In the end, after four weeks of partisan bickering that reached levels of nastiness rarely seen outside the corridors of Washington politics, there will be a Major League Baseball season in 2020 — assuming, of course, the coronavirus permits one.
But it will take more spin than Aaron Nola’s curveball to paint this as a triumphant, willing return to the field for MLB or its players.
In a dinnertime vote of the union’s 38-member leadership, the Players Association on Monday roundly rejected MLB’s 60-game schedule at full per-game pay (a total outlay of approximately $1.51 billion) by a 33-5 margin, according to multiple sources, challenging commissioner Rob Manfred to uphold a March 26 agreement by setting a schedule of his desired length and guaranteeing the players their per-game salaries.
Two hours later, MLB announced the 30 clubs had unanimously voted to implement a season, likely between 50 and 60 games depending on how quickly the players agree to proposed health and safety protocols, no small matter with coronavirus cases on the rise in baseball hotbeds such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, and an outbreak last week at the Phillies’ facility in Clearwater, Fla.
Terms of the March 26 agreement, including per-game pay and the 10-team playoff format that presently exists, will be honored. But in a sharply worded statement, MLB said it was “disappointed” that the players didn’t agree to the 60-game proposal and listed a set of conditions, including 16-team expanded playoffs, that it lamented the fans will be unable to see this year.
MLB also directed the players to respond by 5 p.m. Tuesday in an attempt to relaunch spring training in home cities by July 1.
But hey, play ball! Who’s excited?
The season might be played amid the backdrop of a grievance, too. By rejecting MLB’s 60-game proposal, the union’s leadership (an eight-player executive subcommittee and a player representative from all 30 teams, including the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins) protected its right to claim that MLB made less than its “best efforts” to stage a longer season and seek what Manfred told ESPN last week could be “an additional billion dollars” in lost wages.
By setting a 60-game season, MLB might undercut a potential grievance. A three-week spring training that opens by the middle of next week would put opening day in the July 24-27 range, which would leave less than 70 days until the owners’ desired end date of Sept. 27. Many players have accused MLB of stalling in the negotiations to run out the calendar and play fewer games.
There’s also a chance that some players, including those whose wives are pregnant, may choose to sit out rather than play for one-third of their full-season salary amid a pandemic that has killed more than 120,000 people in the United States. It’s unclear whether those players would be paid or accrue service time, which determines free-agent eligibility after six years and a fully vested pension after 10.
In a statement, the union’s executive board “reaffirmed the players’ eagerness to return to work as soon and as safely as possible.” It also stated that the players “remain fully committed to proceeding under our current [March] agreement.”
Manfred made 11th-hour pitches Sunday and Monday to reach an agreement. He pointed to the wave of COVID-19 cases that have recently infiltrated the sport — the Phillies’ outbreak resulted in five players and three staff members testing positive last week and 32 others awaiting results — and noted the infeasibility of trying to shoehorn three weeks of “spring training 2.0” and more than 60 regular-season games before the final weekend in September.
In addition, Manfred reportedly tweaked the 60-game proposal by offering to remove guarantees of 16-team expanded playoffs and a universal designated hitter in 2021 if the 2020 season is unable to be completed.
The latest volley in a labor dispute that was as self-destructive as it was unnecessary came last Tuesday. Manfred flew to Phoenix to meet with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, and when they adjourned, Manfred believed they had “a jointly developed framework” for a 60-game season. Clark interpreted it as an offer to be countered. The players came back with a 70-game proposal that the owners refused to consider.
The midpoint between 60 and 70 games should have been easy to find. But rather than settling at 65 games — a compromise that would have cost teams a total of $125 million more — the owners scuttled a deal over $4.17 million per team, roughly Phillies closer Hector Neris’ full-season salary.
All along, what should have been an all-for-one, one-for-all effort to bring back baseball in unprecedented circumstances turned into a pre-negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement that is 17 months from expiring.
The parties often talked past each other and delivered proposals with little regard for the issue that was most important to the other side. MLB proposed 82-, 76-, and 72-game schedules, all with supplemental reductions to the per-game prorated salaries agreed upon by the players in March. It wasn’t until June 15 that MLB stopped trying to reopen the March agreement and finally agreed to the per-game pay.
In turn, the players proposed 114-, 89-, and 70-game schedules, ignoring the owners’ claim that they would lose $640,000 per game played without fans. The players didn’t trust that accounting and believed the owners could afford to shoulder more of the financial burden of a pandemic-shortened season given the skyrocketing values of most franchises and the record $10.7 billion in revenues that baseball raked in last year.
Even when the sides thought they had agreed on something, they disagreed over what it was. It often seemed like each prioritized winning the negotiation rather than devising a plan to not be stopped by the virus. They exchanged sharply worded letters, negotiated through the media, and showed only mutual disdain.