It’s hard to see today’s ruling as a victory for San Jose

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I’ve taken a few minutes to gather some thoughts on today’s decision in the San Jose-MLB antitrust lawsuit. I have still not read the decision, but it does appear that the status being currently reported is accurate: (1) the argument by San Jose to have Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption struck down, thereby paving the way for the A’s to move to San Jose over the Giants’ objection has been dismissed; and (2) San Jose continues to have a viable claim against MLB for tortious interference with the city’s contract(s) with the Athletics, which will be pursued under state law.

Let’s take those one-by-one:

San Jose’s Antitrust claim

This was obviously the big target here. And a nice fat one if San Jose could’ve convinced the judge that baseball’s antitrust exemption — which prevents a team from moving into another’s territory — is stupid and wrong.  And the judge did, apparently, say that the exemption is stupid and wrong. Unfortunately he also said that he felt bound by Supreme Court precedent to uphold it, so that matter will now likely be the subject of an appeal. Major League Baseball still has risk of losing their exemption on appeal, but they just bought a year at least before an appeals court rules on it and longer than that before the matter might get to the Supreme Court, which would ultimately have to weigh in to overturn the original case which granted the exemption.

With the claims to overturn the exemption gone, at least for now, the A’s will be unable to move to San Jose. The league rule establishing San Jose as the San Francisco Giants’ territory holds, thus preventing the A’s from going to San Jose.

The state tort law claims

This is the claim alleging that MLB tortiously interfered with San Jose’s contract with the A’s. If you recall: the contract is an option agreement entered into in 2011 between the A’s owners and San Jose for the purchase of some land on which a ballpark would be built. The A’s paid San Jose $50,000 for the option. It expires soon. If they want to keep the option open for another year it’s another $25,000. If the A’s owners were to buy the land, they can do it for between $6 million and $7 million. Nothing in the option agreement, however, promises that the A’s will actually move. It doesn’t even promise that they’ll buy the land. Just that they have the option to do so.

Of course, since the antitrust exemption is in place, the A’s can’t just decide to move to San Jose. Therefore, unless they are the biggest idiots on the planet, they will not agree to commit to the $7 million land deal. Put differently, no A’s witness will get on a stand and say “yes, we totally want to give San Jose $7 million right now but MLB won’t let us!”  As such, the value of the contract that San Jose now has to prove MLB interfered with is $75,000. That’s it.

Where that leaves us

Much of the reaction in the past few hours — including opinion from legal minds I respect, such as FanGraphs’ Wendy Thurm — has it that this outcome gives San Jose leverage to force a deal with MLB to get the A’s to San Jose.  I’ll grant that they’re better off now than they would be if the whole suit had been tossed — and I do want to read their thoughts on it and may change my mind on the matter if they point out something I’m totally missing here — but I can’t see how San Jose suddenly has much more leverage than it had before.

One idea is that Major League Baseball might fear discovery and depositions that could take place.  I’ll grant that no one wants to have their deposition taken, how threatening is this really? The current claim is limited in scope: $75K on a land option. How much email traffic do you think MLB officials have had on that? And how much of it is damning? Sure, maybe there’s all kinds of stuff about how MLB is “conspiring” to keep the A’s out of San Jose, but so what? The court just ruled that, under the antitrust exemption, such behavior is totally legal!

More broadly: how dumb is Major League Baseball? Not too dumb, usually. The entire purpose of Bud’s famous committee on San Jose was to do … nothing. There are likely reports about city and stadium viability and all of that, but the reason you set up that committee is to funnel everything to it and make it disappear for half a decade. Or at least to have it sit there innocuously. It’s staffed, by the way, in part by lawyers who have worked for MLB before. You think they’re sitting on smoking guns? Hardly.

Any effort by San Jose to dig deeper than the matters specific to the A’s and their option contract is irrelevant and discovery about that stuff will be resisted. Maybe they get some things, maybe they don’t. But they don’t get the keys to all of MLB’s finances and Bud Selig’s health records and the famous list of positive PED players and Larry Baer’s grandmother’s apple fritter recipe. With limits on discovery there are limits on leverage. And with an existing claim this small, the discovery will be limited.

OK, long enough, Craig, sum it up

Having a claim hanging out there is not good for MLB. But having a trial court decision that the antitrust exemption is still the law outweighs it for now. There was pressure on MLB to avoid a bad decision on that in the trial court and that didn’t get them to the settlement table. There is now pressure, to a degree, to resolve this before an appeals court decides differently. But that’s down the road a bit, and if anything the league has more breathing room on that today than it did yesterday.

It’s a partial win for San Jose, sure. But they lost the big claim and have gained nothing in the short term. More importantly, this does nothing to get the A’s any close to San Jose.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.