U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte made his ruling in San Jose’s antitrust suit against Major League Baseball over moving the Oakland A’s late on Friday, and it wasn’t a complete win for either side: Whyte dismissed the city’s antitrust charges, on the grounds that baseball’s longstanding Supreme Court-issued antitrust exemption trumps any challenges, but allowed another portion of the suit, accusing MLB of interfering with San Jose’s sale of a option on stadium land to A’s owner Lew Wolff.
San Jose attorney Phil Gregory called this a “big victory,” but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the antitrust piece is the hammer that MLB was deathly afraid of. As NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra (who’d previously pooh-poohed the San Jose suit as a load of p.r.) points out, the threat posed by the tortious interference claim is pretty limited:
The A’s paid San Jose $50,000 for the option. It expires soon. If they want to keep the option open for another year it’s another $25,000. If the A’s owners were to buy the land, they can do it for between $6 million and $7 million. Nothing in the option agreement, however, promises that the A’s will actually move. It doesn’t even promise that they’ll buy the land. Just that they have the option to do so.
Of course, since the antitrust exemption is in place, the A’s can’t just decide to move to San Jose. Therefore, unless they are the biggest idiots on the planet, they will not agree to commit to the $7 million land deal. Put differently, no A’s witness will get on a stand and say “yes, we totally want to give San Jose $7 million right now but MLB won’t let us!” As such, the value of the contract that San Jose now has to prove MLB interfered with is $75,000. That’s it.
MLB can still be forced to go through the discovery phase, which could include embarrassing subpoenas about Bud Selig’s “blue ribbon commission” and its non-decision-making process, though as FanGraphs’ Wendy Thurm points out, the judge could still allow limits on that as well. But that’s a threat way less scary to MLB than the one of potentially having its antitrust exemption mucked with, and while San Jose could still appeal the rejection of the antitrust claim, that might have to wait until the tortious interference piece is resolved — and even then is a longshot to be approved.
The best-case scenario for San Jose’s A’s-coveting officials here, really, is that MLB decides that the gnat of a suit remaining is annoying enough that Bud Selig calls over to the San Francisco Giants executive offices and says, “Hey, can you at least put a price on what you want for the territorial rights to San Jose, so we can tell this judge we’re not being obstinate?” Though then if the Giants do so, there’s still a fair chance that A’s owner Lew Wolff decides he can’t or won’t pay it, at which point San Jose is suddenly looking at having to prove that MLB is harming them by interfering with a piddly-ass land sale option in order to prevent a franchise relocation that the team’s owner himself is choosing not to pursue. “You’re using your Supreme Court-affirmed rights to control franchise movement to make it too expensive for a team to move to our city” may be a decent argument in the court of public opinion, but unfortunately for San Jose A’s boosters, that court isn’t the one that has jurisdiction here.