When Tony Clark challenged Rob Manfred over the weekend to tell the players “when and where” to show up for a season, there were a few potential responses that seemed logical in order to get baseball back.
They figured to include dates, sites. Maybe a schedule.
“Only if you promise not to sue us” wasn’t on my list.
I’m paraphrasing. Manfred didn’t actually say that. It was more the general sentiment from the ownership group, which then relayed the message Monday through its legal counsel to the Players Association.
I’m no lawyer. But worrying about forking over $1 billion in a grievance over bad-faith negotiating, as Manfred does mention in Monday night’s ESPN interview, certainly comes across as the behavior of a guilty party.
Would the owners lose? You be the judge. Over the span of the past month, Major League Baseball presented three proposals, with very similar guaranteed money, that everyone but their negotiators knew would be DOA. Each time, the number of games - which the players’ salary was directly tied to by the March 26 agreement - dropped from 82 to 76 to finally 72 last Friday.
And if Manfred is to be taken seriously, that number will continue to drop, perhaps as low as 48 games, a figure that has been tossed around as a veiled threat due to the owners’ claims of severe financial distress.
When Clark made the gutsy move of daring Manfred to go it alone, the owners appeared to get what they wanted all along. The fewest games meant the most cost-efficient solution to a season they don’t seem to want to play anyway. The trick was figuring out how to delay the process to fit the plan.
By cutting off negotiations, Clark hoped to get the clock started, and his lead negotiator Bruce Meyer even set a Monday deadline for a response in order to squeeze in as many games as possible. Or at least put pressure on Manfred and the owners, who were never going to release a schedule this early anyway - especially with that $1-billion guillotine hanging over their heads.
So what did Manfred do? He suddenly reversed course on his 100% guarantee there would be baseball this summer - made only five days earlier - with a weak reply that not only made him look terrible, but enraged both the players and the fan base.
“The owners are 100% committed to getting baseball back on the field," Manfred said. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you that I'm 100 percent certain that's gonna happen.”
Which one are we supposed to believe? The first part or the second? Because those two sentences don’t feel related. If I had to choose, I’d go with the latter. After listening to Manfred’s latest comments, it’s not hard to see why these negotiations turned into a dumpster fire. The Players Association wouldn’t trust Manfred now to tell them if it was raining outside, forget about starting a season during a pandemic.
“Players are disgusted that after Rob Manfred unequivocally told Players and fans that there would ‘100%’ be a 2020 season, he has decided to go back on his word and is now threatening to cancel the entire season,” Clark said Monday in a statement. “Any implication that the Players Association has somehow delayed progress on health and safety protocols is completely false, as Rob has recently acknowledged the parties are ‘very, very close.’
“This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning. This has always been about extracting additional pay cuts from Players and this is just another day and another bad faith tactic in their ongoing campaign.”
MLB maintains that the Players Association needs to come back to the table to finish more of the return-to-play details, such as the pandemic-related protocols and rule/transaction issues. Clark apparently disagrees, and since every member of the union is spitting fire right now - check out the Reds’ Trevor Bauer on Twitter - this has turned into all-out war, stretching across social-media platforms.
This whole sorry affair could not have been handled any worse. And it’s not like this can be walked back as easily as one of Manfred’s guarantees.
"It's just a disaster for our game, absolutely no question about it,” Manfred said. “It shouldn't be happening, and it's important that we find a way to get past it and get the game back on the field for the benefit of our fans.”
The fans? Seriously? Let’s leave them out of this. They’ve already suffered enough. If this ever does get resolved - and the percentage-chance of that happening is plummeting by the day - maybe Manfred will finally deliver a schedule to tell fans when and where these games will be played.
By then, their response should be, “never mind.”