Who Has Moral High Ground In A's-Giants Dispute?

OAKLAND, CA : Chris Stewart #37 of the San Francisco Giants heads home on a throwing error by Guillermo Moscoso #52 of the Oakland Athletics in the fifth inning during a MLB baseball game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Oakland A's really want to move to San Jose and the San Francisco Giants really don't want the A's to move to San Jose. We've got an impasse, and now we've got both teams arguing through press release. Is anyone "right"?

There are few things more entertaining, from a distance anyway, than internecine squabbles. As long as nobody's actually getting hurt. So yesterday was a lovely day, as the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants released dueling press releases. The subject? An obscure baseball subject known as "territorial rights". The Giants have San Jose and Silicon Valley in their territory, and the Athletics want some of that high-tech action. Specifically, they want to build a new baseball stadium in Santa Clara County's San Jose.

First, from the A's:

Of the four two-team markets in MLB, only the Giants and A's do not share the exact same geographic boundaries. MLB-recorded minutes clearly indicate that the Giants were granted Santa Clara, subject to relocating to the city of Santa Clara. The granting of Santa Clara to the Giants was by agreement with the A’s late owner Walter Haas, who approved the request without compensation. The Giants we unable to obtain a vote to move and the return of Santa Clara to its original status was not formally accomplished.

One might, upon reading that, draw the conclusion that Walter Haas agreed to grant Santa Clara County to the Giants because he was approximately a saint, his heart as pure as the driven snow.

Perhaps. Or perhaps, with his Athletics routinely going to the World Series and out-drawing the Giants by huge margins, he saw an opportunity: If the Giants moved to San Jose, would the fans in San Francisco and the rest of northern San Mateo County make the long trek south to see the Giants in their new home?

Perhaps not. Perhaps most of them would choose the shorter trek across the Bay and visit the hyper-successful A's, instead. My guess -- and I should stress that this is just a guess -- is that Haas and the A's didn't "formally" accomplish "the return of Santa Clara to its original status" because there was still some hope that the Giants would ultimately move south, leaving The City wide open to enthusiastic marketing from the Athletics.

And before long, it was too late. From the Giants' press release:

The Giants territorial rights were not granted "subject to" moving to Santa Clara County. Indeed, the A’s fail to mention that MLB’s 1990 territorial rights designation has been explicitly re-affirmed by Major League Baseball on four separate occasions. Most significantly in 1994, Major League Baseball conducted a comprehensive review and re-definition of each club’s territories. These designations explicitly provide that the Giants territory include Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Marin Counties and the A’s territory included Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

The MLB owners unanimously approved those designated territories and memorialized them in the MLB Constitution. Since then, the MLB Constitution has been re-affirmed by the MLB owners – including by the A’s – on three different occasions (2000, 2005 and 2008), long after the Giants won approval to build AT&T Park. Mr. Wolff and Mr. Fisher agreed to these territorial designations and were fully aware of our territorial rights when they purchased the A’s for just $172 million in 2005.

Wait a minute. Look at that first sentence. The Giants essentially are accusing the Athletics of lying. But wouldn't it be great if we all could see the "MLB-recorded minutes" and decide for ourselves? But again, all of that is sort of irrelevant. The A's voluntarily gave up the rights to Santa Clara County, they didn't get them back, and the new territories apparently have been reaffirmed multiple times. Memorialized, even.

Now look at that last sentence, and see if you can spot the little dig ... Yeah, that's right: Mr. Wolff and Mr. Fisher bought the A's for just $172 million. As in, "If the A's had any reasonable or enforceable claim to a better territory, the A's would have been worth a lot more than $172 million."

Which might well be true. Probably is true.

It's easy to rail against the Giants for protecting their territory at the expense of another franchise, and I have absolutely no doubt that they're greatly exaggerating the negative impact of a club playing in San Jose. But there almost certainly would be some negative impact, so why should the Giants roll over? Because they're good guys?

They're not good guys. They're millionaires trying to protect their interests, just as the Athletics are millionaires trying to protect their interests. Fundamentally, this is an argument between two rich kids about which gets the bigger bedroom in the family mansion. Except the Giants are the older kid, with more stuff. So he's got a pretty good claim to the big room.

Except the analogy breaks down when we consider it's not just two kids; it's 30 kids, and all 30 theoretically have some say in this dispute. As I understand things, the Giants' territory can be stripped from the Athetics if three-fourths of the MLB franchises agree. I'm pretty sure the A's would vote for that, while the Giants wouldn't. Three-fourths of 30 is 23: the Athletics + 22.

Are there 22 votes for the A's moving to San Jose? If there were, it presumably would have happened already. Why aren't there 22 votes? According to Bill Madden (whose column precipitated this recent battle of press releases):

To strip the Giants of their territorial rights to San Jose would require a three-quarters vote of the clubs, and as one baseball lawyer observed: "Clubs would realize what a terrible 'there but for the grace of God go us' precedent that would create in which all of their territorial rights would then be in jeopardy." As an example of that, one can't imagine the Yankees, Mets or Phillies voting to take the Giants' territorial rights to San Jose away when it could conceivably open the doors for a team seeking to re-locate to New Jersey...

I don't know. I suppose that's right; Neil deMause thinks so. I just can't quite understand why precedent would really be an issue. The owners could elect to redraw the Giants' and Athletics' territorial boundaries this time, but not the Yankees', Mets' or Phillies' next time, right? From what I can tell, three-fourths of the owners can do just about anything they want, regardless of whatever precedent might have been set.

But even granting the point, how many teams are really worried about this? Let's assume the Yankes, Mets, and Phillies. Are the Cubs or White Sox worried about territorial issues? The Dodgers or Angels? The Royals? The Rays? The Astros? I do suspect the Angels would vote against the A's, because they prefer the A's poor. Same for the Rangers, and for the Mariners (who do have territorial issues, as they hope to keep Major League Baseball out of Portland, Oregon, forever). So that's seven votes, including the Giants', against.

You need eight to thwart the Athletics' ambitions. And I suspect it's not all that difficult for the Giants to find another friendly team somewhere.

Everybody wants to know why Bud Selig hasn't simply stepped in and resolved this matter, once and for all. My guess is that he would love to resolve it, and in the favor of the Athletics because a) Major League Baseball is stronger if the A's aren't destitute, and b) he and Lew Wolff go way, way back. But Commissioner Bud is a consummate vote-counter, and I strongly suspect that he simply doesn't have the votes. And probably won't get them.

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