OAKLAND, Calif. -- Common and commercial sense say San Jose should take the A's, set them up in a sweet little park downtown and let the techie hordes gather for micro-brews and concession-stand sushi. The move from Oakland would be better for the sport of baseball, upgrading a franchise from the 47th-largest city in the country to the 10th. The A's would undoubtedly have a payroll that allowed them to hold on to young stars beyond the arrival of their wisdom teeth.
There's one problem with the plan. It just feels wrong. There's something indecent about a rich city, which grew to be No. 10 in the country through voracious annexation of bedroom communities, suing to take a team from a poorer one.
Technically, the San Jose lawsuit is about MLB's monopolistic practices and the ability of the San Francisco Giants, a team 45 miles removed, to control the city's access to a franchise. San Jose mayor Chuck Reed argues that his city has never been given a chance to compete for a franchise, even though the current owners of the A's want to be in San Jose. MLB, he believes, is allowing the Giants to strangle San Jose's economic development. (Note: Sports on Earth is co-owned by MLB Advanced Media.)
I can't dispute the logic of Reed's view, except to say that on the scale of injustices inflicted by pro sports' monopolies, the draft's power to dictate where a young man will live for the first six years of his professional life ranks quite a bit higher. Plus, the A's owners' desire to move to San Jose seems most pertinent in this conflict, and they have not dared join the lawsuit. This appears to be just as much about the 30-team limit as San Jose's designs on the A's.
For many years, I considered myself fairly agnostic on the fight to move the A's south. I saw both sides pretty equally and while I sided with Oakland sentimentally, I recognized that San Jose represented a stronger market and had leaders considerably more prepared to accommodate the franchise's needs.
But over the last year, Oakland rallied and took the lead. This winter, the city's first Athletic Hall of Fame was born. The list of the inducted served as a reminder of Oakland's rich tradition of great athletes, especially African-Americans, whose retreat from baseball has been mourned by leaders of the game.
There are names such as Rickey Henderson, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan and Curt Flood; Bill Russell, Gary Payton and Jim Hines, the first sprinter to go under 10 seconds in the 100 meters. The city also produced Vada Pinson as well as Jason Kidd, who lived in Oakland but went to the school at St. Joseph's in neighboring Alameda. Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP, hails from Alameda, and CC Sabathia, the only African-American pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in the last 25 years, comes from Vallejo, a northern East Bay city whose residents would find trekking to San Jose for big-league baseball intolerable. San Jose is very ethnically diverse, but the last census showed an African-American population of only 3.2 percent, with the county, Santa Clara, at three percent. In Oakland, the number is 28 percent and for Alameda County, 13 percent.
Last summer I marveled at the Coliseum atmosphere as the A's reached the playoffs with a grossly underestimated roster. The stadium came to life in ways I had never seen before, not even in 2002, when Oakland won a record 20 straight games and the Raiders went to the Super Bowl. (I was not around for the Bash Brothers years.)
In fact, the energy of the Coliseum for the final two weeks of last season ranks as the most exhilarating thing I've witnessed in 18 years as a Bay Area resident and sportswriter. It beat San Francisco's magnificent first World Series parade, Stanford women's basketball extinguishing UConn's record winning streak, a riveting playoff between Tiger Woods and John Daly at Harding Park in 2005 and the 49ers' comeback against the Saints in the divisional playoffs less than 10 months earlier. It was completely unexpected, a bigger upset than even the team's division title.
With every "Let's Go, Oakland'' (never A's) chant, the smitten audience at the Coliseum sounded as if it were fighting for its life, and blithely flipping off anyone, including the team owners, who considered the city incapable of supporting a franchise. If these people could summon this much passion at the Mausoleum, how would they enliven an intimate park built strictly for baseball and sitting in a genuinely urban location, instead of off a desolate freeway exit?
Oakland has never really had a chance to prove itself as a baseball town. In the A's 45 years here, they have always played at the Coliseum, which was built for football. When converted for baseball, the dimensions are mood-killers. The gulf between the paying fans and the action defies every modern principle of ballpark appeal.
The location, except for its access to a BART station, is appalling, an asphalt wasteland. If San Jose targeted a comparable outskirt for its proposed park, the idea would gain zero traction with either the team or MLB. The best new ballparks aspire to be the next Wrigley or Fenway, an urban hub.
Holding Oakland and East Bay baseball fandom responsible for the failures of the Coliseum makes as much sense as saying San Francisco had no love for the game until 13 years ago. The current devout following didn't appear spontaneously. It arrived with the Giants' departure from the secluded wind tunnel on Candlestick Point. They moved into a redeveloping corner of downtown, generating more development.
It's tantalizing to wonder whether a new ballpark could help Oakland, currently undergoing a tentative renaissance, flourish in the same way. Last year, Don Knauss, the CEO of Oakland-based Clorox, appeared at a press conference with public officials and explained how, as CEO of Minute Maid, he had witnessed the revitalization of downtown Houston with the construction of its new ballpark. He wants the same opportunity for Oakland and has called on the A's owners, John Fisher and Lew Wolff, to work with the city and its business community or sell the team.
Some of this pitch sounds like last-minute grandstanding, although given how long MLB has dithered in its contemplation of the A's predicament, who knows what "last-minute" means? Practically speaking, the current suggestions for an Oakland ballpark appear seriously flawed. Mayor Jean Quan has proposed rebuilding on the same site with some retail and hotels added to create "Coliseum City.'' The idea sounds equally unpalatable and unreasonable.
Another favored option, at the waterfront near Jack London Square, faces one immovable obstacle -- an intimidating freeway overpass dividing the area from downtown and the best transit -- and a more surmountable barrier. The loss of redevelopment money from the state killed the idea, according to city and county officials, although one never knows when it might rise again.
If MLB applied its financial heft and influence to the problem, Oakland might become a viable baseball town. It's a risk, especially compared to San Jose, but at some point the commissioner's office will have to tell one of its squabbling children "No.''
So far, Bud Selig has not mustered the guts (or the 75 percent vote from the owners) to take away part of the Giants' vast toy box, as the San Jose lawsuit demands. For all we know, MLB welcomes the court action because the other owners can now shrug their shoulders at Giants CEO Larry Baer and say: "It's either you surrendering the territorial rights or all of us possibly losing our antitrust exemption. We can't stand by you anymore. Give it up, buddy."
Selig can also tell the A's owners to stop dreaming of San Jose and -- backed by as much power as MLB can offer -- negotiate seriously with Oakland leaders or take Knauss up on his promise that an unnamed new ownership group awaits the chance to buy the team. If the battle went this way, MLB might need to throw in some cash toward ballpark financing, to offset the gamble of Oakland and its dearth of corporate riches compared with San Jose. The idea of subsidizing a ballpark for a competitor would probably disgust other owners, even if it might cut off the revenue-sharing spigot for the A's, and it's delusional to think they'd do it .
But I admit this is all largely fantasy, built on emotion, which happens to be the same substance that keeps sports teams in business.