SAN JOSE -- As the four-year impasse drags on over the Oakland A's planned San Jose move, downtown business leaders eager to tap an anticipated fan spending windfall have begun kicking around the idea of suing those in baseball who are holding it up.
For now, it's just talk. But with no sign that Major League Baseball is ready to clear an A's move over the San Francisco Giants' territorial claims, San Jose business leaders have discussed litigation as a possible fallback "nuclear option."
"The frustration is growing," said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, which talked about the idea at a retreat earlier this month. "We were just talking conceptually. There's a lot more study that needs to be done for us to see if we have a role. What can we do to impact the decision-making, and is it helpful?"
The presumed targets of a lawsuit would be the San Francisco Giants and Major League Baseball, whose long-standing and unique antitrust exemption would be put to the test. The Giants' territorial claims, upheld by Major League Baseball, have blocked the A's move. And the Giants' minor league affiliate has joined in suing San Jose over environmental approval of the proposed A's ballpark.
MLB spokesman Pat Courtney and San Francisco Giants spokeswoman Staci Slaughter had no comment. A's co-owner Lew Wolff said he has "no comment but also no interest" in any lawsuit over his team's stalled San Jose move.
MLB requires that teams agree not to sue over disputes. But that doesn't mean cities or business groups can't turn to the courts.
San Jose officials, notably downtown Councilman Sam Liccardo and Mayor Chuck Reed, also have broached the possibility of litigation over the A's impasse. But San Jose has deferred to Wolff, a college fraternity brother of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.
"I'm not very high on lawyers or lawsuits," Wolff said.
Selig, answering an April 2 letter in which Reed asked to meet with the commissioner and "reduce the probability for additional litigation," called the reference "neither productive nor consistent with the process that the Athletics have initiated under our rules."
But businesses independently exploring a lawsuit adds a new wrinkle, as the city and the A's might not be able to hold them back. Knies suggested businesses might not seek Wolff's blessing to file a lawsuit, knowing his feelings about the matter.
"Lew has been very consistent about following baseball's process," Knies said. "If you don't want hear it again, don't ask."
Three-fourths of the 30 major league team owners would have to approve an A's move into the Giants' territory. Selig in March 2009 commissioned a three-member committee to review the proposed A's move to San Jose. But despite several meetings and site visits, there's been no resolution.
No business has stepped forward as a potential plaintiff to sue over the blocked ballpark, though Knies said there are more than 100 restaurants in his organization that could make a claim of economic harm from trade interference. A 2009 city-commissioned study predicted a San Jose A's ballpark would generate $130 million a year in new spending within the city. Businesses can point to a spending boost when the Sharks hockey team plays at the HP Pavilion near the proposed ballpark site.
Restaurateur Steve Borkenhagen called the proposed ballpark "the most critical thing that can happen to downtown development." And San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce President Matt Mahood said "perhaps it's time for the locals to take action themselves in order to get the ball rolling."
Baseball's antitrust exemption arose in a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision, when the now-defunct Federal League claimed the National and American leagues had monopolized the professional game. The court ruled that baseball didn't violate interstate commerce laws because it is more a sport than a business. But other professional sports today don't enjoy such an exemption. Some analysts have suggested the antitrust exemption might not survive a new court challenge, and that MLB might seek a favorable settlement rather than risk losing the exemption altogether.
When MLB blocked a proposed Giants move to St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 1990s, the investors who tried to buy the team filed an antitrust suit. It ultimately settled and within a few years, MLB granted St. Petersburg an expansion team, the Rays. Could something similar happen in San Jose?
"It doesn't strike me as outlandish idea," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports analyst at Smith College in Massachusetts. "It's something that could be tried that might push the envelope to encourage the Giants owners to sit down and make a deal. To have some kind of provocation might push it along."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
Some facts about baseball, antitrust and the Oakland A's proposed move to San Jose: