For the past half-decade, Oakland A's co-owner Lew Wolff has tried desperately to move his team to San Jose and has made it clear that he has no intention of keeping the A's in Oakland. He's been stymied, however, by Major League Baseball, which has refused to green-light the proposed move. And then late last week, a federal judge sided with the league and delivered yet another devastating blow to Wolff's plans. As such, it's time for Wolff to finally realize what has been obvious for some time now: The team is never going to San Jose, and he and his partners should put the A's on the market and sell the ballclub to investors who are willing to keep it in Oakland.
The ruling last Friday by US District Court Judge Ronald Whyte was effectively the final nail in the coffin for Wolff's San Jose plans. Whyte's decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the City of San Jose against Major League Baseball (MLB). In the suit, the city asked the court to take away the league's power to decide whether Wolff can move the A's to San Jose or not.
Congress and the US Supreme Court granted the league that power in 1922. Baseball, as a result, has what's known as an "anti-trust exemption" — that is, the league has the legal right to operate as a monopoly. And in the case of the A's, it has exercised its monopolistic powers to effectively block Wolff's plans to move the team. From the league's perspective, the A's can't relocate to San Jose because MLB already awarded the territorial rights to the South Bay to the San Francisco Giants.
Not surprisingly, Judge Whyte ruled against the City of San Jose, noting that, even though he disagrees with the anti-trust exemption awarded to MLB, he does not have the power to overturn US Supreme Court precedent. Consequently, Whyte dismissed nearly every aspect of San Jose's suit against the league, including the quixotic challenge against its anti-trust exemption. "Ninety-nine percent of this case is gone," MLB lawyer John Keker explained to the San Jose Mercury News.
Yet despite the crushing defeat, San Jose officials attempted to put a positive spin on Whyte's ruling, pointing out that he had allowed a tiny sliver of the city's lawsuit to remain alive. Philip Gregory, one of the private attorneys handling the case for the city, even went so far as to call the ruling "excellent." The Mercury News, which effectively runs the Oakland Tribune and has openly advocated for the A's to leave Oakland, bolstered the spin by labeling the judge's ruling a "split decision" — even though Whyte dismissed nearly all of the city's claims.
The only aspect of the case that's still alive involves a $25,000 payment that Wolff recently made to the City of San Jose. The payment gives Wolff the option to buy public land for a new ballpark. Judge Whyte ruled that MLB's decision to block the A's' move to San Jose might have "interfered" with the city and the team's contract involving the land. As a result, the city can seek monetary damages from the league, but cannot force MLB to let the A's relocate. There also is no guarantee that the city will win this aspect of the case and, even if it does, the damages may turn out to be negligible.
The one glimmer of hope that San Jose has is that the court, as part of the contract dispute, will allow its attorneys to question MLB officials under oath about the league's behind-the-scenes discussions involving the A's' proposed move. The city then hopes that the league will not want to reveal the secrets of its inner workings, and so will settle the suit and allow the team to relocate to San Jose after all. But that's a lot of ifs and a lot of hopes. Keker said he was confident that the case is going nowhere. And even Joe Cotchett, the lead attorney for San Jose, was displeased with Whyte's ruling, calling it "hard to believe."
In short, it's time for Wolff to put aside his dreams of moving the team to San Jose. In all likelihood, they aren't going to come true. And, in hindsight, they never really stood a chance, considering the fact that the San Jose market belongs to the Giants under MLB rules.
Of course, the smart thing for Wolff would be to start negotiating with the City of Oakland over its two ballpark-site proposals: Coliseum City and the Howard Terminal near Jack London Square. A privately financed facility — much like what Wolff planned for San Jose — would work on either site, although MLB is said to prefer the Howard Terminal because of its proximity to the waterfront.
Moreover, A's General Manager Billy Beane has repeatedly proven over the years that the team can thrive in blue-collar Oakland and doesn't need the financial backing of Silicon Valley to succeed. The A's won their division and made the playoffs again this year, before losing late last week to the Detroit Tigers in the fifth and deciding game of their series. During the past several decades, the A's — gritty, hardworking, and underappreciated — also have come to exemplify their host city in ways that few professional sports teams ever do.
Nonetheless, Wolff appears to have given up completely on Oakland. And so with no place to move, it might make more sense for him to put the team up for sale. After all, investor interest in Oakland appears to be strong right now. Earlier this year, Mayor Jean Quan announced that Chinese investors had decided to bankroll a $1.5 billion housing development along the waterfront. And recently, a well-heeled investment team revealed that it was interested in financing Coliseum City.
In this climate, Wolff could very well find willing buyers for the team — new owners who will want to keep the A's in Oakland, where they belong.