The slow, angsty pseudo-negotiations between MLB and the players’ union took another wild turn Monday when commissioner Rob Manfred took back his guarantee — which was only five days old — that there would be a baseball season, further infuriating players.
Last Wednesday, Manfred said “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year,” adding that his confidence in that was “100%.”
But on Monday, in an interview with ESPN for a show about the return of sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Manfred offered a sudden turnabout.
“I'm not confident,” Manfred said about the existence of a 2020 season. “I think there's real risk, and as long as there's no dialogue, that real risk is gonna continue.”
Also on Monday, MLB revealed that several players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
MLB told the Players Association that it would cancel the season unless the players waive their right to file a grievance, a source said. Manfred is afraid that if he goes ahead and unilaterally imposes a season of about 50 games — as the PA is in effect daring him to do — the union would challenge that based on the sides’ March agreement to play as many games as possible.
Manfred said the owners still want to have a season and seemed to pin the lessened confidence on the union, which walked away from the virtual negotiating table Saturday when it declined MLB’s proposal of 72 games at 70% of prorated salaries (83% if the postseason is completed).
“The owners are a 100% committed to getting baseball back on the field," Manfred said. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you that I'm a 100% certain that's gonna happen."
The union has insisted throughout restart talks that it will not accept additional pay cuts. The owners keep suggesting various forms of additional pay cuts. The union over the weekend released a statement that concluded: “It unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
Manfred, after a call with owners earlier Monday, responded by unpromising having a season.
“Unfortunately, over the weekend, while [union boss] 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.”
All of that angered Clark.
“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. “This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning. 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.”
MLB wants the union to return to negotiations because there are still non-money aspects of a potential season that need to be settled, such as finalizing health and safety protocols. Clark, in his statement, pushed back against the idea that the union has “delayed progress” in that realm.
“Any implication that the Players Association has somehow delayed progress on health and safety protocols is completely false, as Rob has recently acknowledged the parties are ‘very, very close,’” Clark said.
Individual players backed up Clark’s sentiment.
“Tell us when and where,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso wrote on Twitter. “WE ARE ALL READY.”
Added Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who reposted the union’s statement: “Couldn’t be more true.” Yankees outfielder Mike Tauchman sarcastically asked, “Have I been using ‘unequivocally’ incorrectly all this time?”
Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer blamed Manfred for playing a delay game. By bluffing about potentially not having a season, Bauer reasoned in a series of eight tweets, Manfred can successfully stall until the sides truly have time for only 50 or so games.
Bauer estimated that Manfred had a “deadline” of June 28 to make that decision.
“[It] is June 15, so how do you delay another 13 days?” Bauer wrote. “Guess we all got that answer today. Threaten to cancel the season. Threaten arbitration. Threaten grievances. All the while, hold the fans for ransom. Hold the future of the game for ransom. No one believes your bluff, bud.”
Manfred said he is aware of what the ugly, public nature of these restart talks — during a pandemic and nationwide protests over racial inequality — might be doing to the perception of the national pastime.
"It's just a disaster for our game,” Manfred said. “Absolutely, no question about it. 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.”