After 32 years, the Oakland Athletics are playing their final spring training games at Phoenix Municipal Stadium this month. Next year the team will be taking over Hohokam Stadium in nearby Mesa, the former Cactus League home of the Chicago Cubs. The move is happening with a minimum of fuss. The mayor of Phoenix threw out the first pitch on opening day, and concession stands around the park sell souvenir cups and pins with the Phoenix Muni logo.
It may be the only time in the 21st century that an A’s stadium transition happens smoothly or amicably.
On Friday, A’s part-owner and managing partner Lew Wolff was quoted by the Silicon Valley Business Journal as saying that he’d asked his architects to explore the possibility of building a temporary ballpark for the A’s if it became impossible for them to stay at the Oakland Coliseum when their current lease expires at the end of 2015.
In a way it’s a situation most of us have encountered at some point, in moving from one apartment or house to another: What do you do if the new place isn’t ready on the day you have to move out of the old one?
The most obvious solution is the Yankee Stadium model: build the new ballpark next to the old one and move when it’s ready. But that may not work for the A’s, largely because they share their current home with the Oakland Raiders. This is where it gets to be like a 15-puzzle — that’s the term for those annoying plastic toys with the numbered squares that you need to shift around to get in the right order.
If the Raiders strike a deal with Oakland to build a new football stadium on the exact footprint of the current Coliseum (which is reportedly their preference), then the A’s might have to find a temporary home while their new ballpark is built. The Raiders would have the same problem, since there’s no way the construction could take place in a single NFL off-season. But they would have the option of temporarily playing at the 49ers’ new Levi’s Stadium.
Similarly, the A’s could play a season or two at AT&T Park. San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer recently said his team would be happy to share its home for a season or two if the A’s were building a ballpark in Oakland or elsewhere in the East Bay. If the A’s win permission from Major League Baseball to move to San Jose, which so far has been denied them, the Giants might not be so hospitable, since Santa Clara County is currently designated as Giants territory.
That’s where the option of a temporary stadium would come in. Rhamesis Muncada of newballpark.org described how the new minor league soccer team Sacramento Republic FC is building such a facility at the state fairgrounds and suggested that could be a model for the A’s.
But that seems like a big stretch for a major league team. Not only Major League Baseball but the players’ union would want to get involved to be sure the games played and stats recorded in a temporary park would be comparable to a permanent one. And building a safe facility in a seismically active region isn’t any easier simply because the structure is temporary.
Meanwhile, the city of San Jose’s legal battle with Major League Baseball shifts to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
You may remember that last year, San Jose got tired of waiting for baseball and its commissioner, Bud Selig, to make a decision on whether the A’s would be allowed to move to San Jose, and filed a lawsuit. Last October, a federal court judge in San Jose dismissed the suit’s challenge to Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption (a second part of the suit, alleging that baseball officials broke state law by interfering with the city’s contract with the A’s, was allowed to proceed). U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte ruled, in effect, that it’s up to Congress, not the courts, to deal with the antitrust issue.
The city appealed Whyte’s antitrust ruling and last week filed an 83-page brief arguing its case.
To get more perspective on how the city is going to press its antitrust claim, I talked to lawyer-turned-sportswriter Wendy Thurm.
Thurm: San Jose appears to be taking the position that the scope of the antitrust exemption is a question of fact, for a jury to decide. That’s pretty unusual. It’s not something that San Jose argued in the district court. I can understand from a strategic perspective why San Jose would do that, because it allows the court of appeal, if they’re so inclined, to take an intermediate step and send the case back to the district court. And then it would open it up for discovery, back in the district court, which would lead to a whole range of documents and sworn testimony from MLB executives. I’ve never seen that argument before, and it strikes me as a bit of a Hail Mary pass.
Thorsen: That’s been a theory when people talk about this case — that MLB will do anything to avoid discovery, that they don’t want to open up their books, that Bud Selig doesn’t want to go into court. Do you think there is that much that’s shocking or proprietary about baseball’s inner workings that they want to conceal?
Thurm: I’ve always heard that speculation, too — that not just MLB, but the individual owners would much prefer to keep their financials private, and the owners would pressure MLB to get rid of the lawsuit, down the road if it ever came to that. There’s the additional pressure point, for the league as a whole, of putting the antitrust exemption at risk. Major League Baseball is the only one of the four professional sports that still hangs on to this exemption from antitrust law, and in particular as it relates to team location and relocation. MLB doesn’t want to lose that, and has had to fight for it in Congress and in the courts. They’re a long way from having to give up documents or losing that exemption, but I see both those as pressure points. Which is why the way the district court case played out really couldn’t have been any better for Major League Baseball.
Thorsen: By dismissing it quickly?
Thurm: Yes. Now San Jose was successful in getting an expedited appeal, and I was quite surprised that the 9th Circuit agreed to do that. So what normally would take a year to 18 months, between the briefings, and being assigned to a panel, and having oral arguments — that process is going to move along much more quickly in the 9th Circuit, and we’re likely to get at least an initial decision sometime this fall.
Thorsen: So do you have a guess about what’s likely to happen?
Thurm: Ultimately I think the 9th Circuit will affirm the district court’s decision (to dismiss San Jose’s case). But it will be interesting to see, if they affirm, how aggressive they might be on whether they think the law ought to be changed and whether the case law ought to be overturned, to set it up so that the Supreme Court might be interested in taking it. What’s so interesting about this is that events on the ground have changed. In Oakland, both the business community and the politicians are trying to gather steam for their two different stadium proposals, Coliseum City and Howard Terminal. If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said eventually the A’s are going to be allowed to move to San Jose. Now there’s movement towards resolving the ballpark situation in Oakland, in which case this lawsuit might just go away.