It was three weeks ago that Newsday’s May 11 back page featured the blaring headline, MONEY BRAWL, a reference to the story inside cautioning how a “clash over player compensation could derail MLB’s restart.”
At the time, such warnings were labeled as hyperbole. The real issue, others tried to assert, would be the health and safety concerns associated with staging a season during this COVID-19 outbreak. Surely MLB and the Players Association realized the terrible optics of fighting over finances in the midst of the pandemic’s rising death toll and skyrocketing unemployment rate.
Turns out, baseball is now all square on the medical front, as it was explained to me by people involved in these discussions. Maybe a few things to iron out in the 67-page operations manual, but this once-in-a-century coronavirus won’t deter baseball from attempting to play.
Instead, the current holdup is exactly what we and some others suggested last month, and even well before that: It’s all about the money.
As if it wasn’t bad enough to be squabbling over cash before, the United States has been ripped apart again during the past week, with dozens of cities dealing with protests and street violence sparked by the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. It’s a crisis in a different universe of importance than Major League Baseball, obviously, which makes the sport’s complaints look even smaller than before.
And yet, the two sides seemingly remain no closer to an agreement than they were when this all started, despite first proposals finally changing hands during the past week. For a while there, they couldn’t even agree on what they were arguing about.
MLB’s owners have made it clear they need pay concessions; the Players Association wants their full prorated salaries. That’s the fundamental obstacle and neither side has budged. Further confusing matters was Sunday’s bizarre conversation between commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark, during which both still debated the terms of the March 26 agreement regarding player compensation, sources confirmed Tuesday.
It’s a little late for that. Everyone should be past the language of a deal signed off on more than two months ago. There has to be a more productive use of this shrinking window, with spring training 2.0 supposedly starting at some point this month and Opening Day loosely tabbed for early July.
The real battleground? The length of the regular season, which of course determines the players’ prorated salaries. After MLB initially floated the 82 games, but with sliding-scale pay cuts, the union answered Sunday with 114 -- a total that also represented a big uptick in salary and therefore was a non-starter for the owners.
That counter pushed Manfred & Co. in another direction, to consider giving the players the prorated salaries, but slashing the season to as few as 50 games to curtail the financial cost. As of Tuesday night, MLB had not officially rejected the union’s counterproposal yet, but planned to reopen negotiations in the next day or two.
The Players Association, still sticking to the pro-rata stance, will continue to push for as many games as possible, according to sources, and a truncated season of 50 games would amount to another massive pay reduction. With the players already having lost 50% of their contracts to the pandemic shutdown, that would chop off another 39% from the original 82-game proposal.
Manfred coming up with that number, however, shows precisely where the owners are drawing the line. They tried last week with a sliding-scale model that the union claimed would be another $800 million in lost salaries for the players. That was flatly rejected, the exclamation point provided a day later by Max Scherzer on Twitter.
All along, Clark has publicly said the prorated salaries are not open to any further negotiation. And if that’s the case, the number of games is the main source of contention. Taking both sides into account, the midpoint between 50 and 114 is 82 -- the original plan for a half-season. But can Manfred and Clark ultimately get there?
That’s tough to determine. While some on both sides remain optimistic about reaching an agreement, it’s not going to just happen automatically. Playing a season, however, technically can be done even without a deal, if Manfred chooses to exercise a clause in the March 26 pact that allows for him to set the schedule based on the “economic feasibility” of resuming the season.
That’s a last resort. Manfred doesn’t want to unilaterally force a 50-game season on disgruntled players -- and the union may dispute his ability to do so -- but MLB is operating as if it does have that hammer. The preference is coming to a resolution that both sides can begrudgingly accept, because going an entire year without baseball would be a resounding failure for everyone involved, with damaging long-term implications.
Manfred and Clark both must realize that. It just feels like this is taking way longer than necessary, given what’s at stake here. There is still time for baseball to jump ahead of the other sports with a July return, but the clock is ticking, and even a best-case scenario wouldn’t have this wrapped up until early next week.
Then again, if Manfred truly is prepared to go to a 50-game season, he’s not as worried about the clock, aside from trying to use it to his advantage. The owners are counting on him to minimize their calculated losses for this year, and the players -- no doubt looking ahead to a nuclear winter in free agency -- are resolute in getting as much as they possibly can out of this bargaining round.
In what has become an ugly, drawn-out brawl over money, there really can’t be a winner. Only varying degrees of losing.