AS THOUSANDS OF scorned A’s fans lament what appears to be the imminent end of the team’s playing days in Oakland, the organization’s many past dalliances with relocation have come under a renewed spotlight.
All signs now point to Las Vegas, but more than a decade ago the team and its then-managing partner, San Jose developer Lew Wolff, had many wondering if the A’s could move to San Jose.
“The big fish that got away,” Nanci Klein, San Jose’s economic development director, told San José Spotlight about the A’s.
San Jose’s top officials did just about everything they could to lay the groundwork for the team to move south, including purchasing a valuable assemblage of downtown land next to Diridon Station for a stadium. But the potential change of scenery was ultimately doomed by Major League Baseball itself.
Now, many years after San Jose lost its shot for an MLB team and the A’s relationship with Oakland became increasingly toxic — the team is headed for the desert. Nevada lawmakers last week passed a $380 million bill to help fund a new stadium for the A’s in Las Vegas and Gov. Joe Lombardo signed it a day later.
The biggest hurdle in San Jose’s failed quest to nab the team was competition.
MLB executives refused to strip territorial fan rights for all of Santa Clara County away from the San Francisco Giants and their then-president Larry Baer, which would have opened the door for the A’s.
“Larry Baer deserves a lot of credit for protecting his team, and a lot of credit for moving the A’s out of California,” Wolff told San José Spotlight about the effort that spanned from roughly 2009 to 2013. “That’s sour grapes on my part, but that’s the story.”
The saga ended in bitter litigation between the city and the league with San Jose challenging MLB’s long-held federal antitrust exemption, which allows MLB commercial freedoms worth billions. The high-profile legal fight spanned nearly three years.
The city was defeated when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear its case in 2015. MLB reportedly spent about $10 million defending the case in lower courts.
The way to San Jose
Had the path been cleared for San Jose, it’s hard to say for sure if the A’s would have ended up in the city.
Some speculate team owners would’ve instead used the prospect of relocation as a bargaining chip to get a stadium deal in Oakland, where Wolff said three consecutive mayors had little interest in helping him and John Fisher’s team. Fisher, heir to the Gap fortune and a developer, is the majority owner of the San Jose Earthquakes and the A’s. At the time, Wolff was a minority owner who managed the organization. Fisher in 2016 bought out almost all of Wolff’s minority share, and is now also the managing partner.
“We didn’t want to have the territory in San Jose to move to San Jose, but we needed to be just like anybody else, we needed another place to say, ‘Hey, if you don’t want to help us, maybe San Jose might,” Wolff said. “We struck out in Oakland, we struck out in Fremont. The reason I wanted San Jose territory was to put more pressure on Oakland.”
Klein acknowledged it’s not uncommon for cities to get played off one another, but believed the relocation idea had substance at the time.
“San Jose worked very hard and put together a very good proforma and proposal that, we believe, if we didn’t have the territorial issues, then it would have gone forward,” she said.
The idea had such legs that team officials released renderings of the stadium called Cisco Field, spanning roughly 14 acres near the corner of South Montgomery Street and Park Avenue in San Jose. The team planned to foot the nearly $500 million bill to build it.
Other former San Jose officials agree. If not for the inaction of MLB, they are certain the A’s would be bashing homers and turning double plays down the street from SAP Center.
“There were many hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the San Jose site by the team in planning phases, and they were prepared to invest a lot more,” former Mayor Sam Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “It was pretty substantial.”
Wolff in 2009 began discussing the possibility of moving the team, but needed then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s help to get territorial rights changed. In three other markets where two professional baseball teams exist—Los Angeles, New York and Chicago — the teams share markets entirely, Wolff said, and the Bay Area should be the same.
A San Francisco Chronicle article recently revealed the Giants’ claim to the South Bay was ironically granted by the A’s and other MLB owners in 1990 on the condition the Giants move to Santa Clara County, which never happened, suggesting the rights should have been taken away.
Selig, Wolff’s college fraternity brother, started a “blue ribbon” committee in 2009 to explore the issue of territory rights in San Jose. The committee became infamous for producing no decision after four years of ostensible work.
The committee was made up of “a bunch of sycophants for the Giants,” Wolff said. “I call it the blue sycophants committee.”
Bringing professional baseball to San Jose was a tremendous economic opportunity — and could have helped change the city’s longstanding inferiority complex with San Francisco, officials said.
“People were excited, they thought it was going to happen. And it just evaporated,” said Bob Staedler, a land use consultant and former real estate manager for San Jose’s redevelopment agency. He’s disappointed with the way MLB treated the city.
“If territorial rights were the main reason anything could or could not happen … they should have resolved that in the billionaire boys club before they wasted our time,” Staedler told San José Spotlight.
Many Silicon Valley leaders say the roughly seven acres of land San Jose originally bought for a potential stadium was a solid investment. The land was later bought by Google as part of its 80-acre Downtown West project. And despite the massive project’s delay as the company downsized during a wave of layoffs in the tech industry, South Bay leaders say they are confident in the long-term Google commitment.
“Having the A’s in San Jose would have been a big deal,” former Mayor Chuck Reed told San José Spotlight. “But Google is better. So I don’t feel bad.”
Reed said he doesn’t lose sleep over what could have been, even as the A’s are about to move to Nevada.
“I don’t think it really matters to me very much what happens with the A’s,” Reed said. “They had their shot at San Jose, Major League Baseball had their shot at San Jose, they struck out.”
San Jose’s professional baseball dreams might not be dead, however. The city could once again put itself in the running as the home for a future franchise, as MLB seeks to grow its organization.
“I believe that San Jose is a very smart place for a team,” Klein said. “So if we can’t have the A’s, then maybe someday we’ll have an expansion team.”
Wolff, still a 1 percent owner in the A’s, agrees that San Jose might be the best location for a new Bay Area ballclub.
“If I were the city of San Jose, I would have the mayor and the City Council all as one go to (MLB) and say, ‘There might be a team coming to the Bay Area again. You should clean up this problem of the shared territory, no matter what the Giants say,’” Wolff said.
Contact Joseph Geha at firstname.lastname@example.org or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.