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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

What's next as union digs in after MLB's salary brushback?

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws against

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 7 of the baseball World Series Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Houston.  Credit: AP/Mike Ehrmann

As of Thursday night, MLB’s owners hadn’t turned over any additional financial data to the Players Association. Nor did they have any immediate plans to do so, despite Max Scherzer’s Twitter dare for transparency.

The PA got what they got, in accordance with the CBA’s stipulations, and that apparently didn’t contain sufficient evidence of economic distress to Scherzer, a member of the union’s eight-man executive council.

“I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint,” Scherzer tweeted, “and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all the documentation were to become public.”

Fair enough. Scherzer’s hard-line stance of refusing to further engage with MLB on pay reductions was totally consistent with what union chief Tony Clark has been saying for weeks. Not only that, Scherzer’s simmering tweet indicated just how boiling mad the Players Association was over MLB’s sliding-pay proposal from a day earlier.

If I were Mike Trout, and was looking at my $36.7 million salary potentially whittled down to $5.7 million for 82 games, I wouldn’t be too thrilled, either. Scherzer, on the other hand, isn’t quite in the same boat as many of his buddies. Through some smart financial planning -- engineered by agent Scott Boras -- Scherzer is due a $15-million signing bonus for this year, games or no games, so that’s somewhat of a safety net for however this nasty mess turns out.

The thing about the players, we know all the numbers. They’re readily available, so it’s not like the union gets to hide anything as far as money is concerned. The same can’t be said for the owners. As Scherzer tweeted, pay reductions are off the table unless they’re given proof by the owners that it’s not “economically feasible” to resume the season. According to the union, that hasn’t happened.

The players may be right in believing the owners can ride this out, despite losing up to 50% in gate-related revenue this year, but teams are not behaving that way. Across the league, clubs are slashing front-office salaries, furloughing employees and on Thursday began releasing hundreds of minor-league players.

Baseball is burning in the midst of this COVID-19 outbreak, and to argue over the degrees Fahrenheit of the inferno almost feels pointless. Teams are cutting minor-leaguers over $400/week salaries and more layoffs could be on the way if the season doesn’t resume. With most of the attention centered on the labor warfare between MLB and the Players Association, the rest of the sport is disintegrating around them, the once-vibrant landscape reduced to ashes.

Getting everyone back on the field again, hopefully on schedule for a July 4 Opening Day, would help the sport’s recovery, as well as nudge the nation closer to a state of normalcy. But we’ve been sidetracked along the way, as the complications over money tend to overshadow everything else, even the health issues involved with playing during this pandemic.

MLB tested the union’s resolve with Tuesday’s divide-and-conquer proposal, a low-ball first offer that seemed more designed to probe for weakness than broker any kind of labor peace. So after the Players Association huddled Wednesday, Scherzer threw a purpose pitch that backed up his union boss.

“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players,” Scherzer wrote, “there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions.”

With that, the salary matter now appears closed, leaving the two sides to find common ground among other areas, such as the health/safety protocols and possibly the length of the schedule. If the MLB hoped to splinter the union, the attempt quickly failed, although there was a brief moment of Twitter dissent late Wednesday when Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer brought up “rumors” of Boras pushing his agenda on the union.

Less than 24 hours later, The Associated Press obtained a Boras email telling his clients not to bail out the owners by accepting any pay cuts or deferrals. The agent referenced the sizable debt used by owners to increase the value of their franchises -- without the players getting a fair share of that revenue. Boras also told them to spread the word among teammates and fellow players.

“Owners are asking for more salary cuts to bail them out of the investment decisions they have made,” Boras said. “If this was just about baseball, playing games would give the owners enough money to pay the players their full prorated salaries and run the baseball organization ... Owners now want players to take additional pay cuts to help them pay these loans. They want a bailout. They want the money for free.”

Did Boras’ cause help rally the union? Possibly. But something has to give here, and in the past, the two sides ultimately find their way to a compromise that gets baseball on the field again. We still expect that to happen this time, somehow, even as this process seems to get harder by the day.

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