This is the fourth installment in a five-part series on important off-field, non-baseball occurrences that helped to shape the current state of the Oakland Athletics organization. The series is a countdown from #5 to #1 — you can find number five here, number four here, and number three here.
While I never meant for this series to turn into an elongated narrative about why the A's have made absolutely zero progress in their quest for a new ballpark between the early 1990s and now, it seems that story is exactly what three of these pieces have turned into. That's a reflection of the reality — at least in my opinion — that the franchise's most pressing issue is the lack of an adequate venue to play in, so I guess it's fitting that many of the important narratives throughout the organization's 45-year tenure in Oakland are directly related to the ballpark issue.
So here's yet another chapter in the saga of the Oakland A's and their quest for a new stadium. This time, I'll focus on the Wolff/Fisher ownership's quest for a ballpark Santa Clara County, and the event that prevented them from legally being able to build a ballpark in San Jose: A's owner Walter Haas agreeing to split the Bay Area into two distinct territories in the early 1990s, giving Giants owner Bob Lurie the rights to Santa Clara County.
I won't delve into the entire history, in part because it's very long and only so much of it is relevant here. But I would strongly, strongly encourage you to read Ciderbeck's fanpost from January 2012 that details the entire history, start to finish.
But it's largely thanks to Haas that the A's haven't moved South in recent years, as both involved parties (the ownership and San Jose) are entirely on board with the concept for Cisco Field, directly across from the SAP Center and San Jose's Diridon Station. It's only the Giants and Major League Baseball who are blocking the move, and it's only because of a somewhat ill-advised territorial rights transfer more than 20 years ago that those bodies have the authority to keep the A's out.
The long and the short of the Giants' situation in the early 1990s is this: Candlestick Park had been declared "unfit for baseball" in 1981, voters had no intention of publicly financing a ballpark in San Francisco, and rumors had started to emerge that MLB was interested in moving the Giants to Florida, likely the "other Bay Area" market that the Tampa Bay Rays now call home.
The A's were also coming off of three consecutive World Series appearances and out-drawing their cross-Bay rivals by a margin of about 10,000 fans per game. Oakland had few issues with its ballpark — it was extremely accessible, offered fantastic views of the Oakland Hills and great weather, and Coliseum hosted non-baseball events only sporadically.
There's not much verifiable history about what actually went down between Haas and Lurie, but the end result was that at some point around 1991, the Giants gained territorial rights to Santa Clara County, and Haas was never publicly compensated.
There are two schools of thought: One is that Haas might've been a truly benevolent man. He might have loved baseball and the Bay Area so much that he thought the region having two MLB teams was in its best interest, even if it ended up costing him money in the big picture, and he could've given up what he knew was a valuable asset simply out of the goodness of his heart, because he couldn't bear the thought of the Giants moving to another market.
The other is that Haas saw a phenomenal opportunity to expand his fan base, knowing that East Oakland is vastly more accessible to the majority of San Francisco residents than Downtown San Jose (or most places in the Southern Peninsula), especially during rush hour. People leaving their jobs in Downtown SF would have the option of hopping on BART for the 24-minute, direct ride to the Coliseum's doorstop to see the A's. And if they wanted to see the Giants, well, good luck driving down 101 or 280 during rush hour, or taking Caltrain — it's clear that Oakland would be a vastly more convenient option for San Francisco, which at the time was roughly equivalent to San Jose population-wise.
My money, obviously, is on the latter, but Haas' shortsightedness cost the A's dearly in the long run, assuming the eventual goal was to maximize revenue and play in a world-class park.
The A's had won the American League six times in a stretch of 18 years and were drawing easily in excess of 30,000 fans per game. Haas must've assumed that the East Bay market had finally come out of hibernation, and that sporadic attendance issues throughout the franchise's early years were just growing pains associated with breaking into a market that had never hosted MLB before. But assuming the A's would maintain their status as the region's dominant franchise — if that is indeed what Haas was banking on — was extraordinarily unwise.
Obviously, the Giants never exercised their right to building in Santa Clara County. It's not that they never tried, but much like in San Francisco, City of San Jose and Santa Clara County voters rejected ballot proposals for publicly financed ballparks. And between the early 1990s and the present, Major League Baseball has re-affirmed the Giants' territorial rights to the South Bay on four separate occasions, a fact that the Giants justifiably used to their advantage when the clubs exchanged PR volleys in December.
However the deal went down, Haas didn't think to include a contingency clause, whether written or verbal, that the Bay Area could only become a split market if the Giants exercised their new territorial right to the South Bay. There is the possibility that the Giants refused to stay in the Bay Area unless they'd gain those rights, which would call into question Haas' business savvy in the first place — if the Giants had actually left for Florida, Haas would've found himself the owner of the franchise playing in the biggest one-team market in America, and there's very little reason to give that opportunity up and settle for a third of the same territory just to be nice.
Had Haas not caved, or at least insisted on the contingency aspect of his deal with Lurie, the A's would probably be playing in San Jose right now. Haas, who passed away in 1995, probably had no idea the long-lasting effects his actions would have. On some level, every time you East Bay folks head to the Coliseum, you have Haas to thank, and you South Bay fans have Haas to blame for the nasty drive. The man was a philanthropist, a fantastic owner, and an East Bay man through and through, but this one decision in the early '90s either backfired horribly or was poorly reasoned to begin with. Then again, it might have worked perfectly — maybe this was Haas' plan all along, and he's still waiting for a beautiful new ballpark in Oakland to break ground.