For more than four years, San Jose officials have been asking Major League Baseball to decide on the Oakland Athletics' plan to move to a new downtown ballpark in the city over the San Francisco Giants' territorial objections.
But in a court filing late Friday in San Jose's lawsuit over the stalled decision that has kept the Athletics in Oakland's deteriorating Coliseum, MLB lawyers for the first time said they already made that decision in June -- a day before the city sued. And the answer straight from Commissioner Bud Selig: at least for now, no way San Jose.
In the court document, MLB lawyers revealed that the league denied the Athletics' relocation request in a June 17 letter from Selig, who "formally notified the Athletics' ownership that he was not satisfied with the club's relocation proposal." San Jose filed its lawsuit against MLB the following day, alleging the league had violated antitrust laws and unlawfully interfered with a November 2011 option agreement between the city and the Athletics to buy ballpark land.
The revelation came in what is typically a dry summary of each side's position as the antitrust case heads to a Friday hearing on the city's remaining claims. But it was unclear whether Selig's letter was a definitive rejection of the A's San Jose relocation plans, and owner Lew Wolff, while declining to comment on the letter, vowed to continue to pursue the A's move to the South Bay.
"All I can tell you is we're still proceeding as we've always done," Wolff told this newspaper.
MLB lawyers disclosed the letter as part of an effort to persuade U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte that it undercuts San Jose's legal claims. In the same court document, San Jose's lawyers say the city has yet to be provided with Selig's letter, and that it should not be grounds for halting the legal battle.
The letter itself has not been made public. It remains unclear what specific problems the league had with San Jose's stadium proposal, and whether it simply identified further steps the team would have to take to proceed.
The A's have envisioned building a privately financed ballpark on land near the Diridon rail station, not far from the city's hockey arena. But several hurdles stand in the way, in addition to the Giants' territorial rights to San Jose that require a three-fourths vote of all the MLB teams to override. San Jose doesn't own all the proposed ballpark land. And the city's ability to sell the team land it had bought for the ballpark remains in doubt after the state eliminated its redevelopment agency. What's more, city law requires a public vote on any major stadium involving a public subsidy.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said he was unaware of the MLB letter to the A's until notified Saturday, but doesn't consider it a deterrence to moving forward with the legal challenge.
"I don't know that it has any significance whatsoever," Reed said. "We're going ahead with the case."
Whyte is scheduled to hold a hearing in the case on Friday, when he will consider a variety of legal issues, including the importance of the letter.MLB lawyers now maintain that if the city loses the state court case, it would short-circuit its remaining claim in the federal lawsuit. In court papers, MLB lawyers also argue that the June letter does amount to a "final" decision on the A's fate, undermining the city's claim that a failure to act on the relocation bid has damaged the city's interests.
Nathaniel Grow, a University of Georgia business law professor, said much will depend on whether the letter was an outright rejection of the relocation plan, or whether MLB is using a narrow finding from the league as legal ammunition to get rid of the court case. Grow added that an outright denial of the relocation would support MLB's argument that the state law claim should be dismissed, but he found the timing of the disclosure unusual, given that baseball's lawyers could have used the same argument to try to get the case dismissed this summer.
Joe Cotchett, San Jose's lawyer, said Saturday the letter is another indication that baseball is stonewalling the city's bid to lure the A's to the South Bay.
"I think it clearly shows major league baseball's intent here," Cotchett said, declining to elaborate further on the letter.
MLB did not respond to a request for comment. John Keker, the league's lawyer, declined to comment Saturday.
The A's have been seeking MLB approval to move to San Jose since 2009, hoping to abandon Oakland's O.Co Coliseum, the fourth oldest ballpark in the league and the team's home since 1968. Oakland city officials have been working on a proposed plan to retain the A's, as well as the Oakland Raiders, with a stadium complex on the same site, but the A's have yet to express any support for remaining in the East Bay.
"I'm one of those people who's had confidence from the beginning that they couldn't go down there," Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said. "I'm very optimistic about keeping the A's."
Bay Area News Group Reporter Matthias Gafni contributed to this report.
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