At first, it was a matter of pay. Before long, it became a matter of principle.

Now, it might be a matter of time.

It couldn’t be much clearer that Major League Baseball and the Players Association won’t reach an agreement on a pandemic-shortened season without fans unless the owners finally give in on paying the players 100% of their per-game salaries, especially given the parties’ contrary interpretations of a March accord that was meant to provide an economic framework but served only to complicate everything.

After a month of talking past each other and not addressing the issues that each considered most important, commissioner Rob Manfred flexed last week. With the players insistent on receiving their agreed-upon per-game pay despite the owners’ claim that further reductions are required to play a 70- to 80-game schedule, Manfred threatened to use his authority under that March deal to impose a mini-season of about 50 games at the per-game rate.

Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ union, dared Manfred to do it, challenging him last Saturday to “tell us when and where” to show up.

Done deal, right?

Not so fast.

Here’s the problem: Even if it took a few days to hammer out health-and-safety protocols at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are surging in several key baseball states, and if MLB gave the players a week to reconvene, and if “spring training 2.0” lasted for three weeks, the season could still open during the week of July 20, leaving roughly 70 days before the owners’ proposed regular-season finale on Sept. 27.

And if the players filed a grievance claiming MLB’s implementation of a 50-ish-game season doesn’t represent “best efforts” to return to the field and seeking hundreds of million dollars in financial damages, as union negotiator Bruce Meyer indicated that they might in a letter last weekend to deputy commissioner Dan Halem, a 70-day window to set a schedule would seem to help their case.

It would appear, then, that Manfred needs to play a four-corners defense to protect the owners, who, after all, employ him. He must run about 10 days off the calendar before MLB can reasonably claim that there just wasn’t enough time to play more than one-third of the schedule — and therefore pay the players more than one-third of their full-season salaries.

So, why not use the next week to bring the players back to the virtual negotiating table? Or to discuss the virus’ recent spike in Arizona, Florida, Texas and California — home to a total of 10 major-league teams — and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that he would “avoid” playing the postseason in October because of the fear of a second wave?

It was convenient that the Associated Press obtained a letter Monday that revealed that several major-league players and staff tested positive. Never mind that Manfred said last week that MLB and the players are “very, very close” to agreeing on a health-and-safety plan. They can always take their time to go back over those protocols.

(Besides, Manfred also said last week there was a “100 percent” chance of the season getting played, then did a 180 five days later and said he was “not confident.”)

If Manfred is stalling, the players are on to him. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer’s Twitter feed features a stream that reads in part: “The tactic is to bluff with ‘no season’ again and delay another 2-3 weeks until you clear the risk of ‘not negotiating in good faith by trying to play as many games as possible.’ The public backlash combined with potential of having to explain yourself in front of an arbitrator isn’t too appealing, is it?”

There is another potential explanation for Manfred’s about-face. In reminding everyone of his power to impose a mini-season if the players couldn’t reach a settlement, perhaps he overplayed his hand with some owners, too.

Attendance-related streams (ticket sales, food/merchandise concessions, parking, etc.) account for an average of 40% of teams’ revenues, according to MLB, and the owners claim they will lose $640,000 per game played without fans. Manfred needs 75% of the 30 teams to approve his setting of a schedule.

Maybe he emerged from a conference call Monday having heard from four or five, or even seven or eight, owners who prefer no season to a 50-game sprint.

“The owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field," Manfred told ESPN on Monday.

That might be the case. The owners’ projected losses would only be compounded if they don’t get to collect the national TV money from the postseason, assuming it could be played without a coronavirus interruption.

But Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts recently characterized the financial fallout from this season as “biblical,” and St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt lamented the unprofitability of owning a team, even though baseball raked in a record $10.7 billion in revenue last year, franchise values have soared over the last 10 years, and the New York Post reported last weekend that MLB reached a billion-dollar television deal with Turner Sports beginning in 2022.

The players, meanwhile, are flooding social media with hashtagged cries of “#whenandwhere.” There are no victors in this sordid baseball civil war. But in the battle of optics, it’s a rout right now.

So, where do they go from here?

Maybe the coronavirus renders all of this moot by making a return to the field — or at least to the close confines of clubhouses, buses, planes and hotels — impossible. But Manfred must know by now, if he didn’t already, that baseball at least has to give it a try.

In 10 more days, that is, when the commissioner can take out his calendar, count backwards from Sept. 27, raise his arms in exasperation, and declare the unsatisfying 50-game season that everyone has been expecting.