When and where?
How about not at all?
Five days after he placed the odds of having a baseball season in 2020 at “100 percent,” but two days after the players union called off negotiations and challenged him to set the parameters of a schedule, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said he’s “not confident” there will be a season after all.
In one of the all-time about-faces, Manfred emerged from a conference call with all 30 team owners Monday and told ESPN in a prearranged interview for a show featuring the commissioners of every major sport that even an MLB-imposed 50ish-game season is in jeopardy if talks with the Players Association don’t resume.
“The owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field,” said Manfred, who works for the owners. "Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m 100 percent certain that’s going to happen.
"I'm not confident. I think there's a real risk; and as long as there's no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue."
In a statement blasting Manfred for his 180, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said the players are “disgusted” by what he twice termed a “threat.”
"This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning," Clark wrote. This has always been about extracting additional pay cuts from Players and this is just another day and another bad faith tactic in their ongoing campaign."
If Manfred is making a threat, perhaps it’s designed to dissuade the players from filing a grievance that would claim one-third of a season doesn’t represent MLB’s “best efforts” to resume play. In the ESPN interview, Manfred referred to union negotiator Bruce Meyer’s leaked recent email to MLB in which the intention of filing a grievance was mentioned.
“Unfortunately, over the weekend, while Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out telling reporters, players, and eventually getting back to owners that as soon as we issued a schedule -- as they requested -- they intended to file a grievance claiming they were entitled to an additional billion dollars,” Manfred said. “Obviously, that sort of bad-faith tactic makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances.”
It’s also possible, with Manfred needing the approval of 75% of the teams to implement a schedule, that he has heard from at least eight owners who prefer canceling the season altogether to a fan-less mini-season that would be played opposite the NBA and NHL playoffs and might be deemed illegitimate by many fans.
Regardless, if this is MLB’s idea of posturing, it has left the sport in a fetal position over the possibility of going dark for at least 18 months, from the end of the 2019 World Series through spring training in 2021, with the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement looming as an Armageddon after the 2021 season.
Through the course of a three-month slap fight over an economic plan for a pandemic-shortened season, the last three days have been particularly damaging, with whatever previously passed for negotiations devolving into an exchange of nasty letters and emails between Meyer and deputy commissioner Dan Halem that were leaked to multiple media outlets.
And each time it appears the feud between MLB and the Players Association has finally reached a denouement, the sides find a way to douse one another in gasoline again and hold the match aloft.
“Every day somehow continues to get worse,” Toronto Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw wrote in a tweet. “MLB should be embarrassed ... everyone involved. I’m embarrassed. This is a joke.”
It has been 95 days since spring training was suspended, 81 since MLB and the players reached an economic agreement in lieu of opening day. Within that oft-mentioned March 26 accord, the owners agreed to pay the players a prorated portion of their salaries based on games played — 75% for 121 games, 50% for 81 games, and so on — and Manfred gained the authority to set a schedule.
But once it became apparent that games would be played without fans this season — a condition that owners claim will cost them $640,000 per game —MLB believed it reserved the right to reopen the March 26 agreement and broker additional salary concessions. The players balked, insisting that a deal was a deal and that only health and safety matters were open to negotiation.
The talks went forward on separate tracks with little regard for the issue that mattered most to the other side.
MLB’s three proposals involved secondary reductions of various percentages for 82-, 76-, and 72-game schedules, all adding up to the players’ making about one-third of their full-season salaries for 44% to 51% of the season. The 72-game pitch, delivered last Friday, guaranteed the players $1.275 billion with the promise of $1.51 billion if the playoffs are completed.
Clark ended negotiations Saturday night, labeling the process “futile” and asking Manfred to “tell us when and where” to report for a resumption of spring training. Over the last two days, "when and where" has become a social-media rallying cry for many players, presumably because it has a better ring to it than "full pro-rata."
But setting a schedule isn’t as simple as Manfred’s busting out a pencil and a calendar. The owners must sign off, and then the sides would still need to agree on details in MLB’s 67-page first draft of a health and safety plan. That’s no small detail with COVID-19 cases spiking in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, which combine to house five major-league clubs.
Through it all, though, the optics of baseball’s ongoing fight are horrendous amid a deadly virus, rising unemployment, and protests in the streets.
Manfred admitted as much to ESPN.
“It’s just a disaster for our game, absolutely no question about it,” he said. “It shouldn’t be happening, and it’s important that we find a way to get past it and get the game back on the field for the benefit of our fans.”