SAN JOSE -- San Jose's bid to be the Oakland A's new home met with skeptical questions from a federal judge in the first hearing on the city's lawsuit accusing Major League Baseball of illegally blocking the team's move.

MLB lawyers asked Judge Ronald M. Whyte to dismiss the city's antitrust lawsuit, arguing the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1922 that laws barring monopolies don't apply to the "business of baseball."

"What is the business of baseball if not the relocation of teams?" Whyte asked San Jose's lawyer, Joseph Cotchett, echoing arguments by John Keker, a lawyer for MLB, during the hour and 45-minute Friday hearing in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

Whyte agreed there is "no question" baseball's antitrust exemption is "an aberration," but also suggested it's the Supreme Court's job to change it.

"That's up to them," Whyte said, "not to me."

Cotchett argued the Supreme Court with its last decision in 1972 narrowed baseball's antitrust exemption to a "reserve clause" allowing teams to control players careers, which Congress later eliminated altogether with a 1998 law. Whyte wasn't so sure.

"That statement," the judge said, referring to a quotation Cotchett had pointed out in the 1972 case, "doesn't necessarily mean the exemption is limited to the reserve clause."

"I think it does," Cotchett replied.


Advertisement

Whyte said he would "try to get a decision out shortly." Cotchett said afterward he expected one in 20 to 30 days, and that win or lose, he'd expect an appeal to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

For San Jose, surviving the dismissal motion is crucial. If San Jose's case moves toward trial, it could prompt MLB to settle with the city rather than risk the sport's lucrative antitrust exemption, one the city's lawyers note is not shared by other professional sports.

The lawsuit, filed in June, came as San Jose's decades-long dream of finally landing a major-league baseball team seemed once again to be fading. San Jose leaders had campaigned for a South Bay stadium for the San Francisco Giants in the early 1990s. But voters rejected proposed taxes to pay for it. The Giants ultimately built their current ballpark on the San Francisco waterfront. It opened in 2000.

San Jose's hopes brightened in 2009 when the A's said they would consider a ballpark in the city's downtown after efforts to explore new ballparks in Oakland and Fremont faltered. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, a fraternity brother of A's owner Lew Wolff, convened a committee to study the A's options.

But the San Francisco Giants have refused to cede the territorial rights the team has claimed since the early 1990s to San Jose, where the organization operates the minor league San Jose Giants. Ironically, previous A's owners let the Giants claim San Jose as their territory when the team was considering its since-abandoned move to the city.

The A's have fielded surprisingly competitive teams for a club with one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, thanks to shrewd management and revenue-sharing subsidies from richer teams. Friday's hearing came as the A's prepared for postseason play against the Detroit Tigers.

But the A's have struggled with below-average attendance in Oakland, something a Stanford sports economist said in a declaration for San Jose's lawsuit would improve if the team moved to Silicon Valley.

While the antitrust exemption is the key issue at stake, each side has made multiple other legal arguments. The city argued MLB has violated the city's rights under state law by interfering with an A's land-option contract. The A's, they noted, just renewed the option $25,000, demonstrating the team's continued interest in moving to San Jose. MLB argued the city lacks standing as an injured party to sue, and Whyte pressed San Jose's lawyers to explain how MLB's delay in greenlighting the move harms the city.

"It's pretty speculative, isn't it?" Whyte asked. "It injures San Jose how?"

Whyte also had some pointed questions for MLB such as its exemption from antitrust laws not applied to other sports.

"Would you agree it's hard to rationalize a difference between baseball and football or basketball?" Whyte asked.

While the territorial dispute with the Giants and Major League Baseball remains San Jose's biggest obstacle to hosting the A's, it is hardly the only one. Gov. Jerry Brown's move to end redevelopment funding eliminated a means for San Jose to acquire remaining parcels for the proposed ballpark. While that also affected Oakland, foreign investors this week stepped up to offer millions of dollars toward a new Oakland sports and entertainment complex, reviving the city's hopes of keeping its ballclub.

Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.

key events in baseball's antitrust exemption
  • 1922 U.S. Supreme Court, in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opinion on complaint by the Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore against the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, ruled that the sport is not interstate commerce subject to congressional regulation.
  • 1953 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in complaint by minor league pitcher George Toolson against the New York Yankees that Congress had not intended to subject baseball to its antitrust laws, a subtle shift in reasoning suggesting Congress could but refused to regulate the sport.
  • 1972 U.S. Supreme Court, in Justice Harry Blackmun opinion on complaint by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood against baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, ruled that while baseball's antitrust exemption was an "aberration," he saw "merit in consistency" in upholding it.
  • 1998 President Bill Clinton signs Curt Flood Act into law, ending baseball's antitrust exemption for labor issues.