Free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre was the player the A’s wanted most this offseason. They made him an initial offer of five years, $64 million and later raised their bid to six years, $78.6 million, according to major league sources.
Yet, they never stood a chance.
Beltre, like most star players, wanted no part of Oakland. No part of the Coliseum. No part of a franchise that has ranked in the bottom five in home attendance in each of the past five seasons.
The solution for the A’s is simple — in fact, the simplest of any struggling franchise in the game today. The team needs to move to San Jose, a more populous, prosperous city 40 miles south of Oakland.
“If we want to be successful in the game, we’ve got to take advantage of situations that are right in front of us,” says Scott Boras, the agent for Beltre and several other top players. “And this is one of them.”
Yes, Boras is speaking partly out of self-interest; a stronger A’s franchise would possess greater spending power and help drive the market for his players. But a stronger A’s franchise is in the game’s best interests, too.
No longer would the team be a revenue-sharing recipient. Franchise values would increase as the industry grew more robust. Baseball could move on to other problems.
So, what’s the holdup?
The Giants, of course.
The Giants, who hold territorial rights to San Jose’s home county, Santa Clara, only because the A’s were kind enough to surrender them in the early 1990s, when the San Francisco team was exploring a move to the area.
Appeasing the Giants will not be easy — their owner, Bill Neukom, took over the club in 2008 with the knowledge that San Jose was part of the team’s territory. He understandably does not want to lose sponsorship opportunities or diminish the value of his club in any way.
Well, baseball developed a blueprint for solving such a problem in March 2005, when it reached an agreement to move the Montreal Expos into the Orioles’ territory in Washington, DC. The deal created the Nationals and guaranteed the Orioles at least $130 million a year in revenues and a sale price of at least $360 million.
The A’s/Giants conflict, in some ways, should be easier to resolve — the A’s already exist in the Bay Area, while the Nationals did not exist in Washington. The Orioles/Nationals arrangement also included the formation of a new regional television network. The Giants and A’s already maintain deals with separate Comcast entities.
“The idea that we’re here, sitting on our hands and not letting this franchise get going is detrimental to the game,” says Boras, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento.
“A few franchises need to be evaluated and examined. Oakland can immediately improve and become a success if moved to San Jose. You would then have two well-run and successful franchises in the Bay Area.”
Neukom, like Orioles owner Peter Angelos, is an accomplished attorney. Baseball surely would not relish a prolonged, contentious negotiation with the Giants, but if that’s what it takes to fix the A’s, so be it.
Other low-revenue clubs are much more challenged.
Teams such as the Pirates, Royals, Padres and Reds believe that winning will solve their problems. Well, winning didn’t work for the Rays and Indians, who failed to generate appreciable revenue increases during periods of recent success.
Now both clubs are stuck: The Rays can’t get financing for a new ballpark, and the Indians are trapped in a city with a diminishing population and corporate base.
An NBA team can relocate to a city as small as Oklahoma City, but a major league franchise must be in a market strong enough to support 81 home dates.
Name a better possibility in North America than San Jose, where a 32,000-seat park for the A’s is all but ready to go.
“If we had approval from baseball, it would take six to nine months to finish our drawings, then a maximum of two years to build,” A’s owner Lew Wolff says. “So, I would say 30 to 36 months.
“The city has purchased most of the land. We are willing to give the money to buy the rest of it if they don’t happen to have it. As far as financing, it will be done through debt and equity. We’re not waiting for any kind of bond issues or government help, which we can’t get anyway.
“In some ways, that makes it more difficult. But in some ways, it’s simpler. We don’t have to go to anyone.”
Absent public financing, the A’s are confident the ballpark would pass a citywide ballot measure. The team in 2006 struck a 30-year naming-rights deal with Cisco that would provide $4 million annually. Its new multi-year agreement with Comcast SportsNet California also will help with financing, Wolff says.
Commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee in March 2009 to study the A’s ballpark options. Wolff says it is his understanding that the committee’s work is now done. Selig, through a spokesman, declined comment.
Meanwhile, the A’s remain in limbo, plodding along in Oakland. Franchises in baseball’s other two-team markets — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — share the same geographic territory. The Bay Area is different. The population in the Giants’ territory, Wolff says, is twice as large as that in the A’s territory.
“The whole thing is really ludicrous,” Wolff says.
For all their obstacles, the A’s have built an intriguing club, one that might very well contend in 2011.
Their young pitching staff last season led the American League in ERA, and general manager Billy Beane has spent the winter making improvements through trades and modest free-agent signings.
The A’s failure to sign Beltre for the second straight offseason, however, illustrates the difficulty the team faces in landing premier free-agent talent.
A year ago, Beltre spurned a three-year, $24 million offer from the A’s to sign a one-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox. This time, he went to the Rangers for more money than the A’s offered — five years, $80 million.
His decision could help determine the outcome of the AL West race.
“You talk to players,” Boras says, without referring specifically to Beltre. “It’s not the city. It’s not the team. It’s the ballpark. And there are no fans there.
“When teams recruit against the Oakland A’s, they say, ‘Why do you want to play in an empty park?’ It’s not about the organization. It’s not about ownership. It’s about locale.”
Earlier this offseason, Lance Berkman rejected a two-year offer from the A’s to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals. When the A’s do land free agents, it’s usually because the players want to be in northern California or lack better options.
True, the A’s signed designated hitter Hideki Matsui and relievers Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes this offseason, but none is an elite talent. The team’s outlay for the three in 2011 will be about $13 million combined.
For Beltre, the A’s were willing to guarantee six years, but at $12.8 million per season, not $16 million. After Beltre signed for that price with the Rangers, the A’s added Balfour and Fuentes, bringing their 2011 payroll to nearly $70 million.
Imagine how much stronger they would be in San Jose.
The three other AL West clubs — the Rangers, Angels and Mariners — play in terrific markets with terrific parks. The proposed 32,000-seat stadium in San Jose would be the smallest in the majors. But the A’s average home attendance would almost double if they filled the park, and premium seating and luxury suites would provide additional revenue.
It’s time. It’s past time.
“In the end, this is hurting baseball,” Boras says. “It’s depriving baseball players and baseball fans of a successful franchise. That’s wrong. We need to correct that.”