San Jose sues MLB over A’s move, hopes antitrust threat trumps problematic legal case

Into the comfortable endless stasis of the Oakland A’s attempts to move to San Jose — and the San Francisco Giants‘ refusal to let them, and MLB’s refusal to take sides — the San Jose city council threw a bombshell last night, voting behind closed doors to file a lawsuit in federal court against MLB, saying the league, in refusing to allow the relocation, has conducted an “illegal cartel” and engaged in a “blatant conspiracy” to commit unfair business practices and violations of antitrust law.

Let’s be clear: This is potentially a huge deal. (Though also potentially not a huge deal — more on that in a moment.) Not so much because of the merits or lack thereof of San Jose’s case — I’m the farthest thing from a lawyer, and in any event the prior rulings around sports league practices have been thin and contradictory — but because MLB is deathly afraid of anything that might risk its precious antitrust exemption, which was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1922 under the bizarre argument that baseball isn’t interstate commerce. The last time a serious antitrust threat was levied against MLB was 20 years ago, when Giants owner Bob Lurie tried to move his team to St. Petersburg, and the league blocked him, forcing him to sell to local owners in San Francisco. When Florida threatened to sue, MLB quickly summoned the Tampa Bay Devil Rays into existence to make the challenge go away.

There are differences in the San Jose case, obviously. First off, MLB hasn’t actually blocked Lew Wolff from moving the A’s to San Jose; the league has simply told him if he wants to do it, he’ll have to negotiate a territorial rights payoff to the Giants, and it’s up to them to work that out. (Actually, the league has publicly just said, “Hang on, we’re still thinking about it,” but everyone knows that behind closed doors it’s “Talk to the Giants, we’ll be over here.”) Also, Florida by all accounts has some of the toughest state antitrust laws in the nation, so a California suit may not hold the same level of threat.

NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra, who is a lawyer, goes so far as to call the San Jose suit “more full of crap than Bob Melvin’s office was on Sunday afternoon,” mostly because the city doesn’t actually have a deal for the A’s to move there, and so doesn’t have standing to sue. If Wolff had sued, writes Calcaterra, “claiming that MLB is preventing them from moving and that MLB’s insistence that they stay in Oakland has caused them financial damages, I think it would have a puncher’s chance.” The suit, he says, reads more like a p.r. document than a valid legal challenge.

What we have here, in the end, is a complicated multi-sided game of chicken in which nobody can quite use all the powers that they have at their disposal. San Jose has nothing to lose by suing, but lousy legal standing. Wolff has a way better case, but also risks becoming persona non grata at the MLB owners’ meetings if he were to try to sue the fellow members of their little club. (It’s worth noting that Wolff backed away from the suit as fast as possible yesterday, saying he had “no details” about it, and that “I’m not in favor of legal action or legal threats to solve business issues.”) MLB has a great chance of winning the case, if Calcaterra is to be believed, but could face public scrutiny of its business practices if it went to trial; and the downside of actually losing — and having the 1922 antitrust exemption be overturned — would be catastrophic as far as the league’s owners are concerned.

If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll likely see MLB try like the dickens to get this suit dismissed as soon as possible, to avoid any chance of an actual trial. If that fails, then you might see some talk of a settlement, with the league pressing the Giants’ owners to cut a deal with Wolff. Though that carries risk, too, because if this San Jose gambit works, what’s to stop, say, New Jersey from suing on the grounds that it’s not allowed to bring the Rays or Marlins there?

In any case, the San Jose council seems to have decided that this is the right moment — especially after last weekend’s shower poop fiasco — to try to shake MLB into some kind of action. It almost certainly won’t work immediately, but if they can whether MLB’s challenges and find a judge willing to let the case proceed, it is the one thing that Bud Selig might just be afraid of. Certainly more than he is of a little raw sewage.


8 comments on “San Jose sues MLB over A’s move, hopes antitrust threat trumps problematic legal case

  1. Agree with Ty and I’ll add, how much $$$ has the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL et al. given to members of Congress to “see things their way,” when it comes to how they conduct their respective businesses?

  2. Nice article Neil.

    Just one point to Calcaterra’s argument, however: Both Lew Wolff (and Calcaterra) are surely aware that Wolff would not, emphatically not, have “a puncher’s chance” as a plaintiff v MLB.

    Like all MLB owners, Wolff has signed away his right to bring action against MLB as part of his franchise agreement. That isn’t a road he is going down now or ever, unless he’d really like to force Bud to buy him out (at price Bud picks, unfortunately).

    Depending on the argument actually made in court (again… unlikely it gets there, but…) San Jose might be granted standing (if, for example, they argued not that the “A’s” should be here, but that the existence of MLB franchises in two other cities near them make it impossible to ever win a franchise of their own. It seems a tenuous restraint of trade/racketeering argument, but not entirely superfluous). As we’ve both noted recently, MLB has made no such pronouncement of course. So it’s difficult to see how that course of action gains them anything other than a (brief) day in court.

    If they are suing because they “can’t have the A’s”, my only response would be “Why aren’t they filing 29 additional suits against MLB as well?” They can’t have the Yankees, Dodgers or Rangers either.

  3. It’s kind of funny that anybody would consider this an opportunity to win one against Big Time Sports.

    Let’s see. We have a mega-millionaire team owner who knew what he was getting into when he bought the Oakland franchise. He knew the rules, but would rather not have to live by them now so that he can make few extra $hundredmillion. And somehow having San Jose sue on his behalf is a potential victory for the common man?

    No.

  4. Calcaterra is way off basis. He does not understand the basis of the argument. NY, LA , and Chicago are all shared 100%. Meaning if the Mets want to move to Manhattan the Yankees cannot say a word, the Angels to Downtown LA or the Cubs to the South Side of Chicago the Dodgers and White Sox would have to “eat it”.

    The Bay Area not being shared is a direct violation of Anti-Trust law and unfair competitive business practice. The Giants and MLB cannot restrict San Jose because of “magical” territorial rights when the A’s have shared the market with the Giants since 1968.

    People in San Jose can watch the A’s on TV. In fact the A’s are on TV in bars all the time. The market is shared TV wise, so therefore why can’t the A’s move 35 miles south to San Jose and move further away from the Giants if the other teams who share markets are allowed to do so?

    Baltimore and Washington DC are the not the same as NY, LA, Chicago and the Bay Area because they are separate media markets while the other 2-team markets are all shared media wise. People in SF, Oakland and San Jose see the same local news.

    He also does not understand San Jose does have an agreement with Lew Wolff to purchase the remaining parcels of land in Downtown San Jose for the ballpark. That agreement is the “contractual” basis of the lawsuit.

    MLB is in deep hole on this one. By waiting 4 years MLB essentially built San Jose’s case for them.

    San Jose is a gold mine that is untapped and the Giants know it and do not want to see the A’s on equal footing.

    The time is come for Selig to answer for his stupidity.

    I am a life long Giants fan from San Jose no less…..I think what has happened is wrong and I for one will welcome the A’s to San Jose with open arms and will buy a seat license…..Of course when the Giants come to town I will be rooting for SF!

  5. It is my belief that the current territory aloted to the Oakland A’s is suffucient.
    Shared teritory in dual team markets only works for merchandising but it dosen’t work
    for relocation. Which i comend MLB for its strict and ethical relocation policies. I belive
    in a socio economic balance of sports teams in the Bay Area. I Belive that san jose’s attempt
    to seduce another neighbor city’s hometown major league team to the South Bays Diridon light rail Corridor
    is wrong for the bay area in so many reasons ethicaly and socio economicaly.
    The legal rehtorict usesd by Cotchett san jose is an aim
    to portrait the MLB and the Giants as bunch of un american monopoltiers. Which they are most certainly not

    Why doesnt bud get all the owners together and say no more shared territory for relocation in dual team markets
    and have these new territorial boundries drawn out agreed upon and instated in the mlb bylaws.

    The A’s have plenty of Deep pockets to get corperate sponsorship from bussineses in their aloted territory
    …for example clorox chevron unocal and biggie…And nothing is stoping them from getting corperate sponsorship
    from any bay area corperation which if the A’s continue on this winning ways and in the near future on to a state of
    the art waterfront ballpark they should not have a problem with bay area corperate sponsorship.

    The new A’s waterfont ballpark will eventually include enhancement of lucritive maritime activities a restoration of eastbay wetlands.
    The new 49er’s stadium is costing a bundle for few handful of games.
    And it is being built out at the armpit of the south end of the san franciso bay up from nothing. They are installing all sorts of new high density developmets to validate importance the southbay’s mediocre trasportation system the vta lightrail.
    This is just another atempt by Santa Clara county to seduce another neighboring county’s hometown major league team and hardwire it into it’s diridon lightral corridor. It’s a big debate on who’s the pigs or greedy unamerican ones are in this situation. Chuck reed says he feels for the folk of Oakland and the eastbay. Well LEAGAL ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS.
    I belive the bay area needs to have a socio econmic balance of major league sports venues all link up to BART. San Jose scheemers have lobbied against BART coming into San Jose for way to many years. As those of you who are wise to scheeming politicians the green light with be given for BART coming to San Jose as soon as The OAKLAND A’s are hardwired into to Santa Clara Counties Diridon VTA Lightrail Coridor.
    I could envision a Bay Area with SF The Giants and The Golden State Warriors in San Fransico.
    Oakland Raiders and A’s in Oakland in new State of the art facilities.
    And the Sharks And the Niners And the Sabercats and the Earthquakes in the Southbay.
    I think the southbay has the majority of teams. I think we should advocate to keep a relevant vibrant sports torism industry in the east-bay too.
    The A’s Have to stop cheating on Mrs. Alameda Contra Costa of Oakland with Miss Santa Clara of San jose. Miss Santa Clara of San Jose has gone a little fatal attraction against the greater good of the of the socio economic balance of sports and the best interests of the whole bay area.

  6. It is my belief that the current territory aloted to the Oakland A’s is suffucient.
    Shared teritory in dual team markets only works for merchandising but it dosen’t work
    for relocation. Which i comend MLB for its strict and ethical relocation policies. I belive
    in a socio economic balance of sports teams in the Bay Area. I Belive that san jose’s attempt
    to seduce another neighbor city’s hometown major league team to the South Bays Diridon light rail Corridor
    is wrong for the bay area in so many reasons ethicaly and socio economicaly.
    The legal rehtorict usesd by Cotchett and san jose is an aim
    to portrait the MLB and the Giants as bunch of un american monopoltiers. Which they are most certainly not

    Why doesnt bud get all the owners together and say no more shared territory for relocation in dual team markets
    and have these new territorial boundries drawn out agreed upon and instated in the mlb bylaws.

    The A’s have plenty of Deep pockets to get corperate sponsorship from bussineses in their aloted territory
    …for example clorox chevron unocal and biggie…And nothing is stoping them from getting corperate sponsorship
    from any bay area corperation which if the A’s continue on this winning ways and in the near future on to a state of
    the art waterfront ballpark they should not have a problem with bay area corperate sponsorship.

    The new A’s waterfont ballpark will eventually include enhancement of lucritive maritime activities a restoration of eastbay wetlands.
    The new 49er’s stadium is costing a bundle for few handful of games.
    And it is being built out at the armpit of the south end of the san franciso bay up from nothing. They are installing all sorts of new high density developmets to validate importance the southbay’s mediocre trasportation system the vta lightrail.
    This is just another atempt by Santa Clara county to seduce another neighboring county’s hometown major league team and hardwire it into it’s diridon lightral corridor. It’s a big debate on who’s the pigs or greedy unamerican ones are in this situation. Chuck reed says he feels for the folk of Oakland and the eastbay. Well LEAGAL ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS.
    I belive the bay area needs to have a socio econmic balance of major league sports venues all linked up by BART. San Jose scheemers have lobbied against BART coming into San Jose for way to many years. As those of you who are wise to scheeming politicians the green light will be given for BART coming to San Jose as soon as The OAKLAND A’s are hardwired into to Santa Clara Counties Diridon VTA Lightrail Coridor.
    I could envision a Bay Area with SF The Giants and The Golden State Warriors in San Fransisco.
    Oakland Raiders and A’s in Oakland in new State of the art facilities.
    And the Sharks And the Niners And the Sabercats and the Earthquakes in the Southbay.
    I think the southbay has the majority of teams. I think we should advocate to keep a relevant vibrant sports tourism industry in the eastbay too.
    The A’s Have to stop cheating on Mrs. Alemeda Contra Costa of oakaland with Miss Santa Clara of sanjose. Miss Santa Clara of san jose has gone a little fatal atraction against the greater good of the of the socio econmic balance of sports and the best intrests of the whole bay area.

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