You could probably call it a change-up pitch. With a purpose.
Lew Wolff, the Oakland A's owner, has maintained a carefully measured public posture when discussing the team's dispute with the San Francisco Giants over the territorial rights to San Jose. On Wednesday, that changed. Wolff and the A's issued an official statement asserting for the first time that the team has just as much right to Santa Clara County as the Giants do -- and cited previously undisclosed evidence from a 1990 Major League Baseball owners' meeting to back up that contention.
The statement was spawned by a recent New York Daily News story that speculated the A's would be thwarted in their pursuit of a new ballpark in San Jose because the team would not receive the required three-quarters vote of approval from other franchise owners. The A's noted in their statement that commissioner Bud Selig had denied the story. The team then pointedly referenced "MLB-recorded minutes" from the meeting 21 years ago when the Giants originally requested the exclusive territorial rights to Santa Clara County.
The minutes to that meeting, the A's statement said, "clearly indicate that the Giants were granted" the territorial rights "subject to relocating to the city of Santa Clara." That's where the Giants planned to build their own South Bay ballpark until county voters rejected the plan, which called for tax increases.
Those 1990 MLB meeting minutes, it has been learned, also contain a passage that indicates the Giants' rights to Santa Clara County took effect only if the new stadium was satisfactorily completed. With that assurance, the A's owner at the time, Walter Haas, agreed to give away his franchise's shared rights to the South Bay without compensation.
If those minutes are accurate, then the Giants' claim to San Jose and the South Bay could indeed rest on more shaky ground than once believed. The A's obviously interpret it in that fashion. On the other hand, if MLB agreed 100 percent with that interpretation, the Giants' rights would have been dismissed long ago. And, indeed, the Giants released their own statement later Wednesday, asserting that their rights have been "reaffirmed by Major League Baseball on four separate occasions."
Wolff, when reached at his Los Angeles office, declined to elaborate on his formal statement. He did confirm his intention to bring a more well-rounded view of the A's mission to regain shared-territory status with the Giants in Santa Clara County.
"I'm trying to say in a gentle way that I don't consider it to be an upset of territorial rights," Wolff said. "Of course, I'm prejudiced."
He's also impatient. And growing more so every day. Isn't everyone? It has been three years since Selig appointed a special "blue ribbon" panel to examine the A's ballpark dilemma in the Bay Area. The idea was to determine if the team had exhausted opportunities for an East Bay stadium and if the Giants' claims to the South Bay should prevent an A's move to a site in downtown San Jose.
As that process unfolded ... and unfolded ... and unfolded ... Wolff continued to express optimism that the panel's investigation and decision would eventually go the A's way. He persistently supported Selig, who was Wolff's fraternity brother at the University of Wisconsin.
For those of us who love loud and messy public arguments, Wolff was being way too nice a guy. The Giants have been less restrained in promoting their side of the dispute and A's officials plainly think the Giants contributed in some way to the New York Daily News story last weekend, though there's no proof of that. Authored by Bill Madden, the column speculated that owners would never vote for the A's to occupy San Jose because it would establish a dangerous precedent that might allow another franchise such as the Kansas City Royals to build a ballpark in New Jersey and violate the Yankees' and Mets' rights to that territory.
That logic was flawed, of course. The Royals (or any other MLB team) have never shared the rights to New Jersey the way that the A's once shared rights to San Jose and Santa Clara County. Also, the Yankees did in fact permit the Mets to become New York City neighbors as an expansion team in 1962. Danger was avoided. No lives were lost.
In fact, if there were any "precedent" similar to the A's situation, it would be MLB's decision in 2005 to place the former Montreal Expos in Washington, D.C., over strenuous objections from the nearby Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles had not been granted territorial exclusivity to the Baltimore-Washington market but claimed they had legal rights to D.C., which is closer geographically to Baltimore than San Jose is to San Francisco. The Orioles eventually accepted financial and other considerations and dropped legal threats.
On Wednesday, the A's statement noted that "of the four two-team markets in MLB, only the Giants and A's do not share the exact same geographic boundaries." It also mentioned that when the Giants opened a retail souvenir and ticket outlet last year in Walnut Creek, which is in the A's official territory, Wolff did not object.
"We are not seeking a move that seeks to alter or in any manner disturb MLB territorial rights," the A's said. "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 (and) offer fans a modern ballpark."
Selig said in January that the resolution of the A's situation was "on the front burner" for the sport. He has met with A's and Giants officials individually in the past several weeks, although the three parties have not met together in the same room. Owners and investors in both franchises have scheduled their own separate meetings in Arizona the weekend of March 17 and 18. Perhaps the commissioner could attend both sessions and knock some heads.
Meanwhile, officials in San Jose said Wednesday they remain planted firmly in wait-and-see mode. However, Councilman Sam Liccardo, who represents the downtown area, for the first time raised the possibility of governmentally addressing MLB's unique antitrust exemption, which permits the league to control franchise movement in ways other pro leagues cannot legally do.
Liccardo said that if the antitrust exemption comes to be viewed as an impediment to free-market competition and economic progress, perhaps it should be challenged.
"The Giants should have nothing to fear to see the A's compete for fans in San Jose," Liccardo said. "May the best team win. That's the American way."
Wolff and the A's upped the competition Wednesday, at least in the war for public sentiment. The Giants retaliated with their own ammunition and will no doubt continue to do so. If Selig wants it all to stop, he needs to turn up the burner even higher and get this damn thing settled.
Contact Mark Purdy at email@example.com or 408-920-5092.