Is Bud Selig trying to kill the Oakland Athletics?
The Oakland Coliseum has been a disaster for 15 years, at least for baseball, destroyed by the return of the NFL's Raiders. The A's sold the fewest tickets in the major leagues last year.
On the day after opening day, this was the turnstile count at the Coliseum: 5,200. That's a good crowd, if you're the Lake Elsinore Storm.
It has been 13 months since Selig appointed a task force to tell him where the A's could build a ballpark. The wait goes on, and on, for so long that we wonder whether the commissioner would prefer to wait another year for an answer.
By that time, negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement should be well underway. The A's and Tampa Bay Rays are the only clubs desperately seeking new ballparks, and Selig could use the threat of killing those two teams — "contraction" is the euphemism — as leverage in talks with the players' union.
Selig wouldn't discuss that, or much of anything else regarding the A's, in a brief telephone interview Friday. However, according to high-ranking baseball sources granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of labor issues, Selig has no intention of playing the contraction card.
All Selig would say is that he awaits word from his task force.
"I don't know yet what they're going to report," Selig said. "These are very complicated things."
On the surface, this is not very complicated. The A's want to move to San Jose, and Selig either provides his blessing or gives Oakland one last shot.
Yet, Selig craves nothing so much as consensus, and good luck with that. The task force is expected to deliver its report within weeks, but there might be nothing final about it.
San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area, in the region with the broadest base of fans and corporations. If the San Francisco Giants aren't going to play there, the A's ought to.
The more money the A's make, after all, the less welfare other owners have to provide in revenue sharing. Once Selig shares those numbers, the other owners might well vote to strip the Giants of their territorial right to San Jose.
Not so fast, the Giants say. If the Giants lose many of their San Jose customers to the A's, then the owners might have to redirect those welfare savings to propping up the Giants.
You don't have to be Judge Judy to figure out the solution: The A's move to San Jose, and they cut the Giants a check for any losses.
However, the task force has not discussed specific assessments with either the A's or other clubs, according to two major league executives not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
That leaves Oakland in a cautiously optimistic mood, quite an upgrade from one year ago, when city officials assumed the task force would simply offer cover for A's owner Lew Wolff to leave town.
San Jose has the land, but voters would need to approve giving that land to the A's. Oakland could transfer land to the A's without a public vote, but the city would need to buy out some private property owners to deliver its preferred waterfront site.
Can Selig endorse San Jose and risk losing an election? Can he endorse Oakland without land in hand? Does he spend a few more months trying to pacify the Giants, who vow not to go quietly, or the A's, who say they exhausted their efforts in Oakland years ago?
Wolff has pursued a new ballpark for seven years, at first as the point man for the previous owners, who gave up and sold him the team. His frustration is evident, but his words are measured. On this issue, Selig — his college fraternity brother — has all but slapped a gag order on him.
He says the A's would not strike it rich in San Jose, not when they would build the ballpark themselves and face what he says would be $18 million to $20 million per year in mortgage payments, but could do well enough for fans to develop a rooting interest in Brett Anderson and Kurt Suzuki rather than watch General Manager Billy Beane trade them away.
"We're in this so I can give Billy enough money to keep players," Wolff said. "We're still not going to be in the free-agent market."
As he sits in his Los Angeles office, Wolff swivels his chair and retrieves a white three-ring binder, the kind a high school student might use to present a term paper.
The sheets inside include names and pictures of this year's Oakland players, the easier for him to identify them when he sees them at Angel Stadium this weekend.
"I'm the only owner that has to carry this kind of book around," he said, "because we don't have the ability to keep our players around."
If this goes on much longer, he could fit all of the paying customers into one of those binders.