SEND THE A’S TO SAN JOSE

By Murray Chass

March 13, 2011

On the field the San Francisco Giants are defending World Series champions; off the field they are offensive world champion ingrates.

The Athletics of Oakland desperately want to become the Athletics of San Jose, but the Giants have erected a giant roadblock on Interstate 880 and have refused to let Lew Wolff’s long-suffering team pass.Oakland As 225

The Giants are free to block the freeway because Major League rule 1 (a) says the San Francisco circuit includes Santa Clara County “with respect to all Major League Clubs.” San Jose is in Santa Clara County.

The Giants wear that rule on their executive suits as if it were the most prominent lettering on their players’ black and orange uniforms.

The Giants claim San Jose as if it were their birthright. The truth is, however, that while the San Francisco Giants, who were snatched from New York, were born in 1958, Santa Clara County slipped into their “circuit” only in 1990.

The team’s current administration presumably knows this story, but its top two officials, managing partner and chief executive officer William Neukom and president and chief operating officer Laurence Baer, were not there when the Giants were given Santa Clara County as a gift from Walter Haas Jr.

Haas was the owner of the Oakland Athletics in 1990. Before June 14 of that year, Santa Clara County was open territory. Under major league rules, it wasn’t San Francisco territory, and it wasn’t Oakland territory.

It was territory shared by the two teams, just as territory was then and is now shared by the two New York teams, the two Chicago teams and the two southern California teams — Anaheim and Los Angeles (that’s right; contrary to baseball’s bizarre geographical designation Los Angeles doesn’t have two teams).

The Giants of 1990 were having trouble, not unlike the Athletics of 2011. They found it intolerable and unworkable to stay at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and they couldn’t get voters to approve funds for a new park. Bob Lurie, the owner, wanted to move south – not to San Jose but to Santa Clara, two miles north of San Jose.

However, because Santa Clara County was shared territory, the Giants needed approval from the Athletics. Haas could have made that a difficult process for the Giants. He could have demanded some payment from the Giants; he could have held them up for future consideration.

He could have demanded a player, as his predecessor, Charlie Finley, did when he let his manager, Chuck Tanner, go to Pittsburgh in 1976 for Manny Sanguillen. Haas, however, did none of those. He simply said OK.

Walter Haas Jr.“He was a gentleman,” said Fay Vincent, who was the baseball commissioner at the time. “He realized Lurie was struggling and wanted to help him.”

Neukom, who has not been inclined to help Wolff, apparently doesn’t buy the Haas story, but I can’t be certain. When he answered the telephone in his office at AT&T Park Friday, he said he couldn’t discuss the San Jose situation. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The commissioner has asked us not to discuss it.”

Just one question, I said. “Are you familiar with how San Jose became Giants territory?”

“There is very plain history,” he said without saying what the history was, then added, “There’s an urban myth running around out there. I wish I could comment, but I can’t.”

He didn’t relate the urban myth, and I can only guess what he meant. The myth, I think Neukom thinks, is the story about Haas’ willingness to let the Giants have Santa Clara.

But Vincent wouldn’t make it up. The man is too honest, the most honest man I have ever encountered in baseball.

In addition, I asked a former baseball executive about the Haas story. “One hundred percent accurate,” he said. The minutes from the 1990 meeting, which another baseball person has seen, also confirm the story.

Even better, Bud Selig, the current commissioner, who was the Milwaukee Brewers’ owner then, acknowledged the story. “I know the story,” he said when I mentioned it to him. “I was there.”

Selig was at the owners’ meeting in Cleveland June 14, 1990, when the Giants formally gained Santa Clara County for its territory.

“The owners unanimously voted to approve the Giants’ proposed move out of Candlestick Park, which could occur by the start of the 1994 season,” the Associated Press reported. It then quoted Commissioner Vincent:

“The San Francisco franchise now occupies, within our rules, the territory including both San Francisco and Santa Clara County and one other county (San Mateo).”

The article went on to say that Lurie had sought permission to move the team 45 miles south to Santa Clara, where a proposal to build a new stadium awaited.

The stadium, however, was not approved for construction, and the Giants remained in San Francisco. At the same time, Santa Clara County stayed in the Giants’ “circuit,” where it remains today.

“There was never any intention to give the Giants rights to the territory other than allowing them to move there,” Sandy Alderson, who was the A’s general manager in 1990, said in a telephone interview. “I think Walter’s probable thinking was if they moved it would be better for us. But it was more altruistic on Walter’s part to allow them to move there.”

Neukom, the Giants’ owner, might not believe the Haas story, but the evidence William Neukom Selig 225overwhelmingly supports it. Perhaps it serves Neukom’s purpose to deny it because he can more easily justify his refusal to relinquish the Giants’ unreasonable hold on San Jose.

If Neukom were as gracious to the A’s as Haas was to the Giants, the matter could be settled and the A’s could soon be playing in San Jose.

“We’re waiting for the commissioner to decide what to,” Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose said when I asked him his city’s position on the matter.

Waiting for a Selig decision on San Jose is like waiting for Godot. Nearly two years ago – March 30, 2009 – the commissioner appointed a three-man committee to study the situation, and it has had more than enough time to report to him.

Selig’s response when I asked him what’s taking so long? “I have a committee that has worked very hard and continues to and there’s nothing new. We’ve been hard at work for a long time looking at all the alternatives.”

“It’s a very complex situation,” he added. “I understand it’s taken quite a while but there are many factors at stake. But we’re going to study it thoroughly.”

The committee, however, has had time to study it exhaustively. One can only guess that Selig doesn’t want to have to make a decision that he is waiting for the Giants to do a Walter Haas.

But that apparently isn’t going to happen. All the Giants say is San Jose is ours, and it’s critical to our revenue and fan base. The study committee has had enough time to determine the validity of that claim.

What percentage of AT&T Park fans comes from the San Jose-Santa Clara area? What are the Giants’ television and radio ratings in Santa Clara County? How many advertisers do they get from the area? How much signage at AT&T Park comes from businesses in that area? How many sponsorship deals do they have from area establishments, and what is their value?

San Jose is the third largest city in California after Los Angeles and San Diego and the 10th largest in the country. Located in the well-known Silicon Valley, it is home to the world’s largest collection of technology companies, more than 6,600 employing more than 250,000 people.

It is one of only two cities in the top 12 in population – San Antonio is the other – that don’t have a major league baseball team. It is also one of the few cities, if not the only viable city, where a major league team has a chance to be successful.

When the Giants flirted with a move 20 years ago, they eyed Santa Clara, not San Jose. But the two-decade delay has given San Jose time to develop as a prime destination.

Six months ago, 75 Silicon Valley business leaders wrote an open letter to the commissioner urging him to find Major League Baseball’s way to San Jose. Among the signers of the letter were chief executive officers of Cisco, Yahoo, eBay, SunPower and Adobe Systems. The Athletics should have such an impressive lineup.

It remains to be seen, of course, if those c.e.o.s will get to root for their home team from their luxury suites at 32,000-seat, $460-million, privately-built Cisco Field.

“I don’t know; you’ll have to ask Selig,” Wolff said when asked why he thought a decision was so long forthcoming. “He wanted to get all the factual information. I don’t know why it’s taken so long. We’re waiting. It’s going on two years.”

At 75, Wolff is a year younger than Selig, who was a classmate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. lew-wolff-225“I’m in baseball because of Bud,” the real estate developer said. “I am enjoying the baseball experience tremendously. When I joined Bud suggested that you put baseball first and your team a close second. I like the idea of a partnership. I like the fact that there is somebody who makes the final decision.”

Except Bill Neukom isn’t being a very good partner, and Selig is taking an excruciatingly long time to make a decision. It has been suggested that Selig doesn’t want to make a decision because he doesn’t want to invite a Giants’ lawsuit, which others have raised as a possibility.

But Wolff said, “That doesn’t sound like the Giants I know. We’re not looking to have a legal battle. We’re looking to do what’s best for baseball.”

On that basis, the decision should be simple. Sending the A’s to San Jose would create a vibrant new Major League Baseball home and clean up a mess of a two-team territory.

But it has also been suggested that Selig may be reluctant to find in Wolff’s favor because he could be accused of acting on the basis of their long-term friendship.

“I think that aspect of it is not a factor especially after two years,” Wolff said. “If he was leaning toward me he would have done that a long time ago. I want him to review it on the merits. By this point you’d think it’s an irrelevant point.”

By this point, you’d think the commissioner would have worked something out. Most severely, he could have used his “best interests” powers and removed San Jose from the Giants’ circuit and awarded it to the Athletics. That, however, isn’t the way Selig likes to operate.

How about an economic solution then? As the San Jose mayor said, “It’s always about the money. The Giants are trying to get money out of somebody to allow them to move.”

Selig could propose a deal. From now until the A’s would move to San Jose, the Giants could determine how much revenue they gain each year from Santa Clara County – ticket sales, advertising, sponsorship, etc.

The A’s would indemnify the Giants – for a period to be determined – for that annual amount minus additional revenue the Giants would gain from the Athletics’ absence from Oakland. The Giants would certainly sell tickets to some fans deserted by the A’s.

Right now the San Francisco-Oakland area is the smallest two-team region in the majors and probably should have been stripped of one team long ago.

Some people in Oakland feel the A’s haven’t exhausted all of their possibilities in Oakland, but Wolff said, “We have. We see no other option in Oakland.”

The city’s officials had little to say. “We’re talking to them,” Sue Piper, the mayor’s press secretary, said. “We continue to look at possibilities for a new stadium.”

For two years before he bought the A’s in 2005, Wolff worked for them as vice president for venue development. His sole role was seeking possible sites for a new park. He didn’t find one that was acceptable to everyone.

As owner, he worked on a deal to move the team to nearby Fremont, which was in the Athletics’ territory, but it fell through.

“I didn’t have San Jose in mind because I tried everything in Oakland,” Wolff said. “We tried Fremont in our district. We spent $30 million on that.

Now, except for the fact that it’s being delayed, this is a shovel-ready project.”

And if San Jose doesn’t materialize in the A’s future?

“We will abide with the decision either way,” Wolff said. If it’s no go? “We’ll reconvene among ourselves and discuss it,” he said. “We won’t sue.”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.