissioners was on maternity leave and the other four could not come to an agreement on certain financial terms and last minute requests. In the last week there’s been talk of a bill to make all publicly funded venues subject to a referendum. There’s also been a deal to guarantee a percentage of construction contracts to black contractors that was completed then rescinded. Last month’s drama-filled session was no snoozefest, so tomorrow’s vote might force me to stream it alongside tourney coverage. This vote won’t be the end of the line, though, as Miami-Dade County has its own commission that needs to vote on the deal next week. Update 3/19 11:30 AM: Miami City Commission has passed the ballpark plan 3-2, after a mountain of discussion large enough to kill my tourney buzz.

I’ve added Tampa Bay to the report, as they’ve been stepping up their efforts to leave Tropicana Field sooner than later. The plan proposed last year, which would have converted tiny Al Lang Field into a major league facility in downtown St. Pete, was scrapped in favor of something less polarizing. Now they are looking north along the I-275 corridor for vacant land, ancillary development, and better access to fans in Tampa. The Rays, like the A’s, have a long way to go. Unlike the A’s, the Rays’ lease at the Trop runs through the 2027 season.

Heavy lifting for the Twins has been already been done. They’ve gotten through a contentious battle over public financing (sales tax hike without a referendum), and everything is essentially built. The only remaining issue is a reconfiguration of the garbage burning facility across the street, to keep the stench that wafts over when the doors open from violating the sensitivities and appetites of fans who might want a hot dog or nachos.

Talk of Citigroup pulling back on its 20 year, $400 million naming rights deal with the Mets has died down as the feds have focused more on the budget and now, AIG. It could come up again in the future. Other than that, they’re good to go.

The pinstripers got a $105 million loan to cover the remaining construction costs at the new palace of opulence in the Bronx. Area residents are still waiting for NY to complete the public parks that were promised.

Another edition will come in May, as the San Jose thing starts to shake out.

I smell a soap opera coming

Update 3/17 8:30 AM: Chip Johnson rips both City of Oakland and Wolff, suggests keeping team colors and history in Oakland.

Update 3/16 10:30 PM: Wolff apologizes, acknowledges season ticket sales are down.

Or rather, the soap opera’s already here. Between the gamesmanship displayed by two somewhat grumpy old men over the weekend and reporters trying to figure out what the state of territorial rights is, there is no shortage of drama. That’s great for the blog as it gives me something to write about, but frankly it’s getting a bit tiresome. Not the blog, it’s the writing about the drama that’s tiresome. So you’ll have to forgive me if for the rest of the blog’s indeterminate life, I don’t write about every minor trial and tribulation. There will be major events and major issues to discuss. The stuff that happened the last few days? It doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Take Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. Some here and in the media have baselessly speculated about Lew Wolff’s future as A’s managing partner. What’s more likely is that in 18 months, Dellums will be gearing up to get out of Dodge. 6 weeks ago, Dellums’ approval rating hovered at a W-like 25%, with a 60% disapproval rate. That’s probably eked up a bit thanks to recent news about lower crime rates, but he can’t get rid of the stink from his first 18 months on the job that easily. Dellums hasn’t said anything about running for a second term, and it would appear that a bag of rocks could defeat him at this point. It’s more likely that the usual council suspects (IDLF, Nadel, Brunner) will be climbing over each other for the brass ring.

Just 3 months before Dellums leaves office, the A’s current lease will expire, and the team will be on a year-to-year lease through 2013. Wolff’s statement that Oakland was done effectively removes Dellums and the City Council from the process thanks to its timing. It’s callous, conniving, and quite final. In 2005, Wolff put out the Coliseum North plan, set his own clock to complete the deal, and ran out the clock before moving on to Fremont. The next two years will be spent running out the clock again. He managed to get a nice piece of insurance in the year-to-year lease extension, in case of a rainy day (or several hundred). Wolff has no reason to leave his perch when he can turn the corner in 2 years while setting his sights on his ultimate goal. If Wolff failed in his next endeavor and was forced to go back to Oakland, it’s likely that neither he nor Dellums would be around to make the deal. It would be up to their successors to repair the relationship.

Going back to T-rights, the Chronicle’s Giants beat writer Henry Schulman asked Larry Baer, who said “From what we could tell, there is no change in (Selig’s) position.” That’s exactly how I expect it to be for some time to come. That’s why Wolff asked San Jose pols to tone down their enthusiasm. If he had not intervened, at some point someone was going to ask MLB directly about T-rights, and whether they asked nicely or aggressively, it wasn’t going to curry favor with the Lodge. T-rights, whether stadium or broadcast, is MLB’s leverage over any city or market. There’s no point in asking unless you come to them unless you’re ready to talk turkey. San Jose is in no position to do that yet.

Threats from legislators about removing the antitrust exemption would be misplaced. The exemption, which allows MLB to wield its iron fist over franchise movement, has kept the team in Oakland. If it didn’t exist, the A’s might already be somewhere else. If it were removed, San Jose would have no restrictions against teams moving there, and that would make Wolff’s job easier. I’d love to see the exemption killed, but only because of the right motivations and principles, not something as misguided as what Dellums is considering.

It’s going to be a long slog for any ballpark effort for the next 1-2 years. Let’s not get distracted by the small stuff.

Dellums: I’m going to Congress

Update: Matier and Ross speculate further.

I do believe Ron Dellums just said, “IT’S ON.” We’ll see if he’s going to bring it.

Oakland’s mayor indicated that he will seek congressional help in an effort to keep the A’s in town. Immediately, that means Barbara Lee, Dellums’ protege and successor in the House of Representatives. What strategies could Dellums/Lee have at their disposal? Let’s take a look:

  • A challenge to the antitrust exemption. Not sure how that would actually help Oakland, as MLB’s use of the exemption is actually keeping Lew Wolff from moving to San Jose. Long term, it could help bring a third team to the Bay Area whether it’s in San Jose or Oakland, but MLB would still have to be a willing partner in such an endeavor. A move like this would also be incredibly expensive and it’s unclear where the money for a legal challenge would come from.
  • Suing the A’s. I’m not a legal expert and I don’t know the details of the lease, but I could see where Oakland could consider taking legal action against the team for misrepresenting their intentions when the last extension was signed. Problem is, I think this was already covered by the lease terms containing a penalty if the A’s were to leave the Coliseum early for a new home outside Alameda County.
  • Dellums/Lee create a coalition to broker a regional deal. A city-led effort of the kind mentioned in Thursday’s letter sounds good, but in the end Oakland still needs to leverage greater regional resources and business interests to put together something that Wolff might be interested in. We’ll see if that’s what happens, and more importantly, if Wolff has interest.

So much for a quiet period. Readers, do you have any ideas?

KJ wants the A’s

Last night, the office of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson released a statement confirming KJ’s interest in bringing the A’s to Sactown. The catch? He’s serious only if the A’s are too:

“Sacramento will only pursue a team like the A’s if the A’s are serious and not looking to negotiate one community off of another and we can develop a stadium facility that will represent a true economic benefit to Sacramento,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he would be making clear “the process and principles that we will adhere to when it comes to considering a Major League Baseball team” in the coming weeks.

Now we don’t know what KJ’s strategy is. Is he looking at an expanded Raley Field, which is not in Sacramento? Or is he hitching his wagon to a ballpark at Cal Expo to replace the arena if the Kings bolt? The latter sounds like a more palatable scenario for Lew Wolff and John Fisher.

The “process and principles” aspect piques my interest. It’s one thing when you’re San Jose and you don’t have to contend with another team’s interest in finite resources. It’s another when the Kings and A’s would most definitely compete with each other for political will, funding, etc. Would discussions start only after the Kings decided to leave? How long would that take?

Mayor KJ also touts his city’s positives

“A team in Sacramento would represent a home run for Major League Baseball,” Johnson said, though he really shouldn’t have. “Because Sacramento is a great sports town with a strong market in terms of fan interest, corporate support and the size of our media market.”

…while conveniently excluding any mention of the financial and social calamity that is growing under his nose – and in between downtown and Cal Expo to boot.

Now that’s an attractive adjacent neighborhood for developers. At least KJ got the fan interest part right. Corporate support and media market? Not so much.

Sorry Oakland, not interested

I take the dog for a long walk on a day off and something big happens. Go figure.

Credit to those who felt yesterday’s letter from Oakland was a thinly veiled piece of CYA – that’s exactly what it will end up being. I certainly didn’t expect a response this quickly, but it happened and it was forceful. Any hope of retaining the team in the city that has been home for 40 years is all but lost. It’s lame duck time.

You’d have to be in denial – or at least Ray Ratto – not to see what the next step is when reading the following paragraph from today’s official press release from Lew Wolff:

We understand the facility continues to cost the city of Oakland and Alameda County millions of lost dollars per year. Sadly, the business and corporate base of the city of Oakland was very limited when we purchased the team and has eroded since. Our attendance and low number of season ticket holders (both one of the lowest in Major league Baseball) also continues to decline; even when our on-field performance produced play-off participation.

It’s all about San Jose, which amazingly, Ratto does not mention in his blog post. It’s about corporate dollars, suites and minisuites, club seats and advertising and sponsorships. It’s about the demise of the classic, egalitarian form of fandom.

To make things completely cold and brutal, Wolff says this:

We recognize conditions have not changed. Letters to Major league Baseball offer nothing new or of any real substance. Outside stimulation to have us continue to play in an aging and shared facility may generate press and “sound-bite” opportunities, but do not provide any tangible alterations in the circumstances we face.

In other words, “Don’t go over my head. I’m still the man here.” Wolff goes on to thank Mayor Dellums and East Bay developer Sherman Balch, plus County Supes Gail Steele and Scott Haggerty, both of whom supported the Fremont plan. Not thanked are the other signatory to yesterday’s letter, Jane Brunner, or previous Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. Hmmm, if I were Oakland I wouldn’t expect much of a reply from the commish anytime soon.

I look forward to all of the namecalling that will commence shortly.

Oakland reaches out to Selig

I have to say that I’ve found Oakland’s letter to Bud Selig the most fascinating news of the week.
In it, Mayor Ron Dellums and Council President Jane Brunner implore Commissioner Bud Selig to appoint a point person to work with the City. They cite Oakland’s great history of support for the A’s. The letter evens ends with a request to renew urban America:

In these troubling times when everyone is putting their shoulder to the common wheel and President Barack Obama has called on all of us to put the public’s interest first, I believe a professional sports league like MLB has an obligation to do the right thing and stand by a city and its people who have historically stood alongside baseball.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s well phrased. Neither Oakland nor San Jose need baseball to be relevant or vital. Both want it to either maintain or raise their profiles (as did Fremont, or at least its pols).

The more interesting bit is on the first page:

For our efforts to succeed, though, we will need a commitment from MLB and the A’s that they will work earnestly with us to design a ballpark plan that will be good for Oakland, good for the team, and good for baseball.

We are naming an A’s Stadium Committee comprised of some of Oakland’s leading civic leaders who will be tasked by the City to work hand-in-hand with you, the Fisher Family and Mr. Lew Wolff to develop a stadium in Oakland.

In particular, we graciously request that you name a point person from the Commissioner’s Office who will work with the city to develop a ballpark strategy that will keep the A’s in Oakland.

Those three paragraphs tell us everything we need to know about how Oakland wants to proceed. They want a commitment from MLB and they want to work directly with MLB. That tells me they’re going over Lew Wolff’s head. They even mention the Fishers, even though John Fisher has generally receded into the background.

Is this really the way they want to do this? Has the relationship with Lew deteriorated to the point of asking him not to be the lead negotiator? I understand how the Miami situation came about, as Jeff Loria and David Samson kept making demands of Miami and Dade County while entertaining an exodus. The end result was that Bob DuPuy came in, told them to stand in the corner, and brokered the deal, which also appears to be on the precipice thanks to hotel tax revenue shortfalls.

I would think that the best way to write a formal letter like this to Wolff. Next, on Opening Day, make a full court press on Wolff and the Fishers. If they don’t respond, then you make a plea to Selig. No city is going to put up money for a ballpark these days. If you’re aiming to have the A’s invest in the community $500 million in a ballpark and possibly hundreds of millions more for ancillary development that your city wants, then sell them on it, don’t try to guilt them into it. There’s no rush to make a deal at the present and certainly no need to go over people’s heads at this point.

Wow, just wow.

Mark it down: April 7th

San José’s Rules Committee just passed a motion to have the A’s on the April 7 Council meeting agenda. The timing, as pointed out here and by Michael Mulcahy just a few minutes ago, coincides with the start of the regular season. The preliminary steps will look like this:

The Agenda language for a joint City and Redevelopment Agency item should read as follows:
1. Discuss actions that San José can take to prepare for the possibility that Major League Baseball (MLB) makes a decision allowing the Athletics (A’s) to consider relocating to San José.
2. Direct staff to prepare and return to Council with a Resolution indicating the desire of the City of San José to support the A’s if MLB favors a relocation of the A’s to San José; and, indicating that the City is willing to accommodate the A’s on the site at Park Avenue and Autumn/Montgomery Streets.
3. Direct a team of City and Redevelopment Agency staff to assess what steps may need to be taken to prepare the site at Park Avenue and Autumn/Montgomery Streets for potential consideration, and develop an outreach program to neighboring residents and businesses.
4. Direct staff to provide a status report and recommendations for additional actions that may need Council authorization to the Community and Economic Development Committee within two months of the April 7th Council hearing followed by a discussion at the City Council.

So there’s your site and your initial timetable, including a report from CEDC due within two months of the 4/7 session.

The possibility of a public poll has been raised to gauge interest. Vice Mayor Judy Chirco wants no part in the City paying for such a poll, saying that it would be funded with OPM (other people’s money). It appears that the poll would be well within the scope of the A’s to San Jose Study Group’s mission. Mulcahy mentioned that the group has already raised money, though he did not say which specific activities the money would be used for.

I wonder if the Study Group would also fund an economic impact report of the type Mark Purdy wanted last week. After all, outside of MLB, the Study Group would be well equipped as it has access to dozens, if not hundreds, of Valley business leaders. Plus, noted sports economist Roger Noll is up the street at Stanford for consulting purposes – though they may not eventually like what he has to say.

Mayor Chuck Reed, who gave San Jose a better than 50/50 chance to land the A’s (I really hate enumerating odds in this manner) re-emphasized the one voice mantra he’s been giving, going so far as to say this about territorial rights:

It’s up to Mr. Wolff because it’s truly a case of “inside baseball.” It requires him to take the lead. There may be a role for us to play. He’ll happily let us know if there is.

Several speakers were on hand. Most were positive, saying that they fully support the effort as long as no public money is involved. One speaker felt a better deal could be had at the Fairgrounds. Two members of the Shasta/Hanchett neighborhood voiced their disapproval and trepidation, especially when considering the combined effects from construction of a ballpark, underground BART, and overhead HSR. A member of the San José Downtown Residents Association spoke in support of the ballpark. So we may have the Shasta/Hanchett folks on side and the Downtown Residents on the other.

I believe the quiet period starts now at lasts through Opening Day. I’ll have posts every few days, probably nothing major.