Deal? Or no deal?
With the 2020 Major League Baseball season hanging by a fingernail and anger-filled rhetoric spewing from both sides, commissioner Rob Manfred jetted to Arizona on Tuesday to meet with Players Association executive director Tony Clark and pitch a 60-game season, a source confirmed Wednesday.
Considering Manfred and Clark hadn’t been in the same room since March — or even spoken virtually since June 7 — a face-to-face represented progress in the resuscitation of a potential agreement. But Manfred’s negotiation with Clark brought more reason for optimism because, for the first time after three previous offers, the owners consented to pay the players per-game shares of their full-season salaries.
In a statement released Wednesday, Manfred said the sides left the meeting “with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement” and added that he and Clark would take that framework to the owners and players, respectively, and encourage them to approve it.
But if Manfred assumed an end to baseball’s labor-feud-during-a-pandemic nightmare was drawing nigh, a source stressed Wednesday that a deal wasn’t imminent. Shortly thereafter, the Players Association tweeted that “reports of an agreement are false.”
The proposal, in fact, likely will be rejected and countered by the players in the hopes of stretching the schedule beyond 60 games. There are also the twin matters of health and safety. With COVID-19 on the rise in several states, including baseball hotbeds Florida, Texas, and Arizona, the virus remains the ultimate arbiter of whether a fan-less baseball season can start, finish, or both.
So, hold the celebration.
But at least MLB and the players are on speaking terms again after several days of roiling the rancor by making threats through strongly worded email communiques that were leaked to the media.
Details of both the Manfred/Clark meeting — other than that they were not alone in the room, contrary to some reports — were not known. In addition to the players receiving their previously agreed-upon prorated salaries, multiple reports indicated the owners would get expanded, 16-team playoffs this year and next and the universal designated hitter would be implemented.
Under this 60-game proposal, the season would open without fans on July 19, 71 days before the owners’ desired end date of Sept. 27. In seeking more games, the players could aim for the midpoint (66 games?) or doubleheaders that would elongate the season.
At 100% of their per-game pay, and based on the projection that players’ salaries would’ve totaled $4.1 billion in a 162-game season, the outlay for 60 games would be roughly $1.51 billion, which equals the high end of MLB’s previous proposal (72 games at 83% of the per-game rate if the playoffs are completed) but remains nearly $800 million less than the players’ last pitch (89 games).
The players are adamant about not reopening a March 26 agreement in which they negotiated to be paid based on how many games they play. Each of MLB’s three proposals before this involved a supplemental pay reduction and were rejected out of hand.
The owners claim they will lose $640,000 per game without fans. But now that they’ve yielded on the pro-rata pay issue, the relevant question will be how much money they’re willing to give the players in total.
Is $1.51 billion the ceiling? Or by co-signing the expanded playoffs (and the additional national TV revenue that would come with it), can the players barter for closer to 70 games, and therefore more money?
A tipping point in the negotiations came last Saturday night.
Frustrated by MLB’s repeated calls for additional salary reductions, Clark released a statement in which he termed further talks “futile” and dared Manfred to use his authority under the March accord to set a schedule. In challenging Manfred to “tell us when and where” to report for a resumption of spring training, Clark provided a hashtag-able rallying cry for players to parrot on social media.
In a prearranged interview Monday on ESPN’s “The Return of Sports” special, Manfred said he was “not confident” that a season would be played, a dramatic 180 from five days earlier, when he told the same network that the odds of having baseball this year were “100 percent.”
Manfred’s goal, in part, was to bring the players back to the table and cool the tensions. But his comments also reflected the owners’ fear that, if Manfred used his authority under the March agreement to impose a 50-game mini-season, the players union would file a billion-dollar grievance claiming that it didn’t represent MLB’s “best efforts” to stage a season.
MLB’s previous proposals consisted of 82-, 76- and 72-games, with various mechanisms for reducing the players’ pay from the per-game rate that was agreed to in March. The union countered with 114- and 89-game proposals that largely ignored the owners’ claims of financial hardship without attendance-driven revenue.
But even if the parties have moved beyond all that, they still have to contend with COVID-19, which has killed nearly 117,000 people in the United States and doesn’t care about baseball’s problems.