SAN JOSE -- After four-plus years of waiting to hear whether the Oakland A's will be allowed to move to San Jose, the city filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Major League Baseball in a bid to shake up a game seemingly stuck in extra innings.
The lawsuit accused MLB of a "blatant conspiracy" to deprive San Jose of a major league baseball team by granting the San Francisco Giants exclusive territorial rights to San Jose, which the defending World Series champions refuse to relinquish.
"For years, MLB has unlawfully conspired to control the location and relocation of major league men's professional baseball clubs under the guise of an 'antitrust exemption' applied to the business of baseball," said the 44-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose. The suit is being handled at no cost to the city by the Burlingame law firm of Joseph W. Cotchett, which has worked on some of the nation's largest antitrust cases and represented the NFL in similar litigation.
The legal action marks an abrupt change in strategy for city leaders who have mostly avoided confrontation since Major League Baseball began a protracted study of the A's stadium options in 2009. It reflects a growing sense that San Jose, once confident it would soon be a major league city, has little left to lose -- and that similar suits by other cities have succeeded in the past.
MLB executive Rob Manfred said the league "has acted in the best interests of our fans, our communities and the league" regarding the A's ballpark needs. He called the lawsuit "an unfounded attack on the fundamental structures of a professional sports league."
"It is regrettable that the city has resorted to litigation that has no basis in law or in fact," Manfred said.
The San Francisco Giants had no comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.
A's owner Lew Wolff said he had "no details" about the lawsuit. He said that "nothing's changed" as far as his team's quest for a San Jose ballpark but added: "I'm not in favor of legal action or legal threats to solve business issues."
Though Wolff has argued Oakland has no workable ballpark plan, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said Tuesday that "instead of looking at lawsuits," her city "has really been focused on finding a new stadium for the A's."
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said the council voted to sue unanimously. City officials have talked about suing for months, frustrated by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig repeatedly rebuffing the mayor's efforts to move it along. They have noted other examples, in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Seattle, where cities eventually got teams after suing baseball.
"After waiting for more than four years for an answer from Major League Baseball, it's clear that we're not going to get an answer," Reed said.
The suit is a direct challenge to Major League Baseball's unique 91-year-old exemption to federal antitrust laws, which gives it more control over its teams than other professional sports leagues have. It originated with a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision that baseball is not interstate commerce that Congress can regulate. The court twice upheld the decision, in 1953 and 1972. But many legal scholars have argued it is inconsistent with law applied to other leagues and vulnerable to challenge.
"Whereas baseball may have started as a local affair," the lawsuit said, "modern baseball is squarely within the realm of interstate commerce. MLB Clubs ply their wares nationwide, games are broadcast throughout the country on satellite TV and radio, as well as cable channels, and MLB Clubs have fan bases that span from coast to coast."
But lower court decisions on the exemption since the early 1970s have gone both ways, leaving it unclear how the Supreme Court might rule if it chose to revisit the issue.
"Since the law is so murky, there's no uncontroversial answer," said Stuart Banner, who teaches law at UCLA and has just written a book, "The Baseball Trust, a History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption." "It all depends on which group of cases you think is more persuasive."
The Giants' territorial rights to the San Jose area originated in the early 1990s. The Giants were considering Santa Clara County for a new stadium to replace frigid, windy Candlestick Park, where they had played since 1960.
A's owners at the time went along with the Giants' desire to move south. After two failed attempts to secure voter approval for taxes to build a new South Bay ballpark, the Giants privately financed AT&T Park in San Francisco.
But the territorial division remained, giving the counties of Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey to the Giants, Alameda and Contra Costa to the A's. The two teams disputed the intent of that split in dueling news releases a year ago. The A's argued it was only "subject to relocating" the Giants to Santa Clara County, which the teams had shared when the A's came from Kansas City in 1968. The Giants countered that MLB owners including the A's repeatedly reaffirmed the territorial split, which the Giants relied upon in financing their ballpark.
University of Virginia law professor Gordon Hylton, who has studied the legal history of American sports, said he "never thought that the division of the Bay Area into two distinct areas made much sense." He added that organized baseball's monopoly is "almost certainly a violation of the federal antitrust laws."
But Hylton was skeptical a San Jose lawsuit against the baseball monopoly would succeed. "San Jose would probably be better off appealing to Congress than the courts," Hylton said.
Wolff said he turned to San Jose, where he owns hotels, for a new stadium after new ballpark efforts in Oakland and Fremont fell through.
San Jose approved environmental studies on a ballpark to be built near the city's hockey arena and the Diridon train station. Councilman Sam Liccardo has called it "the most transformative private economic development project" for San Jose "in anyone's memory."
The A's, now defending an American League West title, have dominated the diamond again this season and revived an Oakland fan base whose history of low attendance had been cited among reasons for moving the team to San Jose, twice Oakland's population.
Earlier this year, an exasperated Reed wrote Selig requesting a personal meeting to resolve the ballpark impasse and hinting it could avoid "additional litigation." But Selig just referred the mayor to his committee and said the litigation reference was not "productive."
Staff writer Matthew Artz contributed to this report. Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
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