Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred pauses while speaking to...

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred pauses while speaking to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: AP/LM Otero

Commissioner Rob Manfred took his ball and went home Wednesday.

Figuratively speaking.

Nobody expected MLB to sign up for a 114-game season, and that includes the Players Association, which certainly knew that proposal was DOA the moment they pressed send on the email. The owners already nixed the idea of full prorated salaries for 82 games, so asking for a 40% raise was going to be a non-starter.

Which is why Manfred officially rejecting the union’s first and only pitch was hardly a surprise Wednesday. But not bothering to counter? And then go back to plotting a more cost-effective season, maybe around 50 games, because you have the unilateral power to do that granted by the March 26 agreement?

What was the point of even including the words “good faith” in that document? Because these negotiations — as the future of baseball hangs precariously in the balance — seem to be carried out with nothing but bad intent.

“We do not have any reason to believe that a negotiated solution for an 82-game season is possible,” MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem wrote in Wednesday’s email to the union, obtained by the Associated Press. “Nonetheless, the commissioner is committed to playing baseball in 2020. He has started discussions with ownership about staging a season without fans.”

The Players Association insists it is entitled to full prorated salaries? Fine. Manfred will hack away at the schedule, as he also has the right to do, and whittle the money down to where the union would end up being nostalgic for those ghastly sliding-scale pay cuts from a week ago.

We all got fooled into thinking early on that the goal here was to play baseball again, to help heal the nation, yada, yada, yada. Nope. This was about weaponizing the process, turning the economics into bloodsport, to keep score on everything but the games that may never happen as a result of this turf war.

Stupid us. We just wanted baseball. But the owners need to find a way to lose a little less money and the players need to find a way to make a little more. That’s where the negotiating comes in. And yet with the clock loudly ticking in the background, Manfred essentially walked away from the table Wednesday, but making sure to let the union know to stay in touch if it has any new ideas (i.e. come to its senses).

Not the ideal situation, but not necessarily a terminal one, either. There still is room to maneuver here, and (ever-shrinking) time to do it. While MLB maintains the right to simply go ahead with scheduling a vastly-reduced season on their own, and pay the players on the pro-rata basis they want, the union has a card left to play as well. The $800-million carrot is the expanded postseason, which represents the big payoff for the owners, and MLB needs the union’s approval to go ahead with that plan, according to the CBA.

And that part’s already done — sort of. The Players Association included the expanded playoffs in Sunday’s proposal, a two-year plan, so it just needs union chief Tony Clark’s rubber stamp. For MLB, that’s worth bargaining for, and can provide some impetus to get a deal done.

Then again, we find ourselves saying that quite a bit lately. All these motivating factors that both sides don’t seem to take all that seriously. So much time has been flushed over the past two months. A conversation once dominated by the COVID-19 outbreak is now relegated to the usual debate over cold, hard cash.

“There are scenarios where not playing at all can be a better financial option, but we're not looking at that," Cubs owner Tom Ricketts told ESPN. "We want to play. We want to get back on the field . . . I'm not aware of any owners that don't want to play. We just want to get back on the field in a way that doesn't make this season financially worse for us.”

That’s the kicker. Want to play, sure. Up to a certain point. But everyone needs to be a tad more flexible this time around. Is it really possible for MLB to purposely stay on the sidelines, over money, as the NBA, NHL and NFL all return over the next three months?

I’ve said all along that baseball won’t let that happen. It just didn’t make any sense to go through the trouble of devising a workable plan to combat a devious enemy like COVID-19 and yet be unable to compromise on a salary structure for the players. Somehow, both sides would figure it out.

But they still haven’t. And after a while, you start to wonder which games are more important — the ones being played right now, or the ones sacrificed because of them.

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