Commissioner mum on San Jose suit

Commissioner Bud Selig plays it close to the vest with Oakland A's, San Jose lawsuit.

Commissioner Bud Selig wouldn’t talk about the Oakland A’s stadium imbroglio before San Jose filed suit against Major League Baseball.

He’s definitely not talking about it now.

When I asked Selig at the MLB owners’ meetings last month if there was anything to report on new stadiums for the A’s or Tampa Bay Rays, he said, “No. No. A lot of conversations, but no.” As for the possibility that either team would leave its respective market, Selig said, “We have a committee that’s analyzing all of that, and I don’t have any further comment.”

Earlier this week, the city of San Jose filed a lawsuit alleging a “blatant conspiracy” is preventing the A’s from moving to San Jose. The suit challenges baseball’s sacrosanct antitrust exemption. MLB and Selig were named as the defendants. Care to guess Selig’s response when the subject was raised Wednesday at the MLB Diversity Business Summit?

“There’s been litigation,” he said. “As a result of that, I really don’t have anything to say about that today.”

First, it was because he didn’t want to interfere with the work of a committee formed four years ago. Now, it is because of litigation. I suspect the real reason to withhold comment was the same both times: No justifiable explanation exists.

Selig has served the game admirably and effectively in more than two decades as commissioner. Revenues have reached record highs under his stewardship. Wednesday’s event in Houston — a meaningful opportunity for job seekers and minority-owned businesses to interact with MLB clubs — was further evidence that Selig is genuine when speaking about the sport’s role as a social institution.

But the dilapidated O.co Coliseum is an embarrassment to the sport. The extent of the farce became national news over the weekend, when a sewage overflow in both clubhouses forced the A’s and Seattle Mariners to shower in the Oakland Raiders’ locker room.

As long as the A’s are stuck at the Coliseum — and the Rays at Tropicana Field — Selig’s description of this as the Golden Era of baseball will come with an asterisk. A’s fans have every right to feel insulted that they are being asked to accept a far inferior ballpark experience relative to the rest of the league.

And for what? So the Giants can keep their territorial rights to San Jose, even though they play in the majors’ best stadium — 45 miles away in San Francisco?

Ironically, the A’s gave the Giants those territorial rights. As Selig told the great Tracy Ringolsby in a FOXSports.com column last year, “In 1990 when Bob Lurie wanted to move the Giants to San Jose, Walter Haas, the wonderful owner of the Oakland club, who did things in the best interest of baseball, granted permission. What got lost there is they didn’t feel it was permission in perpetuity. ... Unfortunately or fortunately, it never got changed. We are dealing with a lot of history here.”

Selig’s not-so-subtle suggestion: It was “in the best interest of baseball” for the A’s to let the Giants explore San Jose in 1990, and it would be “in the best interest of baseball” for the Giants to allow the A’s to do the same now. That is especially true because of three factors unique to the current circumstances:

• The Giants have become one of the healthiest franchises in the sport, with world titles in two of the past three years. They entered Wednesday with the second-highest average attendance in the majors.

• It’s hard to imagine that San Francisco’s AT&T Park — a destination for baseball aficionados and casual fans alike, in an affluent city — would be adversely affected by the A’s moving farther away.

• Most significant, the 28 teams outside the Bay Area stand to benefit financially by the A’s moving to San Jose, where they could become profitable and no longer receive revenue sharing dollars.

Particularly in an era of lucrative media revenues, clubs are business partners as much as they are adversaries. The Giants should realize that a strong A’s franchise would enhance the passion for baseball throughout the Bay Area. Despite the Baltimore Orioles’ concerns about the presence of a franchise in Washington, DC, attendance at Camden Yards has increased in each of the past two seasons even as the Nationals have become relevant.

The reason: The Orioles are putting an excellent product on the field, just as the Giants have for the past several years.

There is a middle ground here, if the Giants choose to see it. They could ask the A’s (and/or MLB) for a lump sum in exchange for waiving their territorial rights. They could ask for a percentage of the A’s annual revenues in San Jose. Either way, they would be wise to ask for it soon. If the lawsuit withstands MLB’s inevitable legal challenges, Selig may need to act unilaterally to prevent the antitrust exemption from going on trial.

By rule of his position, Selig is broadly (and ambiguously) empowered to act “in the best interest of baseball.” As a result, he could trump the Giants’ wishes and put the territorial rights issue up for a vote among the 30 owners. The measure likely would succeed, because of the clear financial benefit to 29 of the teams.

Selig doesn’t want to do that. If he did, he would have done so already. But the lawsuit could compel him resolve the dispute with greater urgency than before.

As commissioner, Selig must act in the best interest of baseball. As a defendant, Selig must act in the best interest of himself. After years of indecision, the proper course of action is abundantly clear.

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