MLB’s June 17 Letter to the A’s & What it Might Mean

By now you’ve heard the big news announced Friday night:  MLB denied the A’s request to move to San Jose in a letter sent to the A’s on June 17 — one day before San Jose’s lawsuit against MLB was filed. (Nathaniel Grow of Sports Law Blog broke the story after the letter was mentioned in a court document MLB lawyers filed Friday, nearly six months after MLB sent the letter in question.)

That has set off a wave of speculation over what exactly the letter says, or, at the very least, what it intended to say. Was the letter a conclusive decision, finally, from MLB about Lew Wolff’s plans to move to San Jose? And was it a wholesale rejection of the entire San Jose idea? Or was it merely about details of the team’s current San Jose proposal, with room for Wolff to tweak them to MLB’s liking?

Well, we could speculate all day, just as the the so-called experts have done since Friday, and still not find the facts. So, let’s just focus on what we know. Not what is fair or what we think or hope is true, but rather what we know to have been truly verified as fact. In that spirit, we know that:

* A’s owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher have been trying to move the team to San Jose for years.

* Wolff and Fisher have been blocked from moving to San Jose because of MLB’s territorial rights rules, which govern MLB team relocation decisions.

* Wolff and Fisher have been blocked specifically by the San Francisco Giants, owners of the territorial rights to Santa Clara County for more than 20 years.

* In early 2009, then-Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums offered to work with Wolff on building a new A’s ballpark in Oakland. But Wolff rejected Dellums and, days later, Wolff later announced he was going to focus solely on moving to San Jose.

* So, Dellums and then-Councilwoman Jane Brunner wrote to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, offering to work with Selig on keeping the A’s in Oakland.

* In response to Dellums’ letter, Selig formed a three-person committee in 2009 to study the A’s ballpark situation in Oakland and the Bay Area.

* Since her 2010 election, current Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and other Oakland/Alameda County officials have tried to interest Wolff in a number of available sites, including: 1) Howard Terminal, along the waterfront next to Jack London Square; or, 2) the Oakland Coliseum complex, where the A’s have called home since 1968.

* In 2011, two years after the formation of MLB’s three-person committee, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed revealed he was losing his patience with the process. He wrote a letter to Selig, saying that San Jose had been exploring a San Jose A’s stadium concept since 2004.

* In December 2011, Stand for San Jose, a group supported by the San Francisco Giants, filed a lawsuit against  San Jose claiming the city failed to perform a proper environmental review of land committed to the A’s for the stadium.

* Meanwhile, Wolff has shown no interest in Oakland’s two viable sites and continues to focus on San Jose’s Diridon site, in spite of that site’s following obstacles: 1) AT&T owns crucial land parcels at Diridon that have yet to be purchased; 2) the Giants still own territorial rights and are not giving them up; 3) San Jose is required to have a public vote on the issue but has yet to have one; and 4) there still is not a resolution for the Stand for San Jose lawsuit, which continues to wind its way through court.

* Everything around MLB’s decision on the matter seemed to be in limbo until June 18, 2013, when San Jose filed a lawsuit against MLB alleging, among other things, that MLB had violated anti-trust laws and interfered with a land option deal between the A’s and San Jose.

* As Grow reported Friday, we now know that on June 17 — a day before the lawsuit was filed — MLB sent a letter saying that MLB was rejecting the A’s ballpark proposal in San Jose. (Again, what that means definitively for San Jose’s baseball future is open to speculation. Back to what we know for sure …)

* In October, Judge Ronald Whyte tossed out all anti-trust portions of San Jose’s lawsuit, ruling almost entirely in MLB’s favor. The one part of the lawsuit Whyte allowed to move forward was a state claim alleging that MLB interfered with San Jose’s land option deal with the A’s. According to the Sports Law Blog, the land option claim can only result in a financial damages award, and NOT a court order mandating that the Athletics be allowed to move to San Jose.

* MLB and San Jose remain locked in this legal fight that already has lasted months and, for now, has no end in sight.

(Note: The list above is not meant to be comprehensive, but it is an attempt to summarize the facts of the complex situation as succinctly as possible.) To sum up, the San Jose option is not any closer to being completed than it was 10 years ago, when Wolff first joined the A’s front office (in 2003).  In fact, a San Jose ballpark might be even less likely to receive MLB approval than ever before because San Jose’s lawsuit undoubtedly has antagonized Selig and other MLB officials. Meanwhile, Oakland has stayed out of the legal fray and continues to offer two viable ballpark sites in different parts of town.

So, what’s next? Will Wolff ever start to give Oakland a chance by sitting down with city officials and work, in earnest, with them on a new A’s ballpark? Will San Jose’s baseball-related lawsuits ever end?

The next court action where MLB’s and San Jose’s lawyers will keep duking it out is scheduled this Friday, when Whyte might rule whether or not San Jose can appeal his October decision to toss out all the anti-trust claims.

One thing we can predict: It won’t be boring.

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