Friday, May 18, 2012

Time for Wolff, A's to get belligerent

-- by Josh Suchon

Lewis Wolff is a patient man, a calm man, a reasonable man. It’s not in his nature to make a scene or start a fight. But there comes a certain point in your life when you’re mad as hell, and you just can’t take the waiting any longer.

It’s time for Wolff, the managing partner of the Oakland Athletics, to channel his inner Howard Beale.

It’s time for Wolff to walk around the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum – the real name – when it’s quiet and empty, and all you can hear are the ghosts of championships past, and ask himself, “what would Al Davis do?”

You think Al Davis would wait over three years for the Commissioner of his sport to make a ruling on where his team can call home? You think George Steinbrenner would take matters into his own hands? You think Frank McCourt wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to take this situation into court?

When the Athletics and Giants open a three-game series tonight, it will be an astonishing 1,160 days since baseball commissioner Bud Selig appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study the prospect of the A’s moving to San Jose. The A’s are blocked from moving, right now, because the Giants own the territorial rights to that area.

I’ve intentionally used the phrase “blue ribbon” because I’m trying to make Wolff sick, and this is what Wolff said about the blue-ribbon committee in February.
If one more person calls it a blue-ribbon committee, I’m gonna throw up. It’s a committee. It’s not a blue-ribbon committee. The gentlemen on the committee are good guys but they are doing the bidding of the commissioner. Baseball’s gone from a $1 or $2 billion industry under Bud Selig to $7 or $8 billion. He’s a deliberative person. But that deliberation, when you view the balance sheet – he’s done such a fabulous job. We’re following the process. It’s excruciating. But I think we’re getting there. We have ways of being a belligerent owner. It’s just not in me to do that.

What would it take for Wolff to become a belligerent owner? When will it be in him to do that? Another month of waiting? Another baseball season? Another year? Two more years?

Territorial rights serve an important purpose. It prevents a sports team from packing its bags and moving across the street from another team. That’s why the San Diego Padres can’t move across the street from the St. Louis Cardinals, or why the Tampa Bay Rays can’t move across the street from the Boston Red Sox, without 75 percent approval of the sport’s owners.

Problem is, there’s massive inconsistency to how these territorial rights are divided, decided, awarded, transferred, and enforced.

The Bay Area is one of four two-team markets in baseball, along with Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The other three do not have boundaries. The Bay Area does.

As we incredulously learned recently, there’s nothing stopping the Angels from moving from their current home in Anaheim, 31 miles south of Dodger Stadium, to a downtown Los Angeles location that would be four miles from Dodger Stadium.

The point isn’t if the Angels will make this move. The point is, they could. As Bill Shaikin reported:  
The Dodgers could not challenge an Angels move to Los Angeles, at least not in the way the San Francisco Giants are blocking the A’s from moving to San Jose.
The Giants have exclusive territorial rights to San Jose. The Dodgers and Angels share an identical territory, including Los Angeles.
The story of how the A’s and Giants reached this point takes time to tell. Before we get to that, let’s break down each team’s argument with overly simplistic paragraphs.

Bay Area territorial rights map, courtesy of
THE GIANTS STANCE: hell no, we own the territorial rights to San Jose, we’ve invested heavily into the market, it would hurt our business model, we’re not giving the rights away, and we’re not selling it for any amount of money because it’s impossible to predict the long-term ramifications.

THE A's STANCE: we’ve exhausted all options for a new stadium in Oakland, in Fremont, within our territory, this is our only option to sustain ourselves in the Bay Area, and we’ve moving further away from San Francisco.

The argument the A’s don’t make often enough, or loudly enough: our former owner gave your former owner those territorial rights for free back in 1990.

Full disclosure time: I grew up in the East Bay, was a huge A’s fan, and I’ve written about my childhood at the Coliseum on this blog. I’ve covered each team as a beat reporter for The Oakland Tribune, listened and printed the arguments from both front offices repeatedly. If I owned the Giants, I’d take the exact same hardcore stance. I don’t live in the Bay Area anymore, and honestly don’t care where the A’s end up.

I just want Selig to make a decision.

* * *

Explaining the history of the territorial rights issue can’t be done quickly. This article does a pretty good job, and I’ll provide my best attempt at an efficient and fair history lesson.

The Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958. The Athletics arrived in Oakland in 1968. At that time, the A’s “territory” was designated as Alameda County and Contra Costa County (ie. the East Bay). The Giants territory was San Francisco, San Mateo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Marin Counties. The teams shared Santa Clara County (ie. the South Bay).

Former Giants owner Bob Lurie
In 1987 and 1989, voters rejected a ballot measure for a new ballpark in downtown San Francisco. Then-Giants owner Bob Lurie decided to look to the South Bay for a new home.

In 1990, then-A’s owner Walter A. Haas, Jr. gave Lurie the exclusive rights to the South Bay to build a new ballpark.

For free. Yes, for free.

No contracts were drawn up. Haas figured it was in the best interest of baseball, and furthermore, the Giants were moving further away from Oakland.

Surely, it wasn't a 100 percent altruistic decision. Haas knew he would gain new fans from San Francisco or the North Bay who didn't want to drive to San Jose, and that it was possible the Giants would move away and he'd have the market all to himself.

Twice more, Lurie was rejected at the ballot box -- in Santa Clara in 1990, and in San Jose in 1992. Lurie gave up in his stadium hunt, and sold the Giants for $115 million to a group led by Vince Naimoli, who would move the team to St. Petersburg, Fla.

However, the other baseball owners blocked that ownership change and move to Florida. They pressured Lurie to sell to local investors. A group was formed, led by Safeway CEO Peter Magowan as the managing partner, and Lurie sold the team for $100 million.

To their undeniable credit, as the Dot Com boom was taking off in the South Bay, the Giants new ownership group aggressively marketed their team to that growing population down south. The A’s were short-sighted in not doing the same.

At that time, in 1993, the territorial rights were a non-issue.

The Raiders were in Los Angeles. The A’s didn’t share the Coliseum with anybody, averaged over 2.6 million fans a year from 1988 to 1992, outdrew the Giants in those five years, reached the playoffs four times, beat the Giants in the ’89 World Series, and actually boasted one of the highest payrolls in baseball. (They were losing money in the process, but that’s another story.)

In 1993, it all started to change. The new Giants ownership group energized the franchise, signed Barry Bonds, improved Candlestick as much as possible, and made another stadium push. The A’s dynasty grew old and crumbled, and couldn’t be replenished by a depleted farm system.

Former A's owner Walter Haas, Jr.
Haas passed away in 1995, and his estate sold the A’s to Ken Hofmann (the silent partner) and Steve Schott (the spokesman). The Raiders returned to Oakland the same year.

The Coliseum was expanded -- or ruined, depending on your perspective -- to accommodate the Raiders return. The A’s started the 1996 season in a Las Vegas minor league ballpark, as their home was changed, and frequently played day games at the same time construction took place on the new outfield seats.

In 1997, the Giants returned to the playoffs. But more important, they finally won on Election Day for a new downtown ballpark. It opened in 2000, the most important development in Giants franchise history, and put the pressure on the A’s to get their own baseball-only park.

Schott went to college at Santa Clara University. His office was in the South Bay. He wanted to move the A’s to his home region. Around 2003, Schott thought Magowan told him something along the lines of, “what would you pay for the rights?”

Magowan denied that was his intent, and quickly reaffirmed the rights weren’t for sale for any price. Selig made several declarations over these years that territorial rights were important to preserve -- his way of saying the A’s can’t move to San Jose, without actually saying, “the A’s can’t move to San Jose.”

The A’s looked elsewhere. They looked at Sacramento, Las Vegas, Portland, the Coliseum parking lot, Jack London Square in Oakland, next to Laney College in Oakland, downtown Oakland, and many more sites. All the plans fell through. (Some maintain the A’s intentionally sabotaged all these efforts because they’ve always wanted San Jose and only San Jose.)

Schott and Hofmann were never in the ownership game for the long haul. The ballpark headache didn’t help. They sold the A’s to John Fisher (the money man) and Lew Wolff (the spokesman) in 2005.

Artist rendering of Cisco Field in Fremont.
Wolff made his name building hotels, and his top priority was a privately-financed new ballpark. In 2006, it appeared he delivered with a plan to build Cisco Field in Fremont, right at the edge of the San Jose territorial rights border, but still in Alameda County. Those plans fell apart too.

Finally, in 2009, Wolff told the commissioner that all ballpark options were exhausted in the A’s territory, and San Jose was the only place left for the A’s in the Bay Area.

Selig needed to make a decision, once and for all, on the territorial rights. His solution? Form a blue-ribbon committee to explore all the options and have them report back to him.

That was over three years ago.

In that time, Magowan retired as managing partner. Bill Neukom, an investor since 1995, took over as managing partner. After three years and the first world title in San Francisco Giants history, Neukom was forced out because the ownership group couldn’t agree on the compensation package Neukom felt he was entitled.

Now the managing partner is Larry Baer, a longtime front office executive since the 1993 group that saved the team from Florida.

The largest shareholder of the ownership group has changed over time, and with the deaths of Harmon Burns and his wife Sue Burns.

No matter the managing partner, no matter the largest shareholder, the Giants message has remained the same: “San Jose is ours. We’re not giving it up.”

* * *
The frustration is growing. People are mad as hell. But right now, they’re still taking it.

Twenty-one months ago, in Sept. 2010, 75 Silicon Valley CEO’s drafted a letter to Selig, urging a timely approval of the move to San Jose. Selig never responded.

Twelve months ago, in May 2011, San Jose mayor Chuck Reed cordially asked the commissioner for a timetable for the answer. Not the actual answer. Just a timetable. Selig never responded.

Ten months ago, in a July 2011 online town hall forum during the all-star break, Selig was asked again about the territorial rights. His answer:
“Well, the latest is, I have a small committee who has really assessed that whole situation, Oakland, San Francisco, and it is complex. You talk about complex situations; they have done a terrific job. I know there are some people who think it’s taken too long and I understand that. I’m willing to accept that. But you make decisions like this; I’ve always said, you’d better be careful. Better to get it done right than to get it done fast. But we’ll make a decision that’s based on logic and reason at the proper time.”
This offseason, as the A’s traded away three more of their talented young pitchers, in yet another rebuilding effort, there was a sense from the front office that a decision was due soon.

The stadium issue wasn’t on the agenda in January at the owners meetings in Phoenix, but it was discussed by the powerful eight-person executive council. Selig even said the issue was “on the front burner.”  

In February, Wolff participated in an informal on-stage conversation at the Rotary Club of San Jose.

Wolff, an old fraternity brother of Selig, expressed his highest level of public outrage:

"I'm not going to continue this (waiting for permission to move) much longer. What we want is an answer. We want a "Yes, you can relocate, share the district, share the territory". Or "You can't." We have a way of demanding a vote (from MLB) but that isn't our nature. So the best thing for us to do in the next couple of months is see where we go. After that, though, I think I have to -- I can't even continue to come to these wonderful lunches, I'd feel like (Bernie) Madoff, or somebody."
Wolff later added:
"The Giants are trying to stonewall it, which is certainly working -- for them. And we're saying 'tell us what we can do.' We think the facts are on our side. We don't want to hurt the Giants, in fact we think the end result will be a great result for everybody, a great new venue here as well as there, and competition for them. So it's just sort of strange, and it's hard to answer the question of why this has gone on so long."
The action heated up in spring training. On March 7, the A’s released a statement about territorial rights. The money quote:
Of the four two-team markets in MLB, only the Giants and A's do not share the exact same geographic boundaries. MLB-recorded minutes clearly indicate that the Giants were granted Santa Clara, subject to relocating to the city of Santa Clara. The granting of Santa Clara to the Giants was by agreement with the A’s late owner Walter Haas, who approved the request without compensation. The Giants were unable to obtain a vote to move and the return of Santa Clara to its original status was not formally accomplished.
We are not seeking a move that seeks to alter or in any manner disturb MLB territorial rights. We simply seek an approval to create a new venue that our organization and MLB fully recognizes is needed to eliminate our dependence on revenue sharing, to offer our fans and players a modern ballpark, to move over 35 miles further away from the Giants' great venue and to establish an exciting competition between the Giants and A's.
Later in the day, the Giants responded with their own statement. The highlight:
The Giants territorial rights were not granted “subject to” moving to Santa Clara County. Indeed, the A’s fail to mention that MLB’s 1990 territorial rights designation has been explicitly re-affirmed by Major League Baseball on four separate occasions. Most significantly in 1994, Major League Baseball conducted a comprehensive review and re-definition of each club’s territories. These designations explicitly provide that the Giants territory includes Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Marin Counties and the A’s territory included Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
The MLB owners unanimously approved those designated territories and memorialized them in the MLB Constitution. Since then, the MLB Constitution has been re-affirmed by the MLB owners – including by the A’s – on three different occasions (2000, 2005 and 2008), long after the Giants won approval to build AT&T Park. Mr. Wolff and Mr. Fisher agreed to these territorial designations and were fully aware of our territorial rights when they purchased the A’s for just $172 million in 2005.
Many believed with Frank McCourt out as Dodgers owner, Selig would focus all his attention on the territorial rights issue, and make a decision by Opening Day. It didn’t happen.

Around the start of the season, however, Selig showed more sympathy for the A’s plight than any other time in his tenure. He told Tracy Ringolsby of that he’s “in the middle of trying to fashion some type of an agreement" between the Giants and A's. The most fascinating Selig quote to Ringolsby was this one:
"In 1990 when Bob Lurie wanted to move the Giants to San Jose, Walter Haas, the wonderful owner of the Oakland club, who did things in the best interest of baseball, granted permission. What got lost there is, they didn't feel it was permission in perpetuity. He gave Bob permission to go down there. Unfortunately or fortunately, it never got changed."
In April, the A’s requested their stadium issue get placed on the agenda for the next owners meeting in May. Three-fourths of the owners must approve the A’s move to San Jose.

The item was never placed on the agenda. Selig doesn’t place an item on the agenda until Selig is ready and Selig knows what the votes will be and Selig is happy with those votes.

That owners meeting took place the last two days in New York. Indeed, nothing has changed, as these tweets on Thursday from Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal indicate:
No meaningful update from Selig on #Athletics’ situation. Still trying to figure it out. Again called it “complex.”
When asked if #Athletics would consider relocation options besides San Jose, Selig said that is a question for A’s owner Wolff to answer.
One more thing: Selig did say that both #Giants and #Athletics made presentations to Executive Committee. But again, no apparent progress.
How will this end, if it ever ends? Longtime San Jose sports columnist Mark Purdy, who has championed baseball in his home city for two decades, puts the decision squarely at the feet of the Giants’ largest shareholder, Charles Johnson.
It all comes down to one fundamental question: How does Johnson, who owns the biggest chunk of the Giants and thus sets the franchise's tone, want to be remembered at the end of his time in baseball?
Johnson, chairman of the Franklin-Templeton financial empire, already is among the 250 richest people in the world according to Forbes Magazine. He has an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion. He could invest his money anywhere. He's in the Giants because he loves the sport.
So. Does Johnson want to be remembered the way Haas is remembered, as a much-beloved baseball altruist who never put his own franchise's needs ahead of what was best for the entire sport? To this day, Haas is a beloved baseball name throughout the Bay Area.
Or does Johnson want to be remembered as an avaricious hardball owner, as someone who had a chance to do what was best for the national pastime -- by trying to ensure two healthy Bay Area franchises -- but instead put pursuit of maximum profit ahead of all else? If the A's leave the Bay Area because of Johnson's intractability, he will not be treated kindly by history -- or by American League fans in Northern California.

It's a great speech and a nice sentiment. I doubt it will make a difference. After two decades, do you really think the Giants will suddenly wake up one day and say, "sorry, our bad, you can have the territory back" or start throwing out nine-digit financial considerations?

If Bud Selig hasn't been able to broker a deal between the Bay Area teams by now, or get 75 percent of the owners to approve the A's move to San Jose, what's going to change by the next owners meeting? Or by next year?

* * *

So, what would you do? How long would you wait if you were the A’s owner? Would you become a belligerent owner, and risk getting the answer you don’t want to hear, just to finally get any answer?

Would you file paperwork in court, say, this Monday morning to challenge baseball’s anti-trust exemption and the Giants territorial claim on San Jose? By rule, baseball teams can’t sue their own sport, but McCourt was poised to try it anyway. McCourt was dangerous to Selig because he didn't care and had nothing to lose. (No rule is preventing the city of San Jose from taking litigation against MLB, so they could do the dirty work for Wolff and Fisher.)

Would you get even crazier and, say, simply start construction Monday morning in San Jose? When the Giants scream bloody murder, you simply respond, “we’ll stop construction once Selig and the other owners make a decision. While we wait, we’re building.”

Would you turn your fans loose on the Commissioner, either blatantly or with social marketing stealth, and wage a subtle grass-roots war to get an answer?

Perhaps the hashtag #MakeADecisionBud starts trending on Twitter every day until a decision gets made. Perhaps “a fan” happens to bring a sign at the Coliseum, listing the days since Selig announced the blue ribbon committee, updates it every game, and the TV cameras show it. Perhaps the office of Selig in Milwaukee gets flooded with simple postcards that have the updated number on it -- and nothing more.

Selig’s mailing address:
777 East Wisconsin Avenue
Suite 3060
Milwaukee, WI 53202

What will it take for A’s fans to take measures into their own hands? How long do you wait and let your beloved team rot away at the Coliseum, while the Commissioner tries to build a consensus behind closed doors, before you’re not going to take it anymore?

It’s not easy being an A’s fan. They’re a loyal and proud bunch, but they’ve been kicked so many times recently, seen so many of their best players traded away and walk away in free agency, it’s easy to stop caring.

Still, their lack of action astonishes me. This is Oakland. This is where the Black Panthers were founded. This is where the Occupy Movement, for better or worse, still keeps demonstrating. The Coliseum is where disappointed Raiders fans staged first-quarter walkouts, back in 1981, when it appeared their beloved team was moving to Los Angeles. Raiders fans practically willed the team back to Oakland by constantly pressuring politicians to make it happen. (The deal was a disaster for the city, and that's another story.)

Stephen Chow photography
The outrage doesn’t seem to be directed at Selig though. Instead, it’s at Wolff and Fisher.

Earlier this month, the Clorox Company, the only Fortune 500 company in Oakland, held a press conference with Oakland mayor Jean Quan asking the owners to keep the team in Oakland or sell the team. Wolff said the team is not for sale.

The problem with organizing A’s fans into action is they’re split into two camps: those who want the A’s to stay in Oakland, and those who want a fresh start in San Jose. It seems the most vocal fans want the team in Oakland, and their issue is with ownership, not the commissioner.

Whatever your dog is in this fight, both types of A’s fans can agree on this: Bud Selig needs to make up his mind. Over three years is more than enough time.

It’s time for Fisher, Wolff, A’s fans, Dodgers fans who hate the Giants, and baseball fans everywhere to insist Selig make a decision. Now.

Even if it’s not in you to get belligerent, the time has come.

It’s time to get belligerent.

No comments:

Post a Comment