Yankees president Randy Levine refuses to accept “when and where” as the last words on baseball’s return-to-play negotiations. For a season to happen, as Levine still insists it will, the standoff between Commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark must end immediately.
“I believe it can get done,” Levine said Tuesday during a phone interview. “Everybody has indicated they want to play. The contentious issues seem to be put to the side for the moment. So it’s time to get in a room and negotiate. You’re being paid to negotiate -- go do it!”
Levine’s rosy view of the restart process is mostly based on the fact that he sees the “contentious” matter of full pro-rata salaries for the players as already decided. Manfred even alluded to such a resolution Monday night during his ESPN appearance in saying the two sides had found “common ground” on prorated pay for the shortened season.
That was a significant development, no doubt prompted by Clark cutting off negotiations Saturday night and challenging Manfred to tell his players “when and where” to show up for work. By doing so, Clark was triggering the pro-rata salaries and granting Manfred the ability to set the schedule, both in accordance with the March 26 agreement.
But rather than settle the argument, and nudge everyone closer to an Opening Day, Clark’s maneuver put the owners on alert. Manfred publicly questioned the union’s motives Monday night, suggesting that Clark only did so in order to set up a $1 billion grievance against Major League Baseball for bad-faith negotiating.
Despite that suspicion, Levine still sees the framework for an agreement, as long as the coronavirus details can be worked through. MLB and the Players Association already have exchanged ideas regarding the 67-page operations manual, but it is not a finished product and more discussion is needed.
“I talk to Rob just about every day, and he’s very dedicated -- he wants a season,” Levine said. “We all want a season, all 30 owners want a season. I know the players want a season. The commissioner now has the right, as long as the players get to 100% pro rata [salaries], to put a schedule together. So I don’t think that the money and the schedule -- the number of games -- is the issue anymore.
“I think the issue is agreeing on the health protocols and everything related to it. What happens if there's a second pandemic? What happens if someone opts out? All of those rules. They're obligated to negotiate that in the March agreement, so let’s get in a room and do it.”
When asked about a possible revolt among the ownership group, with The Athletic reporting that as many as eight owners would prefer not to have a season, Levine disagreed with that assessment.
“That's not what I've heard,” Levine said. “And I’ve spoken to just about every team.”
Levine didn’t elaborate on how many games the owners had in mind. But MLB’s most recent price ceiling for a season -- as suggested by last Friday’s proposal -- was a max payout of $1.5 billion for 72 games. To get to that number, the World Series had to be completed, which then trigged the players to be paid at 80% of their prorated salaries, with an additional $50 million from the playoff pool.
Initially, MLB proposed an 82-game season, but with sliding-scale pay reductions, the players angrily rejected. The subsequent proposal featured a 76-game season with 50% guaranteed salaries that could rise to 75% if the playoffs were finished. It also was quickly turned down.
The union’s frustration finally boiled over Saturday night with Clark’s declaration and tempers flared again Monday when Manfred raised the possibility of the season being canceled -- only five days after giving his 100% guarantee that it would be played. Clark issued a furious response as many players took to Twitter to challenge Manfred.
“Players are disgusted that after Rob Manfred unequivocally told Players and fans that there would ‘100%’ be a 2020 season, he has decided to go back on his word and is now threatening to cancel the entire season,” Clark said in a statement.
The next day, however, Levine was preaching the importance of labor peace. When asked about Clark shutting down talks, he avoided trading blows.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Levine said. “I want to get this going. We need to just get together. And Rob’s ready to go. You have to ask the union. Why wouldn’t you want to negotiate health and safety and these issues? What’s the problem?”
Six weeks ago, in speaking about MLB’s return, Levine referred to the players as “patriots” and stressed their importance in helping the nation heal from the COVID-19 outbreak. His thinking on that hasn’t changed, either.
“We all recognize that the players are the heart and soul of the game,” Levine said. “I’ve called them 'patriots' in the past and I believe that today.”
Levine also reiterated his belief that it may be possible for Yankee Stadium to eventually allow fans in if New York continues to make progress battling the coronavirus. The City’s five boroughs remain at Phase 1 of the re-opening process -- stadiums are Phase 4, a minimum of five weeks away -- but the virus numbers are in steep decline.
“As long as you have all the appropriate social distancing, wearing masks, temperature checks,” Levine said. “With all of that, you watch the virus, deal with [Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo] t -- I’m on his [reopening] task force -- and hopefully we can get to a point where we can get fans in the seats this season. I’m optimistic, but that depends on the virus.”