SAN JOSE -- So you think Barry Zito's curveball has a lot of spin and rotation? You should have seen the lawyers and officials spinning Friday, after a federal court judge's decision to dismiss San Jose's antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball -- but still allow a different case to proceed in state court.
Naturally, baseball's lawyers claimed a major victory and went "neener-neener-neener" toward San Jose's legal team, scoffing at the city's notion of appealing the federal ruling.
Naturally, San Jose's lawyers claimed they were delighted to have the state case proceed and have a chance to show the city has been damaged because MLB has stepped in to prevent A's owner Lew Wolff from cutting a deal that would move the A's to a downtown site near the Diridon Train Station and the Shark Tank.
What's going on here? The most important thing to know: This isn't over. It's going to last a while, perhaps a few years. It's probably going to get more bloody -- at least in terms of depositions and paperwork -- before it's over. But the end result might indeed bring the Athletics to San Jose in the long run.
First things first: For those who believe in fair competition, Friday's court ruling was another affirmation that Major League Baseball has a right to scoff at the concept of a free market. Judge Ronald M. Whyte basically ruled (in so many words of his written decision) that while MLB's antitrust exemption was ridiculous and outdated, it is nevertheless the law of the land. Changing it is the responsibility of the United States Congress, which passed the antitrust exemption in 1922.
There's no sign that Congress is eager to change the exemption. You'd think that South Bay representatives might consider holding antitrust hearings, which would force baseball commissioner Bud Selig to testify and precisely explain the "complications" that prevent the A's from relocating to San Jose. But it's common wisdom that Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the county's most prominent congressional representative, is reluctant to call anti-trust hearings. She feels beholden to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco and is a friend of the Giants organization, which is trying to prevent an A's move to San Jose.
Of course, congressional hearings might have led nowhere, anyway. The idea all along for San Jose and its fire-breathing lead lawyer, Joe Cotchett, was to make Major League Baseball's owners take the witness stand in court and explain why they should be permitted to keep the A's from moving to the South Bay. That can still happen in the state case. Cotchett and his team have suggested a March 2014 trial date. Lawyers for MLB say that's unrealistic and want the trial delayed. If you study history, you'll know why.
Pay close attention to the next several paragraphs. They include a bunch of legal terms. But they also explain why San Jose might be in good position to eventually force an MLB settlement of territorial rights that would allow the A's to move south. The precedent is a similar case some 30 years ago filed by Seattle in a legal chess match against baseball. That's why the Mariners are in Seattle today.
In fact, it's downright eerie to study what happened in the Northwest three decades ago and see how much it parallels the San Jose case. The saga began in 1970 when, after the expansion Seattle Pilots had played only one season in that city, the franchise abruptly left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers. Folks in Washington state were furious. The city and county sued the American League owners on antitrust grounds, saying that baseball had violated a contract to keep the Pilots in Seattle for multiple years.
The original Seattle lawsuit, just like San Jose's lawsuit, was dismissed on anti-trust grounds but allowed to continue at the state level in another form. The suit bounced from court to court for a few years until it finally morphed into a breach of contract and restraint of trade case against the American League in the Snohomish County Superior Court. Washington's former attorney general, Slade Gorton, admitted his main goal was simply to get the baseball owners on the stand in front of a jury because they were "a terrible bunch of people" who would help his case.
Seattle's claim was that it had lost $9.7 million in taxes and economic benefits when the Pilots breached their contract with the city and split town -- just as San Jose is claiming that "contract interference" with A's owner Lew Wolff's deal on an option for downtown land has cost the city millions in potential revenue.
The Seattle case reached a climax in 1976 when it finally went to trial and the American League owners were called to testify. The subsequent proceedings are related in the book, "Becoming Big League," by author and history professor Bill Mullins.
Gorton, leading the Seattle legal team, hired his own high-powered lawyer named Bill Dwyer. He used subpoenas to obtain documents that Major League Baseball had not wanted to provide. Dwyer also traveled the country to take depositions from AL owners and ask them why they had the right to abandon Seattle as a major league market and break a contract to keep the Pilots there.
Once the actual trial began, the case really went sideways for baseball. Charlie Finley, then the Oakland A's owner, was a loose cannon who grew flummoxed on the witness stand. Bob Short, owner of the Texas Rangers, became combative with Dwyer. Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger walked out of the courtroom and told a reporter: "I don't want to go back in there -- this guy's ripping me apart."
After three days of courtroom embarrassment, Major League Baseball and the AL owners saw where things were headed and negotiated a settlement. Seattle was awarded a new expansion franchise: The Mariners.
There is no guarantee a San Jose scenario would play out the same way. But you have to believe that baseball is not eager to endure the "discovery phase" of a state lawsuit by San Jose, which might give Cotchett and San Jose's lawyers access to the financial books of baseball, as well as meeting minutes. You also have to believe that Giants owner Charles Johnson and his peers would not be eager to take the witness stand in an eventual trial and explain why he doesn't want his chief competition to move 40 miles farther away from AT&T Park.
As for the A's, they are technically bystanders in all of this. But if Wolff is patient, he and co-owner John Fisher could indeed wind up getting the rights to build a San Jose ballpark. Meanwhile, San Jose has not lost anything, really. The antitrust dismissal basically puts the city right back where it started in terms of waiting for MLB and Selig (or his successor after he retires next year) to decide the A's ballpark dilemma. And the state case puts San Jose in position to keep forcing the issue.
Also, while Major League Baseball has spent thousands of dollars defending itself, San Jose has had to spend nothing. Cotchett has taken the case on a contingency basis, figuring he can win it and collect a healthy percentage of any damages San Jose might be awarded.
Bottom line: We remain in the early innings of a legal game that might take years to decide. But there is no true winner or loser yet. Anything else you hear is spin. Enjoy the World Series. One day, it still might be played on that currently vacant property in downtown San Jose.