Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Baseball, addresses media members before a...

Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Baseball, addresses media members before a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Seattle. Credit: AP/Elaine Thompson

Amid these bitter labor negotiations, and a yet-to-be-contained pandemic, commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t blink in guaranteeing that his sport will return this summer.

“We're going to play baseball in 2020 -- 100%,” Manfred said Wednesday during the draft preview show on MLB Network. “If it has to be under the March 26 agreement, if we get to that point in the calendar, so be it. But one way or the other, we’re playing Major League Baseball.”

That much everyone already had suspected, unless a widespread COVID-19 resurgence makes it impossible to resume the season. As Manfred alluded to, the commissioner is empowered by the March deal to start the season on his own, along with set the number of games, if he chooses to pay the players their 100% prorated salaries.

Manfred says he isn’t there yet. His plan for now is to deliver a counterproposal to the Players Association, whose 89-game pitch Tuesday will be rejected, and give the negotiating process a little more time. Judging by MLB’s stubborn stance on full prorated salaries, however, Manfred will have to jump considerably higher than the 48-52 games being internally discussed among ownership.

“It will be a proposal that once again moves in the players’ direction in terms of the salary issue,” Manfred said. “And we're hoping it's a proposal that will elicit reciprocal movement from the player side -- that they'll get off the 100% salary demand and recognize that 89 games in this point in the calendar, and in a pandemic, it’s just not realistic.”

But the Players Association has shown zero inclination to budge on the salary issue, which they believe is owed to them from the March agreement, and that could ultimately push Manfred to proceed with a season independent of the union’s approval. He’d prefer not to, because that likely would mean no expanded playoffs -- a potential payday of more than $800 million for the owners -- as well as a lack of cooperation on other items like mic’d up players and jewel events such as an offseason All-Star Game. Not to mention the bad feelings all-around with another CBA to discuss after the 2021 season.

“I remain committed to the idea that the best thing for our sport is to reach a negotiated agreement with the MLBPA that plays as many games as possible for our fans,” Manfred said. “We do have rights under the March 26 agreement and there could come a point in time when we'll exercise those rights.”

Finding common ground has been nearly impossible. MLB and the union have remained miles apart on the issue of player compensation and the clock is ticking. But there are two things that did show up in the most recent proposals from both sides -- a July 10 Opening Day and expanded playoffs that could include as many as eight teams from each league.  

MLB was the first to suggest that date in Monday’s proposal as part of a 76-game regular season that stretched through Sept. 27, which in MLB’s view would allow the playoffs to be completed by the end of October and avoid a second wave of coronavirus. The Players Association rejected that pitch, largely because of the 75% salaries - only 50% guaranteed -- but also countered with a July 10 start, only it was for an 89-game season that runs through Oct. 11.

That was closer to MLB’s initial proposal of  82 games, one that included a sliding scale for salary reductions that took the biggest chunk from the highest-paid players. The union countered back then with 114 games, at 100% prorated pay, and that was rejected for economic reasons as well as MLB’s belief that it’s not feasible for the schedule to stretch into November Manfred suggested Wednesday that November was “problematic” for the TV networks, too.

“Well, it's easy to say that you can just push into November, but the primary reason is our medical experts are telling us we should be finishing earlier, not later, because of the risk of a second wave of the pandemic,” Manfred said. “I think you also have to take the logistics into account. We have commitments to our broadcast partners.”

The two factors driving these negotiations have been the players’ demand for their full prorated salaries (from the March agreement) and the owners’ claim of economic distress, multiplied by the prospect of hosting games without any gate-related revenue. Major League Baseball assembled a 67-page operations manual for playing during the pandemic, but those health issues have seemed secondary -- unless they involve the length of the season, which is what Manfred seemed most concerned about.

“I don't want to be responsible for the additional health risk associated with going later in the fall,” Manfred said. “The risk to not completing the season, the disaster that that would be. I think the most prudent course for everyone is to is to follow the advice of the experts on this one.”

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