Finally, there is movement toward solving one of baseball’s most vexing problems.
Baseball is trying to accelerate a decision on whether to allow the Oakland Athletics to relocate to San Jose, according to major league sources.
Commissioner Bud Selig met with top A’s officials earlier this month and plans to meet with San Francisco Giants executives within two weeks, sources say.
The meetings represent the biggest step toward a resolution of the Athletics’ quest to relocate since Selig appointed a three-member committee to study the franchise’s’ situation in March 2009.
The Giants, who draw a significant part of their fan and corporate bases from the counties south of San Francisco, remain adamantly opposed to relinquishing their territorial rights to San Jose and the South Bay region.
San Jose, about 45 miles south of San Francisco, is the largest city in the South Bay — and the entire Bay Area.
The Athletics, independent of the Giants’ opposition, are “checking off boxes” to ensure that baseball is satisfied with their plan to relocate, sources say.
The team, according to one source, has agreed to expand the capacity of Cisco Field, its proposed 32,000-seat ballpark, as one of the conditions for a move.
The Giants’ approval — the final and biggest stumbling block to the Athletics’ relocation – will not be easy to secure.
Selig, sources say, warned Athletics owner Lew Wolff that he could not plan on moving to the South Bay when Wolff’s group purchased the team for a depressed price of $180 million in 2005.
Wolff, however, says that Oakland no longer is a viable market for the Athletics; the team ranked last in the majors in home attendance last season, averaging just 18,232 fans per game.
Wolff’s critics, meanwhile, contend he never wanted to stay in Oakland and effectively alienated the city and the team’s fans in his effort to get the A’s to San Jose.
One solution, if the Giants refuse to yield their territorial rights, would be for baseball to purchase the A’s from Wolff, secure a stadium deal in Oakland, then resell the club, sources say.
There is precedent for such a strategy, assuming that baseball views Oakland as a better market than the A’s do.
Baseball purchased the Montreal Expos for $120 million in 2002, then sold the team for $450 million four years later to a group that relocated the franchise to Washington, DC, and renamed it the Nationals.
To make that move work, Selig had to satisfy the Baltimore Orioles’ concerns over the arrival of a team that would play less than 40 miles south of their own ballpark.
The resulting deal included shared ownership of a regional sports network by the Orioles and Nationals — the terms of which heavily favored the Orioles — and a guarantee from baseball that the Orioles would be sold for at least $365 million.
The parallel to the situation involving the Giants and Athletics is not exact. Washington DC was not covered by the Orioles’ territorial rights. Also, Orioles owner Peter Angelos was willing to be compensated for potential losses in revenue.
The Giants have maintained that their territorial rights to the South Bay are nonnegotiable. Larry Baer, the team’s new “control person,” has long said the relocation of the A’s to San Jose would destabilize the San Francisco franchise.
The Giants, projecting a payroll of about $130 million next season, will need to draw at least 3.2 million to break even, one source said. The team, which drew nearly 3.4 million last season coming off its first World Series title, cannot afford much slippage.
The question for Selig is how to balance the Giants’ interests with the best interests of the game. If he agrees with the Athletics — that Oakland is a lost cause and San Jose a sleeping giant — he will need to figure out how to protect the Giants in the long term.
Selig recently persuaded the Houston Astros to move from the National League to the American League as a condition of their sale. He has no such leverage over the Giants, but the Athletics have no obvious place to move outside the Bay Area.