As the sporting world started to throw a pity party for the Oakland A's over the raw sewage that overtook their outdated abode Sunday, the franchise's leaders needed to RSVP in the negative. By Monday afternoon, they appeared to be doing just that.
The refrain of "See, this is why we need a new stadium" had been downsized to general manager Billy Beane's very wise comment to the Bay Area News Group: "It happens here all the time. If we say anything, we're told we're being opportunist."
The plumbing failure created havoc, forcing the Mariners and A's out of their clubhouses and into a bipartisan shower in the Raiders' locker room on a higher level of the Coliseum. But the sewage couldn't compare to the political mess behind the effort to find the A's a new home. That cleanup will require a lot more than sump pumps and new carpeting.
The question isn't what the A's need, but where they can build it. Lobbying for a new park in the aftermath of a sewage leak will only bring replies of a similar texture from Oakland politicos: "You can have a new stadium here." To the A's, who covet a San Jose address, in the backyard to Silicon Valley and its corporate wealth, that means less than nothing.
The city of Oakland is in danger of losing all three of its pro sports tenants (the A's, Raiders and Warriors) over the next five years, and its response has been a proposal for a revamped complex called Coliseum City filled with restaurants and hotels as well as new venues for all three teams.
Mayor Jean Quan compares the idea to the complex around the Staples Center in L.A., referring to it as "Staples on Steroids.'' It's a toss-up which point is more ridiculous: equating what has always been a freeway pitstop in tiny Oakland with a slice of downtown Los Angeles or using a PED reference to herald a new beginning at the location that spawned Jose Canseco's literary career.
The plan, such as it is, also calls for a domed football stadium -- in a place that sees very little rain in football season and some of the most pleasant weather in the NFL. Another misguided proposal would have placed the A's near the Oakland waterfront, where public transit would be useless.
At the moment, if Oakland really wants a shot at holding onto the A's permanently, it should assure that the stadium authority, which is jointly run by the County of Alameda, finishes up the five-year lease that the A's say they want. The current one ends after this season.
Some proper maintenance wouldn't hurt, either. It's not the team's job to clean up plumbing disasters, although the A's have done it in the past and then taken the cost off their rent. The stadium's TV sets often have fuzzy reception as well -- more evidence of improper care -- and they mock the ostensibly posh experience of visiting the stadium club. (Actually, the entire club mocks the concept, but that's a different matter.)
Mayor Quan may mean well, or she may simply have more important things to do. Either way, she brings little to the table besides good intentions and enthusiasm, which puts her leagues ahead of her most recent predecessors but not within the A's hearing range.
Bay Area stadium projects tend to have long and twisted histories. The most recent exception -- the rapidly approved renovation of the Coliseum for after the Raiders' return from L.A. 18 years ago -- became a financial disaster and a stern cautionary tale.
The 49ers went through two ballot measures, 13 years apart, in two different cities, before they arrived at a deal for their new Santa Clara home. The team spent close to $5 million on a campaign that yielded a winning total of 14,600 votes. (That's about $350 a vote.)
The Giants went through five ballot measures, a serious threat to move the team to Florida, before they could escape the chill of Candlestick Park and settle in their downtown location. They had to promise to finance the park privately to seal the final deal.
Along that long route, the Giants tried to build in Santa Clara and acquired territorial rights to the surrounding county, which includes San Jose. They now refuse to surrender the rights, arguing that they invested in their new ballpark with the expectation of an audience from the south routinely pouring out of the commuter train station a block away. This has long been the stoutest obstacle to the A's relocation.
A lot of commentators believe that the Giants should give up the rights, allowing the Bay Area to have two thriving teams instead of one financial juggernaut and a poor American League cousin. They argue that no other team holds such rights, or has the power to block relocation to the nation's 10th-largest city. That position is just too simple and knee-jerk. It also presumes that abandoning Oakland, the home of the A's since 1968, for a wealthier region carries no stigma.
The Giants will permanently lose franchise value if the A's take over San Jose. Yes, they stand to gain fans from a vacated Oakland market, since the Coliseum is 30 miles closer to the Giants' park than San Jose. But that won't fully compensate them unless the area vacated by the A's suddenly becomes as prosperous and filled with corporate clout as the South Bay. And if anyone could anticipate that occurrence, the A's would already be digging up some site in Oakland. The Giants have repeatedly said they won't even consider talk of selling the rights.
It will be up to MLB to force them, with a 75 percent vote of the other owners, who so far appear disinclined to pull that lever, or more likely, massage them into agreement . Even if every other owner favored the move, the Giants could fight back in a way that would be devastating to the sport. Any new park in San Jose would have to go to the ballot, and the Giants could fund the opposition. In other words, both franchises would be wallowing in sewage, with no group shower foreseeable at the end.
The A's best leverage would have to be the argument that moving could mean they'd stop receiving revenue-sharing subsidies. But stripping the Giants of the turf might endanger the franchise's profitability, threatening to put them on the revenue-sharing dole at some point in the future.
That seems unlikely at the moment, since the Giants have won two of the last three World Series and they have a lucrative partnership with their regional broadcaster. But this conflict isn't about what will happen in the next four or five, or even 10 years. It's a battle over property rights, a principle owners of anything valuable tend to hold dear, and where baseball in the Bay Area might be 20 years from now.
The commissioner famously formed a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue, and four years have passed since the work -- or record-shattering spa days -- began. A gag order has descended on all parties, and it's a sign of the conflict's gravity that there have been no real leaks. A week ago, A's managing partner Lew Wolff did almost a half-hour interview with the flagship radio station, and filled up the airwaves with every possible flavor of "no comment'' -- weary, exasperated, stern, humorous, even self-deprecating.
MLB knows that any discussion about this topic distracts from the game itself. The A's know they're supposed to stress the fact that they have one of the hottest teams in baseball. When they announced their intent to move to San Jose in 2009, every deal Beane made was at risk of being interpreted as a talent dump meant to prove that the A's could no longer compete in Oakland. The accusations were unfair and they have now been thoroughly rebutted.
The sewage in the clubhouse doesn't change the talking points. The A's need to keep making nice with other owners, abiding by the spirit, as well as the letter, of the gag order. The sewage will speak for itself.