Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter...

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego.  Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

Normally, I would say that once you reach “disaster,” as Rob Manfred described the current state of baseball’s return-to-play efforts, that’s about as bad as things can get.

But our National Pastime has a knack for establishing new lows, in the worst ways imaginable. And too often in a manner we didn’t even think was possible.

Case in point was Monday night, when Manfred changed his 100% guarantee of a 2020 baseball season to a flimsy maybe, in the span of five days, this time during an ESPN show entitled, “The Return of Sports.”

And to think people poked fun at the NHL’s Gary Bettman for having a hockey net sticking out of the hedges behind him.

Manfred blamed his doomsday prediction on Tony Clark calling a halt to negotiations, then labeled the union chief’s “where and when” challenge as a $1 billion trap, designed to lure the owners into setting a schedule that would trigger grievance litigation due to bad-faith negotiating.

Distrust doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on here.

That’s far too polite.

Clark did his part Monday by saying that the players were “disgusted” by Manfred’s reversal. And again, if you checked on their Twitter feeds, that probably fell a little short of capturing the emotion as well.

So where does everyone go from here? On Tuesday, Yankees president Randy Levine urged a march back to the negotiating table in order to settle the necessary health and safety protocols. Levine spoke as if the pro-rata salary already had been decided, along with Manfred’s right to determine the schedule. Both are linked under the terms of the March 26 agreement.

But what about the number of games? Manfred needs a carrot to get the Players Association talking again, and every day without a deal shrinks the season a little more -- or threatens to erase it altogether. Clark and his lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, seem to be standing by their weekend ultimatum, and Manfred only has one card left to play.

Clark was right. This no longer feels like a negotiation. All Manfred can do now is offer a number of games in the hope that it may satisfy the union. But will the owners allow him to do that? The last proposal, made Friday, included 72 games. And in MLB’s estimation, that was the max, going with a July 14 Opening Day and Sept. 27 finish.

Four days later, does that mean we’re down to 68? Or will the owners stick to their claim they can only afford a schedule in the 48-52 range, at 100% prorated salaries? That’s not enough games to get a deal done. If there’s no deal, the specter of the potential grievance doesn’t go away, and the owners could always choose to just bail on 2020 entirely. Levine suggested Tuesday that teams weren’t prepared to do that yet, despite The Athletic reporting that eight owners (and counting?) preferred to skip the season.

“We all want a season -- all 30 owners want a season,” Levine said. As for the growing dissent, he replied, “That's not what I've heard. And I’ve spoken to just about every team.”

But can the owners stay as unified as the players? MLB needs a 75 percent majority to vote yes on a season, so eight nays are enough to tank 2020. Without an agreement, the owners don’t get their expanded playoffs -- and the more than $800 million payoff that likely comes with it. Minus that money, does a truncated season end up being more trouble than it’s worth?

The players, who now tag their tweets with Clark’s #whenandwhere, are letting the world know they’re ready to go. But after Manfred threatened to unilaterally deliver a season, at a length of his choosing, now the commissioner won’t even do that.

The owners had to see this coming. The union believes that Manfred & Co. have been slow-playing these negotiations from the jump. It was only a matter of time before Clark was going to call out Manfred after three proposals failed to include the full prorated salaries -- the inflexible core of the union’s demands.

It shouldn’t be a shock that we’re here, not after watching the past month unravel in spectacular fashion, capped by Monday’s jaw-dropper by Manfred. Now comes the real test. Just how badly does baseball want to get out of this shameful mess? Or are both sides too consumed by the fight to care?

Either way, we’re left expecting the next worst-case scenario.


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