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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB's return hinges on salary negotiation, but both sides remain far apart in talks

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks at the National

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks at the National Press Club July 16, 2018, in Washington. Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

Major League Baseball says one thing. The Players Association insists the opposite is true.

We’ve seen this movie many times before. And now it’s happening again, specifically with the dispute over salaries (as it pertains to language in the March 26 agreement) because there appears to be zero give on either side.

In the past, the ending has been pretty much the same. The two sides ultimately shake hands, and baseball plays on — with one disastrous outlier: the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Are we on the verge of a similar nasty gridlock that could wipe out the 2020 season as well? With each passing day, you have to wonder. The two sides have not formally talked since last Tuesday, a source said, and if both are more interested in waging a PR battle than reaching some resolution on the money, then maybe baseball’s problems go well beyond the COVID-19 outbreak.

It was only two months ago that everyone was praising MLB and the union for peacefully working together on the March 26 deal that solved the problems hanging over Opening Day. The Players Association got their full year of service time, even if no games are played, and a $170 million advance to carry them through May 24.

Some surmised that this goodwill might carry over to the negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December 2021. But those positive vibes faded well before Memorial Day, and the renewed animosity now threatens to harpoon the fragile hopes of reviving this season.

Technically, there are two main issues to work through: a) safely operating during this pandemic and b) determining what the players should be paid to do that.

MLB got started on the first by submitting a 67-page manual to the union Friday that covers everything from testing to (no) spitting to social distancing in the dugout. There is confidence that those very detailed protocols, for the most part, can be agreed upon.

The debate over player compensation, however, has the potential to stretch the limits of this negotiating window, if not close it altogether. While there is no hard deadline to get a deal done, a source suggested that June 1 looms as a target date, if a three-week spring training is tentatively scheduled for that same month with Opening Day to follow the first week in July.

The clock is ticking. Two weeks is shorter than it sounds for hammering out a financial system that works for both sides, especially when they could not be further apart at the moment. The Everest-sized obstacle is both sides having a different interpretation of that March 26 agreement.

 MLB is clinging to language that says the economic “feasibility” of playing with no fans needs to be negotiated again for a restart. The Players Association views the line about receiving prorated salaries, based on games played, as ironclad. Union chief Tony Clark says those negotiations were finished in March, and MLB’s revenue-sharing proposal — which has yet to be officially presented — is considered a non-starter in these discussions.

The heated back-and-forth got some new fuel for the fire Tuesday when the New York Post published an email between the two sides indicating that union officials had the understanding that they would have to reopen talks about reduced salaries based on playing in empty stadiums. The Players Association denied that to be the case, however.

“The contract itself is very clear that in the event of a partial season, players will get paid pro rata salary — whether with fans or without,” the union’s senior director of collective bargaining, Bruce Meyer, told the Post. “And it doesn’t require any further concessions on pay from players who have already agreed to give up billions of dollars in salary in the event of a partial season in which they would be taking on unprecedented risks and burdens. Having said that, both sides are free to make any additional proposals they want.”

I’ve been told the owners aren’t going to agree to prorated salaries. The union maintains that its members are not playing for anything less, which is their prerogative. The players would be assuming a considerable health risk, and this has to make sense from their standpoint, obviously. It’s really not their patriotic duty to travel around and play baseball while a pandemic is raging throughout the country.

With both sides dug in, this seems as if it could take a while — and they haven’t even advanced to the salary discussion yet. Unlike ’94, no one’s thinking ahead to the fate of the World Series. This is just about trying to get to Opening Day.

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