The trouble with Oakland

ByHoward Bryant ESPN logo
Friday, April 3, 2015

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FOR THE PAST several years -- culminating in a hammer blow in January -- the city of San Jose, the Oakland Athletics and their fans have all received an acrid lesson in unchecked power. Since at least 1996, after city and county officials ruined their home ballpark with extra seating that blocked the scenic Oakland hills to accommodate the return of the Raiders, the A's have pursued moving: to a new stadium in the city, to the suburbs of Fremont, to the cities of Santa Clara, Las Vegas, Portland, Sacramento and, finally, San Jose.

The A's wanted San Jose. Former commissioner Bud Selig wouldn't give it to them, apparently siding with the San Francisco Giants, who claim the region is part of their fan base and territory. In 2009, Selig created a three-member task force to study the A's-Giants situation. Two years ago, Selig denied the request from the A's for San Jose, isolating the franchise within Oakland. Since then, San Jose has been suing and losing to MLB in court, fighting the league's nearly-century-old antitrust exemption. Selig retired in January and was replaced by Rob Manfred. Less than a month into his tenure, Manfred said: "I don't see this as an Oakland-San Francisco problem. I see this as an Oakland problem." MLB was redlining the A's: They could build in Oakland or leave the Bay Area.

Weeks after Selig's retirement, the task force mysteriously disbanded. It filed no report. It made no public conclusion. It offered no data regarding whether a move to San Jose would affect either the A's or the Giants. The new commissioner backed the old one. Addressing reporters in February, Manfred said, "It was the preference of commissioner Selig that the committee's finding would not be made public." And that was that.

This is what power does. It makes its own rules. It answers to no one. For more than five years, the committee met while the politics of money, power and connection played out. A's co-owner Lew Wolff bet on his decades-long relationship with Selig (they were fraternity brothers at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s) before staking his doomed claim to San Jose. Selig did not prove to be an ally, but there was a lot of disloyalty to go around: Wolff felt betrayed by Selig. By lusting after the Raiders, the Coliseum Authority was disloyal to its tenant since 1968, the A's. By coveting San Jose, the A's have been disloyal to their fans in Oakland. Locally, community groups want A's ownership to sell, believing new ownership would build a modern park in Oakland and commit to the city.

If A's fans feel unprotected, the team doesn't feel much better. It is a supposed member of the baseball monopoly, yet team president Mike Crowley said the organization has not heard from the committee nor received any direct communication from Selig or Manfred.

Baseball, meanwhile, is confident that outside forces -- i.e., the Raiders leaving town -- will do its work. Both baseball sources and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft believe two NFL teams will play in Southern California in 2016. A Raiders move might open the door for the frowning faces of A's ownership and the local political leadership to reconcile and build a baseball-only park.

But while the A's are victims of MLB's actions, they aren't innocent either. Without the Raiders in the equation, the fact that Wolff and fellow owner John Fisher have never really wanted to build in Oakland would be exposed. Privately, ownership believes the corporate base is too small to justify spending millions on a new park. Since 1993, Oakland has never finished higher than sixth in AL attendance, and because the A's collect roughly $28 million annually in revenue sharing, it's more lucrative to complain than commit. Ownership can't leave, but it won't sell.

Thus, everyone is stuck. The A's and San Jose are stuck because of MLB. A's fans are stuck with a team wanting to leave but can't. It didn't have to be this way. MLB should have been transparent and officially reaffirmed that San Jose is Giants territory, giving some credibility to Selig's mysterious committee. The A's wouldn't have been happy, but at least it would have resulted from clear dialogue instead of monarch rule. The A's are right that a fast one was pulled on them, but when MLB holds all the power, well, being right has never counted for much anyway.