Clock is ticking: Oakland A's have an expiring lease and no deal for a new stadium
After 43 years, the Athletics say Oakland represents the past and the future lies in San Jose. The San Francisco Giants believe San Jose belongs to them. For more than two years, Bud Selig has not made a decision, but the clock is ticking on a team that has nowhere to go.
NEAR THE END OF LAST SUMMER, Carl Guardino, the 49-year-old president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, sent a letter to baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Guardino is from San Jose, born and raised, attended the now-defunct Blackford High School and then stayed home for college at San Jose State University. As a kid, he watched the old minor league San Jose Missions. As a man he remembers his blue-collar childhood: packing picnic baskets of tuna sandwiches in the family's wood-paneled station wagon in the late 1960s and early '70s to drive to Candlestick Park to watch the San Francisco Giants.
Guardino approached Selig not as a fan but as an advocate of the third-largest city in California (behind Los Angeles and San Diego) and the 10th-largest city in the nation to make an argument: his San Jose, long ago a dusty San Francisco outpost, now had been grown up for 20 years -- the city of nearly a million people and the heart of the technology revolution ready to support a major league team bearing its name. His appeal contained personal passion but more importantly real financial muscle: seventy-five of Silicon Valley's top CEOs, representing more than a trillion dollars of corporate and personal wealth, signed Guardino's letter as a show of force of commitment to use their combined power to lure the beleaguered Oakland A's to San Jose.
Signed by the heads of some of Silicon Valley's most powerful and recognizable technology companies -- Cisco, Adobe, Yahoo! and eBay, among others -- the letter was intended to stoke the tantalizing prospects of more baseball growth: luxury suites, a new 34,000-seat baseball stadium and an exciting and healthy new start for the A's.
The letter went out Sept. 8, 2010, but Guardino's return mailbox has been empty ever since.
"It's been nearly a year with no response from the commissioner," Guardino said of his letter to Selig. "We followed up with email, and nothing, not even a courtesy response. We'll send it FedEx next time.
"What did it tell me?" he added. "It told me it must be nice to run a monopoly."
THAT MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL has prevented the Oakland A's from moving 35 miles to the south to a potentially more prosperous future provides a rare glimpse of the country-club politics of a monopoly more than a century old and to a certain extent of the unintended price for some of its beneficiaries. Outside of stating that the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is unfit for the long-term future of the club, Selig has never ruled definitively on whether he would allow the Athletics to pursue relocating to San Jose, nor has he ever expressed unequivocal support for their existence or a concrete plan for the future of a team that has been part of the American League since 1901.
For 13 years, the A's have wanted to move to Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, the city of San Jose and some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. And for each of those years the Giants -- because of a loose, gentlemen's agreement between the two teams 20 years ago allowing the Giants rights to the territory for a ballpark that was never built -- have maintained that Major League rules prohibit any major league club from moving into their territory.
The ultimate decision of whether the A's will be allowed to move to San Jose belongs to Bud Selig alone, but pressure has created a four-way, high-stakes game of chicken between Selig and the A's, the A's and the Giants, Selig and San Jose and Wolff and Oakland. The one absolute to the convolution is that the Oakland A's are cornered -- to the south by Selig and in Oakland by the combination of Wolff's conviction that no workable site exists in the city and an expiring lease in a stadium that is unlikely to be renewed while Wolff intimates that he wants to leave town.
We based much of our entire business strategy on Santa Clara County being a piece of our territory, and I don't think it is overstating it to say that allowing another franchise into our territory would set a dangerous precedent and have a traumatic effect on this franchise.” -- Giants president Larry Baer
Being blocked from San Jose, baseball and government sources say, could produce more radical scenarios for the A's, from Wolff being forced to stay in Oakland and reconcile with city officials, to Wolff either moving or selling the team to a new ownership group who would then scour the country for the few remaining markets that might be large enough to support a major league franchise, to the most radical possibility: Wolff selling the team to Major League Baseball, which would in turn install new owners and attempt to secure a new stadium and a new start in Oakland.
There is another possibility, the contraction of the franchise. Selig has once threatened the A's as a team he would dissolve, but baseball sources have said folding the A's was "just talk, probably for leverage purposes," and that the Major League Baseball Players Association would "never" agree to allow 40 big league roster jobs to be lost.
Also perilous for the A's isn't what Selig says, but what he has done. In an interview with ESPN.com, Selig said "no conclusions" have been made regarding the future of the franchise, but civic boosters in San Jose view his indecision as perilous. Selig has twice refused to give San Jose the go-ahead for a measure critical to stadium construction to be placed on an election ballot for voters to decide, and has not yet explained why the territorial rules -- equitable in each of the other three two-team markets -- favor the Giants in the Bay Area.
"What is the alternative for this franchise if baseball does not allow us to move to San Jose?" A's president Mike Crowley said. "I don't know. I don't know that we have any options. I don't think it can work here in Alameda County."
Time, in other words, is running out on the team that has nowhere to go.
ALLOWING THE A'S to move the San Jose would require perhaps the boldest step Selig has taken as commissioner. Thus far, whether out of respect for the Giants or disbelief that city leadership truly has the political and voter will to put a shovel in the ground and begin the project, Selig has shown a curious reluctance either to cultivate San Jose or justify the portions of the Major League Constitution that are prohibitive to the A's.
In interviews with ESPN.com, Selig would not commit to any position beyond acknowledging the A's have no future in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the site where the A's have won four World Series titles since arriving in 1968. He declined comment on if he believes advances by the city of San Jose to lure the A's are compelling enough for him to overrule the Giants' position that Santa Clara falls within their exclusive rights. He refused to commit to Oakland as a city that can still economically support a baseball team and, perhaps most chilling of all to A's fans, Selig refused to discuss whether he even believes the San Francisco Bay Area should remain a two-team market. "The Bay Area has had two teams for 44 years, and it's always been controversial," Selig said. "I know the issues, and there are many. I've spoken extensively with both clubs and that's all I'm willing to say about it."
Selig is relying on a three-member committee he appointed in March 2009 to advise him not only on settling the key issue of territorial rights, but on assessing the key and complex issues regarding professional baseball in the Bay Area. The committee is comprised of longtime baseball executive Bob Starkey, who is currently reviewing the troubled finances of the Los Angeles Dodgers, former Giants executive Corey Busch, who worked for the Giants during 1992 when the territorial rights question was first raised, ironically, to allow the Giants to move into what was then the shared territory of Santa Clara County, and Washington attorney Irwin Raij, who was key in brokering the Washington Nationals' move from Montreal, which was the league's last franchise relocation and ballpark construction.
Some of the questions exist at a macro level, ranging from whether (to the great annoyance of city and some MLB officials) Oakland is a place where big league baseball can no longer survive, as A's ownership publicly asserts; whether the Giants' claim that the club would be "destabilized" by an A's move to San Jose is rooted more in fact or in rhetoric; and whether San Jose is the economic panacea A's ownership envisions.
Other questions the committee must face are intricate but equally important, such as: whether San Jose's proposed 34,000-seat ballpark proposal -- which would be the smallest in baseball, Fenway Park included -- is actually a workable one in practice; and whether sites within the city of Oakland still exist that provide a better alternative than San Jose.
Under normal circumstances, the committee faces a daunting and complex web of circumstances, but the emotions are especially heightened in this case. The committee has demanded total confidentiality of the process, which sources acknowledge may ease dialogue but expose the committee to the charge of favoritism or impropriety, and trapped within the inertia is a powerful, important and often angry set of players and rivals, frustrated that more than two years have passed without resolution with much at stake: the A's, the Giants, the cities of San Jose and Oakland.
And though it is the committee that has taken the most public ridicule for having taken more than two years without yet coming to a finding, it is the committee that may be the best ally for the city of Oakland to save its team. While Wolff has not met with Oakland city officials in nearly three years to discuss a stadium, it is Major League Baseball, through the committee, that through clandestine discussions and dialogue with city officials may be laying the groundwork to keep the A's in Oakland.
The Bay Area, for example, is the smallest of the four two-team markets in baseball and yet is the only one of the four that divides territorial rights specifically by county. In the other three markets -- Los Angeles, Chicago and New York -- both teams share each county of the market, allowing for the Yankees or Mets to move to Manhattan, if either team chose to.
"It's the history, plain and simple," Selig said. "It may not be a great answer, but that's the answer."
The committee, meanwhile, is attempting the delicate task of fact-finding within a torrent of moral grievance, each constituency convinced of the moral certainty of its position: The A's believe relocating to San Jose is best for baseball. A move, the team says, would energize a flagging franchise, improve team revenues and payroll and attract the high-quality free agents ownership says do not want to play in Oakland. Wolff said he has spent years studying the Oakland market to one conclusion:
"The answer is that there is just no viable package. I have not had one call in two years. I don't want to deal in hypotheticals. To play the conjecture game is just a stalling tactic," he said. "It's been three years. There is no possibility of getting it done in Oakland. Whether people believe that I've tried hard enough is a story for another day."
What is the alternative for this franchise if baseball does not allow us to move to San Jose? I don't know that we have any options.” -- A's president Mike Crowley
The Giants, newly crowned world champions, have told Selig that an A's relocation to San Jose would have a "dramatic and traumatic" effect on a franchise that believes that it is on the cusp of becoming a true financial powerhouse nearing the category of the Red Sox, Cubs and Phillies only through the risk and creativity of privately financing a stadium when few teams dared.
The business and political leadership of San Jose, a new, potentially powerful market and clearly one of the last big cities in the country with enough corporate money and population to support a baseball team, is frustrated that old, backroom rules have made it ineligible to attract a baseball team and fears that Selig -- and not the strength of the city's assets -- will by monarch's rule keep an entire city indefinitely under the umbrella of San Francisco.
Wolff, Guardino and Susan Hammer, the former mayor of San Jose who as mayor twice attempted to lure the Giants to San Jose and is now co-chair of the civic group Baseball San Jose, all believe the city has a winning ballpark initiative it can sell to voters on what they consider an exciting piece of real estate next to public transportation and the HP Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks, but are frustrated that Selig has asked patience but hasn't given his blessing to put a stadium initiative on the ballot. The fear among civic boosters is that because of his unwillingness to endorse a ballot measure, Selig is sending the indirect message that he doesn't want the Oakland A's in San Jose.
"Silicon Valley is driven by innovation and competition," Guardino said. "We are puzzled by a business model that is avoiding competition. It would be very troubling and confusing to keep this precedent that prevents competition."
Meanwhile, there is Oakland, fighting to keep a team in a city whose owners believe has passed it by. There is a growing sentiment in Oakland that despite Wolff's protestations that he has exhausted all avenues to build a stadium in Oakland, ownership is purposely sabotaging the team in a host of onerous ways, by failing to support the A's, to spend money on the big names, and especially by publicly demeaning the city as unviable, all to pursue its only true objective: to move to San Jose -- or else.
Wolff bristles at the suggestion that he is not trying to field his best team, reducing the criticism to "just a few fans." However, the concern exists both from A's fans and from rival teams that Wolff's business partner, John Fisher, is one of the richest men in the game but doesn't pay for players.
Rival clubs as well as the Players Association are also concerned that the A's received $32 million in revenue sharing last season with little obvious evidence that the money has gone back into the club payroll.
A's officials contend the problem, like Candlestick Park years ago, is the Coliseum, and say that overtures were made to free agents Adrian Beltre and Rafael Furcal, who clearly did not want to play for the team.
As an example of their ire and refusal to be manipulated by a team that wants to leave town, sources say Oakland officials are disinclined to offer the A's the chance to renew their stadium lease, which expires after the 2012 season, potentially leaving A's with no place to play.
THE OAKLAND A'S AND SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS have shared the Bay Area since 1968, when Charlie Finley relocated the Athletics to Oakland following 13 dismal years in Kansas City. Financially, neither team went hungry, but by sharing the smallest two-team market in baseball, their plates weren't ever quite full, either. Success was not exactly measured on the balance sheet, but on the playing field, where the A's held not only the lead in titles, but swept San Francisco in the 1989 World Series, marred by the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 14 of the 15 years before the Giants were purchased from Bob Lurie by the ownership led by Peter Magowan, the Athletics outdrew the Giants at the gate. San Francisco responded by attempting unsuccessfully four times to gain voter and political support for a publicly financed stadium; the last failed attempt, in Santa Clara County in 1992, convinced Lurie to move the Giants to St. Petersburg, Fla. When the Giants sought a stadium vote in Santa Clara County, the county was shared territory between the two clubs. According to legend, Walter Haas offered the Giants exclusive territorial rights to Santa Clara for the purpose of the acquiring a stadium out of respect and best interest of the game.
Haas, of course, would have also benefited in attendance from the Giants moving 40 miles to the south, or if the vote failed, away to Florida. San Francisco baseball fans uninterested in driving to the South Bay during rush hour might be inclined to drive to Oakland instead. "There's a little too much romance on that story," said a baseball source. "This wasn't done simply for altruistic reasons. There was business reasoning behind it. The A's certainly would have benefited greatly if the Giants were no longer there. The problem is that no one anticipated just what those rights would be worth much later. That's why you can't project the future in business."
"A priceless thing"
In April 2000, when the Giants began their first season at Pacific Bell Park, the dynamic between the A's and Giants changed for good. In the 11 seasons since 2000, the A's have been to the playoffs five times, the Giants four, but the financial gap between two teams has exploded. In the 11 seasons since the Giants left Candlestick Park, they have drawn at least 3 million fans nine times. Their lowest attendance was in 2009, when they drew 2.8 million fans.
During those same 11 seasons, the A's have never drawn more than 2.2 million and have drawn fewer than 2 million six times, including the past five consecutive seasons.
If there's a viable option in Oakland, then show it to us. Where are the details? We think the one viable site is in downtown San Jose, and if baseball approved us and we couldn't get that site, then San Jose wouldn't be viable, either.” -- A's owner Lew Wolff
While the antidote, Wolff believed, was San Jose, the Giants impressed upon Selig page 205 of the Major League Constitution, attachment 52, where territorial rights are spelled out by county: San Francisco: City of San Francisco; and San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Marin Counties in California; provided, however, that with respect to all Major League Clubs, Santa Clara County in California shall also be included.
As the San Jose corporate community mobilized, members of the A's front office believed they were in a strong position. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group pledged to the Giants that its corporate membership would maintain its current level of support in terms of marketing, luxury suites and signage with the Giants even in the event of an A's relocation.
The A's also pointed to other recent transactions within the sport. Six years ago, Major League Baseball relocated the Montreal Expos to Washington to become the Nationals. The Nationals moved 30 miles south of Baltimore, home of the Orioles.
"I don't really think the comp with the Nationals is even a very good one," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "The reason is we're already here. We're not moving into someone else's market. We've been here since 1968."
Yet league sources said two important differences exist between the two situations. The first is that the baseball constitution stipulated that Washington, D.C., though as close or closer to Baltimore as San Jose is to San Francisco, was never considered part of the Orioles' territorial rights. The second, more important piece is that the Orioles' owner, Peter Angelos, was willing to be compensated for potential losses in revenue by the presence of the Nationals. The Giants, meanwhile, have clearly stated to Selig that territorial rights to the South Bay are non-negotiable, a position Giants president Larry Baer confirmed during a recent A's-Giants interleague game.
"That information is 1,000 percent correct," Baer said. "Once you begin talking about negotiating a dollar figure, the horse is already out of the barn. The South Bay was a core piece of our business model when we bought this team. We based much of our entire business strategy on Santa Clara County being a piece of our territory, and I don't think it is overstating it to say that allowing another franchise into our territory would set a dangerous precedent and have a traumatic effect on this franchise.
"If we were to go down to 2.5 million [in attendance], we'd be in the [expletive]," Baer said. "This franchise would be completely destabilized. So, for me, the question is this: Is baseball willing to have two teams receiving money from the revenue-sharing pool or one that is so financially healthy that it paid $30 million into it?
"You see," Baer said. "It's a priceless thing."
Said Crowley: "I don't doubt he's saying these things, I just doubt he can support them. If I were Larry, I'd be saying the same thing, too. If they got rid of us, they'd have the largest one-team market in baseball. That's his grand slam."
IN OAKLAND, A CULTURE OF BENIGN DISTRUST exists between the city and Wolff that during difficult moments can drift toward hostility. Both sides claim grievance, and the result is a total collapse of dialogue. The A's have never quite been cultivated by the city leadership and the leadership is now convinced Wolff wants out of Oakland.
Before he purchased the team, Wolff studied possible stadium locations in Oakland as a consultant for previous team owners Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann and found the political will to build a park lacking. In 2006, as owner Wolff commissioned baseball's architectural firm, HOK, to analyze six sites; the most promising site, called the Uptown site, was dissolved when then-mayor Jerry Brown allocated the land for low-income housing. Subsequently, Wolff says he spent $30 million of his own money to pursue a ballpark on the Fremont site that ultimately was unsuccessful.
"To me, spending $30 million out of pocket was proof that we meant business," he said. "We weren't fooling around."
In interviews with ESPN.com, Wolff appeared less angry than resigned when it comes to the criticism that he is intentionally burying his own product for the purpose of escaping Oakland.
"We bought the team with the intention of building a ballpark in Oakland," Wolff said. "All I've said was that we've explored everything we can. I'm willing to sit down with anyone and do a viable baseball-only ballpark in Oakland. If you go through the record, you'll never see me criticize any political person in Oakland. They give up their time for issues more important than baseball. I've been dealing with cities all my life. I'm not out to hurt cities, just the opposite.
"But the important word here is 'viable.' If there's a viable option in Oakland, then show it to us. Where are the details? We think the one viable site is in downtown San Jose, and if baseball approved us and we couldn't get that site, then San Jose wouldn't be viable, either. We only see one site in the market where a new stadium could work."
Sources say that while Wolff balks at Oakland's prospect, the committee is intrigued by Victory Court, a site near Laney College, the Oakland junior college.
Wolff said the Victory Court site was unmanageable, adding: "I don't want to hear only about ideas. I want to see plans. It's the details nobody seems to care about."
Instead of Wolff having a seat at the table, several sources say government and civic officials are reluctant to discuss plans with Wolff for fear he would attempt to undermine any new site.
"Why would anyone associated with Oakland share any information regarding the plan to locate, approve and construct a baseball-only ballpark in Oakland with Mr. Wolff?" asked Doug Boxer, a civic booster deeply involved with efforts to keep the A's in Oakland. "Since he announced he had no intention to pursue a ballpark in Oakland over three years ago, he has had nothing positive to say about the city that his team plays in. In fact, he has shown outright disdain for the city and the A's fan base in Oakland including in 2009 taking his team's holiday tour to almost every city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Further, any plans shared with Mr. Wolff would be either summarily dismissed or flayed publicly by him with little or no review or diligence. Every A's fan is clear as to where Mr. Wolff would like his team to play -- and it isn't in Oakland."
IN SAN JOSE, MICHAEL MULCAHY, the co-chair with Susan Hammer of the civic group Baseball San Jose, watches a YouTube trailer of "Moneyball," the film project of the best-selling book that transformed the perception of Billy Beane from a general manager to a revolutionary thinker and grows energetic about the possibility of an A's relocation. It provides a temporary boost during what is beginning to feel like a futile battle. Selig may disclose little in terms of words and cautions that the committee has not completed its findings, but like Carl Guardino, Mulcahy's moods are also based on Selig's actions.
"Unfortunately, the more time that goes by the less optimistic you can be. I'm in real estate, and time is what usually kills a deal," he said. "This is not just about baseball. It's about building a great city and a city that is looked down upon and missed a lot of opportunities for being the 10th-largest city, and being the capital of Silicon Valley. We have complied with everything MLB has asked for. On two earlier occasions we were ready for a vote and we were asked by commissioner Selig to hold off, so we did.
"People are just waiting for the answer and it's hard to be proactive when you're just waiting," he said. "When we realized we wouldn't be on the spring ballot we started to point toward the fall, and now that time is coming up. To get a ballot measure on a November ballot without a special election, you have to have the language ready and procedures complete by August, September at the latest. To be honest, you really have to have it right now. If you go it alone for a special election, it is expensive, probably around $2 million to $4 million."
In the meantime, like Michael Mulcahy, Lew Wolff waits for his old fraternity mate Selig to render his judgment, each day simultaneously pushing a potential new stadium project back months and maybe years, each day without a decision pushing the A's back to the dreary limbo of the Coliseum, a place they don't want and by next year may not want them. Wolff has said even if Selig were to rule in his favor today, the San Jose ballpark wouldn't be ready for another five years. "I'm not getting any younger, and neither are my baseball people," he said. "If we're to get this done, now is the time."
According to one baseball source, the committee does not intend to present Selig with a spiral-bound report. Other sources say the committee may not even make formal recommendations to Selig, making it difficult to gauge when its work will be complete. Though the clock is ticking on the A's, sources also say the committee has not expressed any time pressure to present Selig of its findings.
"That's very true," Wolff said. "The pressure isn't on them. It's on me."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.