SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - While the Oakland Athletics prepared for their first game post-season on Friday, a federal judge said he would rule shortly on whether to dismiss a lawsuit charging Major League Baseball with illegally blocking the team from moving south to San Jose, California.
In a nearly two-hour hearing before U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, San Jose's lawyers challenged MLB's unique antitrust exemption while baseball's legal team countered that the city had no standing to sue.
The hearing took place in San Jose, the 10th-largest U.S. city, as the A's looked to square off against the Detroit Tigers in the first game of their American League Division Series.
Success on the field has not helped the A's financially. The club has struggled for years with weak ticket sales in the Oakland Coliseum, which the A's share with the Oakland Raiders of the National Football League.
The A's ownership wants to move from the aging arena to a city with the political commitment for a new ballpark that will help build a bigger fan base.
San Jose, the biggest city in affluent Silicon Valley, has longed for an MLB franchise for years. The city has offered the A's land for a baseball park, while also pressing the league to have owners of the other teams vote to allow the A's to move.
A major obstacle to that plan has been the San Francisco Giants which claim San Jose as their territory.
Tired of waiting for a vote, San Jose sued MLB and league Commissioner Bud Selig in June, charging their "illegal and collusive actions thwarted Plaintiffs' diligent efforts to procure a major league baseball team for Silicon Valley."
San Jose and its lawyers say the league is hiding behind a 91-year U.S. Supreme Court decision exempting MLB from antitrust laws to prevent the A's from relocating to the city.
The league and its lawyers have responded that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly backed MLB's antitrust exemption and that the "business of baseball" includes how the league is structured and how it determines where its teams call home.
"Individual teams can't make some decisions all on their own" on relocation, said John Keker, a lawyer representing MLB. "Cooperation is the rule."
Keker was the chief prosecutor in the Iran-Contra trial involving Oliver North and his clients have included Lance Armstrong.
Joseph Cotchett, a lawyer representing San Jose, told Whyte that MLB's antitrust exemption was obsolete and at odds with professional baseball as a multi-billion dollar business engaged in interstate commerce.
Cotchett noted other professional sports league cannot claim the same exemption.
"The location of the team is not the business of baseball," Cotchett said. "The business of baseball is to compete on the field."
After the hearing, San Jose City Attorney Richard Doyle said it remains unclear when or if MLB will hold a vote of its teams' owners on allowing the A's to relocate. "No clarity," Doyle told Reuters.
(Reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)