Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred gestures as he answers...

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred gestures as he answers questions during a news conference after negotiations with the players' association toward a labor deal, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.  Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

Major League Baseball didn’t wait until 3 a.m. to deliver the bad news after another 16-hour negotiating session. On Wednesday, coming off a near all-nighter, the axe dropped at 6:29 p.m., courtesy of an e-mail statement.

As promised, for the second time in nine days, commissioner Rob Manfred whacked another week off the regular-season schedule, blaming it on two things: the inflexibility of the Players Association and a timetable that eventually requires a spring training at some point.

"In a last-ditch effort to preserve a 162-game season, this week we have made good-faith proposals that address the specific concerns voiced by the MLBPA and would have allowed the players to return to the field immediately," Manfred said in his statement. "Because of the logistical realities of the calendar, another two series are being removed from the schedule, meaning that Opening Day is postponed until April 14th."

It was curious that Manfred didn’t use the word "cancel" this time, saying these two series are "removed from the schedule." After the events of the previous 48 hours, with Manfred suggesting he could resurrect the first two series he already had cancelled if the players came to an agreement Wednesday, we now realize these threats are scribbled in pencil.

The need for ambiguity was helpful later, when a league official said the two sides already were back talking about the international draft/qualifying offer conflict that led to the negotiations stalling yet again earlier Wednesday. Apparently, the union blew three deadlines to force Manfred’s hand again: Tuesday night, then 2 p.m. Wednesday followed by 6 p.m. But the players still got a workable proposal to MLB in time to keep them working toward a resolution on this particularly thorny issue.

Maybe you’d rather have been asleep for all this. But after staying up into the wee hours early Wednesday, staring bleary-eyed at the phone, constantly refreshing Twitter for any crumb of optimism, getting that bitter pill right around dinner time was almost merciful for a change.

Because in these hellish negotiations, hope is an illusion, the prospect of a deal merely a mirage. On Day 98 of the MLB-orchestrated lockout, everyone was duped yet again, tricked into believing another long night of the two sides working tirelessly might actually result in baseball being played before Memorial Day.

By now, we should all know better. The same scenario played out only a week earlier -- down in Jupiter, Florida -- with a 15-hour session leading to an extended deadline that spectacularly imploded and wiped out (sort of) the first week of the season.

The chance of that same exact catastrophe happening again? Not even DraftKings, the official sports betting partner of MLB, would have posted odds for that one. But these two adversaries are so committed to beating each other they can’t see the giant W staring them in the face. The economic numbers involving the competitive balance tax, pre-arbitration bonus pool and minimum salaries closed within manageable distances of each other Wednesday as both sides moved significantly toward the middle.

But as soon as this all started making sense, like the insanity’s fever had finally broken, the talks unraveled anew over the concept of an international draft. Why this particular item became such an immovable object in what was shaping up to be the 11th hour of these negotiations wasn’t really clear. A similar curve ball appeared last week in Jupiter, when expanded playoffs suddenly dominated the conversation, but the two sides appeared to agree on 12, with the owners bending closer to the players’ wishes.

The international draft, however, created a big problem, with league sources referring to it as a "major structural roadblock" toward a potential deal. Despite MLB claiming the draft had been a key issue since last summer, the union’s stance was firmly against it, and the players rarely even brought it up when discussing the path to a new CBA.

Whatever the case, MLB refused to move forward Wednesday without some resolution on the matter, and told the union to pick one of three options regarding the international draft: a) accept the draft and drop the qualifying offer attached to free agents, b) keep the status quo of having a QO and no draft or c) drop the QO, and either agree to the draft for a future date or opt-out of the CBA two years early of not.

Not surprisingly, the union -- not a big fan of ultimatums -- rejected all three when delivering its counterproposal, which MLB swatted away before erasing that second week of games. For those keeping score, that’s now five deadlines blown as baseball keeps speeding through red lights toward oblivion. Whatever winds up happening to these games, the sport itself could not look worse, especially with Jackie Robinson Day looming on April 15 -- a date that is next on the block if these talks remain unproductive for another week.

Canceled? Removed? Postponed? Take your pick. It would just be nice if baseball someday decided to play baseball again.

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