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BASEBALL

Sale of A's Seems to Be Facing a Giant Roadblock

September 19, 1999|ROSS NEWHAN

Hurricane Floyd significantly damaged the wild-card pursuit of the Oakland Athletics by forcing a difficult rescheduling of two postponed games in Baltimore.

The A's hopes of remaining in Oakland may have been damaged even more severely by what some in the East Bay and elsewhere consider a blatant ambush by Commissioner Bud Selig and major league owners.

The decision by owners, meeting in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Wednesday, to table a vote on the $122.4-million sale of the A's to a group financed primarily by Bay Area supermarket mogul Robert Piccinini and fronted by former A's executive Andy Dolich ostensibly killed a deal that would have committed the team to Oakland through the 2004 season.

Unless current owners Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman grant the Dolich group an extension of a Monday deadline--which Dolich considers unlikely--Schott and Hoffman would be free to sell to any person or persons who could move the A's after the 2001 season, all part of a complex agreement reached with the city of Oakland and Alameda County after the Raiders returned to a remodeled Coliseum in 1995.

While Schott and Hoffman insist their focus is on the playoff bid and they will support General Manager Billy Beane's attempts to build on the promise of the 1999 season, the A's have been left in owner and location limbo, undercutting the difficult process of rebuilding the fan base after six long and losing seasons.

Are Selig and the owners determined to protect the Bay Area for the San Francisco Giants, who move into a new ballpark next year, and restore it as a one-team market?

Is Selig, who earlier supported a competing group headed by Arizona banker Lyle Campbell and Chicago Cub broadcaster Steve Stone, determined to have that group resurface?

Was there sincere concern on the ownership committee about the financial resources of the Dolich/Piccinini group?

Did Hoffman and Schott, given the escalating value of the A's amid their surprising season, undermine the Dolich deal with the hope they can sell to someone else for more?

All Dolich, executive vice president of sports marketing for Tickets.com, knows is that he was told by baseball lawyers in Cooperstown that his group met all of baseball's criteria. But, the lawyers went on, there will be no ownership transfers in the "underperforming markets of Oakland, Montreal, Minnesota and Kansas City" until the committee currently examining baseball's economics offers possible solutions. That may not be until December or long after, Dolich said, "we become pumpkins."

He added: "We knew about the committee, but we were never told that its work would defer our attempt to buy the team. I'm more perplexed than anything. I just don't think our group fit into their plans, and I don't think you have to be a quantum physicist [to believe they want to make the Bay Area a one-team market again]."

Putting two in that market, Selig said by phone, was one of the "worst mistakes in baseball history."

However, he added, "they are there now and that didn't come up in this case and wasn't the issue."

The issue, he said, is that "the backdrop of baseball economics is influencing all of our decisions regarding franchise transfers," and that until the committee delivers a report "we have to be sensitive to ownership changes, especially in the small markets."

Selig insisted the decision on the A's had nothing to do with the Dolich group per se, but, of course, it did, because the deadline, barring an extension, forecloses on their purchase. And despite what Dolich heard from lawyers about his group meeting all of the criteria, a top baseball official confided that "there was sincere concern about the group's ability to sustain financial order in that market. It wasn't a capricious or arbitrary decision. There was concern that their pockets might not be deep enough."

While Dolich and partners stewed as they picked up news of their rejection from the Associated Press before hearing it directly from the lawyers, owners also tabled a vote on the $75-million purchase of the Kansas City Royals by a large group headed by New York lawyer Miles Prentice. They did, however, approve the purchase of Marge Schott's majority shares in the Cincinnati Reds--they weren't about to delay Schott's departure--by Carl Lindner of Cincinnati-based Chiquita Bananas and two partners. Selig insisted there was no comparison to the Oakland and Kansas City situations "because there is an existing partnership in Cincinnati, a stable market and a new stadium on line."

In Oakland, where city and county officials believe baseball changed the rules in the late innings of this process and are considering legal action, the exciting A's have had a tough time generating an attendance windfall after those six losing seasons. They are averaging an American League-low 18,204 on their way to a total of about 1.5 million, but Dolich insists there is two-team viability in the Bay Area and the annual possibility of two million-plus in Oakland.

It was the A's who set the Bay Area record of 2.9 million in 1990, and it was the Giants who came closest to moving--once to Toronto and once to Tampa, Fla. The Giants are now moving into a new ballpark with a record season-ticket base of 27,000. The A's would find a richer and more attractive environment in San Jose or Santa Clara, but voters have shown no inclination to build a new stadium, and baseball is suddenly saying a lot of that territory belongs to the Giants, which may be vulnerable to legal challenge.

Charlotte? Northern Virginia? There you are. At a time when an East Bay-based group--including Reggie Jackson, who would have become the largest minority investor in any of the 30 teams--was prepared to keep the A's where they are and build on the 1999 hope, baseball has found a way to cloud the club's future again--to a potentially darker degree than Floyd.

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