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.