A detail of baseballs during a Grapefruit League spring training...

A detail of baseballs during a Grapefruit League spring training game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on March 12, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

Play ball?

At the negotiating table, that is.

With Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred set to make his economic pitch Tuesday to the Players Association, there is a spark of optimism that the recent cold war between the sides has thawed enough to get a deal done and return the sport to the field.

This week is the biggest to date for baseball since spring training was halted and everything shut down because of the coronavirus on March 12. There already have been productive back-and-forth discussions on finalizing the health and safety protocols, according to sources, so the last remaining obstacle boils down to money, as it traditionally does.

To think any issue could be more complicated than one that requires a 67-page instruction manual like the playbook to handle the COVID-19 outbreak is saying something. But fighting over fiscal matters is an age-old practice when it comes to baseball’s labor relations and invokes the more visceral reaction that we’ve seen from both sides in recent weeks.

Now that we’ve reached the critical stage of these negotiations, however, you can expect cooler heads to prevail. After MLB sprayed lighter fluid on the simmering feud by floating the idea of revenue-sharing to replace prorated contracts, there are signs of a potential retreat from that hard-line stance, as The Athletic first reported Sunday.

MLB has  supplied economic data to the union, basically an effort to convey a bleak financial landscape for the sport and convince the players of a need to share in the economic hardship. Decades of mistrust, however, along with patience frayed by already-suspended contracts for this year, has made the union wary of   MLB’s numbers.

As a result, union chief Tony Clark has held firm in the belief that the players are owed their prorated contracts, based on the proposed 82-game schedule, without any further reductions. On principle, the union has always considered revenue-sharing to be a non-starter in any conversation, as it carries the stigma of a salary cap.

But the owners insist they need concessions of some kind as long as these games will be played without the sizable revenue generated by spectators. According to MLB’s data, teams would lose an average of $640,000 per game if players received their prorated salaries for the remainder of this season. By that count, clubs would be better off financially if the sport simply shut down.

So where is the middle ground here? The only way for players to seemingly get the full value of their prorated contracts would be in some form of deferred payments, stretched out over subsequent seasons. It’s already a frequent practice for teams, so this   wouldn’t be a revolutionary concept by any means. Given that MLB says it will lose 40% of its overall income without gate-generated revenues this year, deferring a similar chunk of players’ salaries might work for both sides.

That carryover could have a chilling effect on free agency this winter. Given the traumatic financial losses for the sport, it would be crazy to think team spending as a whole won’t be impacted in some fashion.
Other than deferment, what are the options? Clark maintains that the union won’t accept any additional pay cuts after coming to terms on the March 26 agreement, which called for prorated salaries when/if the season resumed (with provisional language to reopen negotiations if games were played without fans). Also, MLB agreed to give players a $170 million advance, which ran out Sunday, and credit for a full year of service time regardless of whether the season was played or not.

The bottom line is that a deal needs to get done. Period. And with spring training 2.0 targeted for early June — followed by Opening Day in July — all of this has to get wrapped up in about a week or so. Nothing is a better motivator than a fast-approaching deadline, and failure is not an option here.

If the two sides can agree that it’s safe (enough) to play during this once-a-century pandemic, they have to get over the money part. With both the NBA and NHL ramping up their own operations toward a restart, minus the financial quarreling, it’s unfathomable to think that MLB would let something like a salary dispute tank its efforts to play again. Everyone inside the game knows how damaging that could be to the long-term interests of the sport.

With that in mind, this week is going to end up producing an agreement to play baseball again this summer. It's just a matter of hammering out the details, because the alternative shouldn’t enter the conversation.