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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB's quick response to Players Association is definite progress

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League

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

Way back on May 12, MLB’s owners proposed an 82-game regular season in which the players would be paid significantly less than the prorated salaries agreed upon in March because of the impact of having no fans at the stadiums.

On Sunday, the Players Association suggested a 114-game season, but at their prorated salaries, and opened the door for up to $100 million in deferred money if the playoffs have to be canceled because of a second wave of coronavirus.

Roughly 24 hours later, with stunning speed, MLB now is prepared to give on those hotly contested prorated salaries, but only for a season of 50 to 60 games, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

I know it’s been a long, frustrating road to get here, muddied up by sliding-scale percentages, Twitter rants and the escalating fear of a canceled 2020 season. But in looking over that timeline, here are a few key observations.

*  What’s the middle number between 114 and 50? It’s 82.

*  On the surface, MLB appears to be making a noteworthy concession, both financially and philosophically, by considering paying players on a pro-rata basis, something the owners had insisted was open to further negotiation, based on the wording of the March 26 agreement. But the number of games played has a huge impact on just how much money that actually is.

*  Which leads us to the fact that commissioner Rob Manfred still reserves the right to unilaterally set the length of schedule based on the “economic feasibility” guidelines laid out in the March agreement. That’s why MLB is eying a lower number of games if that’s what it ultimately takes to get the financial concessions it needs.

*  The Players Association’s introduction of the idea of deferred salary could provide some immediate economic relief for owners, but it’s unclear if that will work as a sweetener in any deal. As someone inside these negotiations pointed out, MLB is not all that interested in merely kicking those fiscal responsibilities to later years. That money still has to be paid, and it’s hard to be bullish on the baseball economy right now.

Of course, the only thing anyone truly wants to know is what this all means in terms of getting a deal done. And in relation to last week’s bleak outlook, this has to count as progress, especially in the wake of the outlandish proposals that were swapped by the two sides.

At least it feels as if we’re not moving backward anymore, and that has to be encouraging, right? Even so, the entire process has bred a healthy dose of skepticism, and we’ll believe this season is ready to go when players actually start unpacking their gear at their spring training sites.

Since the moment baseball shut down on March 12 because of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s been impossible to feel certain about any part of our lives, never mind the resumption of the 2020 season. MLB and the Players Association also cast further doubt by taking their time in these negotiations, offering terms they knew the other side would laugh at.

The union was outraged by last week’s sliding-scale proposal for pay reductions, but all that really did was set the stage for a potential compromise on prorated salaries — despite the still-sizable chunk that could be taken out by a shorter season.

When the Players Association countered Sunday by floating the idea of 114 games in order to further inflate their 2020 incomes, MLB immediately scoffed at the number. Not just because of the financial part, but for what they believe is a physically impossible task. If 50 games is the floor for this season, you can expect 82 to be the ceiling in these negotiations.

Maybe the two sides can work on some of the other pieces to the union’s Sunday proposal, such as opt-outs for “high-risk” players (with some salary) and the two-year agreement for expanded playoffs, which seems to be a sure bet anyway. MLB also could be amenable for some deferments if the playoffs are wiped out by a second wave, given that the postseason is responsible for nearly $800 million in revenue.

One thing both sides can agree on: It’s important to get baseball back on the field. They’ve known that since the last pitch was thrown in spring training, and even with the decades of mistrust baked into this relationship, no one figured it was going to be quite this difficult to make that happen.

We’re not there yet, but at least this critical week — after the disappointment of the last critical week — is off to a somewhat productive start. It’s got to finish with the makings of a blueprint for the 2020 season, or at least a foundation to build on, in relatively short order.

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