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Coronavirus continues to complicate MLB's return plans as negotiations continue

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

Major League Baseball retreated from Arizona and Florida on Saturday, beaten back by a COVID-19 surge in both states, and teams now must plan to conduct spring training 2.0 in their home ballparks.

The feasibility of scheduling a regular season remains unclear, and the Players Association does not seem to be in any rush to facilitate the efforts of commissioner Rob Manfred, who can proceed independent of the union’s approval.

This was all put in motion Friday night when Manfred notified the Players Association that he would not respond to the union’s proposal of 70 games at prorated salary, effectively cutting off further negotiations. Manfred believed that he already had crafted the framework of a 60-game season during a Tuesday night summit with union chief Tony Clark in Arizona. When the Players Association publicly announced that wasn’t the case and tried to counter, the owners immediately rejected the attempt.

“MLB has informed the Association that it will not respond to our last proposal and will not play more than 60 games,” the union said in Friday’s statement. “Our executive board will convene in the near future to determine next steps. Importantly, players remain committed to getting back to work as soon as possible.”

“Near future” is open to interpretation. It was one week ago that Clark himself called a halt to these negotiations, describing them as “futile,” and challenged Manfred to tell the players “when and where” to show up for work.

Clark’s proclamation implied that once the players were granted prorated pay, which was the inflexible core of their demands, Manfred was free to set the schedule, according to the March 26 agreement.

That seemed to be the end of this now five-week saga, but it was only the beginning of the next round, as Manfred feared Clark’s bold move was merely baiting the owners into a $1 billion grievance.

There appears to be a path back to a deal if the Players Association chooses to reverse course and accept the 60-game option, which would be worth $1.5 billion in salary and likely would bring the added benefits of a 16-team expanded postseason. The union also must waive any right to a grievance under that agreement.

Based on the players’ recent behavior and the combative tone between the two sides, the union seems inclined to turn down Manfred’s proposal and force the commissioner to go it alone. MLB Network reported Saturday that the union’s eight-player executive council was leaning heavily toward rejecting the 60-game schedule.

Friday morning’s reports of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Phillies’ spring training site in Clearwater was the first domino of camp closures that led to MLB shutting all of them down later that night.

Initially, the plan was to vacate the facilities for deep cleaning and update the protocols to test for COVID-19 before allowing any players or staff to return, basically prepping the sites for full-team workouts later this month. By Saturday afternoon, however, MLB was looking to switch direction again. Teams now had to plan to use their home ballparks for spring training, whenever that turns out to be.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo revealed Saturday that the Yankees and Mets would be working out in New York before the two teams confirmed the move. A few hours later, it was reported that four members of the Yankees’ organization had tested positive for COVID-19 in Tampa, a further indication that the virus was affecting many teams.

MLB and the Players Association have yet to complete the health and safety protocols for restarting the season, with both sides making adjustments to the original 67-page manual. But the recent spikes in Florida and Arizona have given everyone reason to pause about playing baseball during this pandemic and rethink the strategy of dealing with the coronavirus, an unpredictable pathogen that could make all of these labor negotiations inconsequential.

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