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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Rob Manfred, Tony Clark meeting shows money talks in MLB negotiations

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 8, 2019. Credit: AP/John Raoux

Was that really so hard?

A plane ticket to Arizona. Two guys in a room talking about baseball. And perhaps most important, each one really listening to what the other had to say.

Let’s not get too excited just yet. As of Wednesday night, a deal to green-light the 2020 season wasn’t completed. But we’ve never been closer. And after three angst-ridden months, wondering if baseball was hellbent on destroying itself, we’re ready to say this could ... possibly ... maybe ... happen.

All it took was commissioner Rob Manfred, probably still sore from Monday’s brutal ESPN appearance, hopping on a flight to Phoenix for a face-to-face visit with union chief Tony Clark. This was all Manfred’s doing, in a last-ditch effort to save the season, and from what I was told, it wasn’t going to happen the other way around.

Clark was fine standing on Saturday’s “when and where” proclamation. If that didn’t get Manfred back to the table, then who knows what would have become of these tortured negotiations? Fortunately, things didn’t go that way.

Just the act of showing up in Clark’s backyard was a clear indication that Manfred was there to make a deal. The Tuesday night summit, which lasted several hours, discussed the full gamut of topics and produced a rough outline that was then polished up as a suggested proposal to the Players Association.

“We left that meeting with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement and subject to conversations with our respective constituents,” Manfred said in a statement. “Consistent with our [Tuesday] conversations, I am encouraging the clubs to move forward and I trust Tony is doing the same.”

Moving forward. What a concept. All we heard for the past month, after each side exchanged proposals, was how insulting the offer was. Or nonsensical. Or a step backward.

So what was different this time? Take a wild guess. Who could have possibly imagined that the inclusion of 100% prorated salaries -- the primary goal of the players from the jump -- was the trigger to bringing back baseball? Anyone paying attention, that’s who. But MLB stubbornly clung to juggling percentages, offering the same fractions of what they truly wanted, only dressed up in different packages.

It wasn’t until Manfred touched down in Phoenix that he was ready to go full pro-rata with the proposal of a 60-game regular season, according to sources. That schedule was a noticeable bump from Manfred’s 48-54 threat, but the union is likely to counter with a bigger ask, perhaps in the 75-game range. As a result, it’s logical to think we’ll wind up somewhere in the mid-60s.

The rest doesn’t seem problematic, as long as the union is willing to remove the threat of a potential grievance, which spooked Manfred from setting a schedule on his own. MLB also is looking for a two-year agreement on expanded playoffs with 16 teams -- an increase from the current 10 -- in order to rake in more than $800 million this October. The union already had included that in previous proposals, so stretching the postseason group shouldn’t be an issue either.

Beyond that, MLB suggested a July 19 Opening Day and remains adamant about Sept. 27 to wrap the regular season. The Players Association has wanted to push everything deeper into the fall, with a World Series in early November, so the additional games could help them recoup lost money from the contracts that were chopped in half by the pandemic. But MLB won’t bend on that, and its own medical experts were supported recently by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told the L.A. Times that he’d advise to finish up before October to avoid the second wave of coronavirus.

But we seem to have forgotten about those challenges. At the start of all this, everyone was worried about playing baseball in the middle of a global pandemic. The focus quickly shifted, however, and the money eventually grew into the real monster, overshadowing the COVID-19 fears as the two sides bitterly fought.

The agreement was supposed to be the easy part. And if they do shake on this, possibly in the next day or two, it’s probably best to hold off on the celebration. There is much tougher work ahead. The logistics of transferring that 67-page pandemic manual from paper to practice has never been attempted before. The virus also is spiking in many areas, including the spring-training sites of Florida and Arizona, so that could be an early complication.

At least now, baseball may finally get the chance to try. And for a while there, a deal once seemed impossible, too.

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