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Can MLB, players' union get on the same page in restart negotiations?

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to reporters before an opening day baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Cincinnati.  Credit: AP/John Minchillo

Rob Manfred had no problem giving his 100% guarantee that baseball will happen this year.

As for the players’ salaries, the key holdup in these negotiations? That percentage has been considerably less, never going above 75 to this point. And if Manfred plans to do the same with this next proposal, as he suggested in Wednesday’s remarks, the commissioner should probably save his breath.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is how much the owners want to pay for this season and the next proposal -- presumably Friday -- has the feel of being precariously close to a last-best offer from Manfred. Because the union is almost certain to reject any pitch that doesn’t include full prorated pay -- a stance the players have made abundantly clear for months now -- that would put the sport on the brink of a commissioner-mandated season of roughly 50 games.

“We're hoping it's a proposal that will elicit reciprocal movement from the player side,” Manfred said Wednesday. “That they'll get off the hundred percent salary demand and recognize that 89 games in this point in the calendar, and in a pandemic, it’s just not realistic.”

These negotiations began on May 12, and the Players Association has not budged a single percentage point on salaries in any of the proposals since that date. By now  Manfred certainly realizes there is likely a zero chance the union bends on that 100% this time around.

So why make that public pitch on MLB Network before Wednesday’s draft? It was aimed at the baseball-adoring audience. As he said, there is going to be a season, one way or the other, so this at least has the spin of good-faith negotiating.

The reality seems to be something very different. During the past week, three owners have gone on the record to talk about their finances, mostly to express how people don’t realize that running a baseball team doesn’t make as much money as they think. As PR campaigns go, this is not a winning strategy for a $10.7-billion industry, especially in the current climate, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

    "The industry isn't very profitable, to be quite honest," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. told 590 The Fan in St. Louis. "And I think [the players] understand that. But they think owners are hiding profits. There's been a little bit of a distrust there.”

  DeWitt is right about the distrust. The players aren’t buying it, and never have, which is why they’ve stuck to their stance on the full prorated salaries. The Nationals’ Max Scherzer again went on the attack Thursday night, returning to Twitter to mock DeWitt’s claims.

    “Some owners have mentioned that owning a team isn’t very NET profitable,” Scherzer wrote. “You know what other company isn’t very NET profitable? Amazon.”

    That pretty much sums up the state of these negotiations. Manfred is working to appease the owners, who are pushing him to limit the cost of this season, and the players see this as merely fighting to being paid at the pro-rata basis they agreed to in March.

    To date, MLB has made two proposals. The first was for 82 games at a sliding-scale rate for salaries that took the biggest percentage cut from the highest-paid players. The second was for 76 games at guaranteed 50% pay with a potential boost to 75% if the playoffs were completed. The Players Association has countered with 114 games and 89 games, both at 100% prorated salaries.

“We have a duty now to leave the game in better shape," the Cubs’ Jason Kipnis told ESPN 1000 in Chicago this week. "And if we take concessions now ... if you give them an inch, they take a mile, with these owners sometimes.”

    Manfred doesn’t need the union’s approval to proceed with a season. He’s empowered by the March 26 agreement to set the schedule himself if a deal can’t be reached. But if Manfred gets frustrated enough to go that route, that likely means no expanded playoffs, the most lucrative part of the schedule for the owners.

    Both sides had included those expanded playoffs in their most recent proposals, for as many as eight teams from each league, and also settled on a July 10 Opening Day, even if they had different views on when the season would end.

    At this grinding pace, however, these negotiations are playing to the owners’ obvious goal of a shorter season. Manfred has made no effort to hide that part.

    “Each and every day that goes by, we lose the capacity to play at least one game,” Manfred said Wednesday during his ESPN appearance, “and that’s really the time pressure that’s significant at this point in time.”

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