Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news...

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference after negotiations with the players' association toward a labor deal on March 1 at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

So this time they really meant it?

"They" in this instance is Major League Baseball, which set Tuesday night as another deadline, the second in eight days, to prevent the cancellation of more regular-season games.

And when we say "more," it might actually be zero, based on whether or not the Players Association chose to accept MLB’s proposal by midnight or 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.

Confused? As if keeping track of these labor calculations weren’t enough, between the competitive balance tax and pre-arbitration pool and "ghost wins," MLB added an even more bewildering wrinkle as the lockout raced toward 100 days.

Remember those canceled games from last week’s failed deadline in Jupiter, when commissioner Rob Manfred announced on his own network that the first week of the regular season was kaput? Turns out, they weren’t actually killed. Not in a permanent sense anyway.

Manfred simply put them in his pocket, for use at a later date, and pulled them out again this week in trying to pressure the players into a new collective bargaining agreement.

Forget that those games, including Opening Day -- the most hallowed on baseball’s calendar -- already had been removed from the schedule and vanished from team websites, with clubs offering refunds. It was kind of a big deal to the sport’s loyal fans, who were irate watching the commissioner mess with the schedule. But the paying customers come off as pawns in this protracted game of labor chess, their emotions held hostage to this battle over billions, and everyone remained in limbo Tuesday as the negotiations pressed deeper into Tuesday night.

The stakes going in were a suitable reflection of the twisted relationship between the owners and players. Baseball has been in a lockout since Dec. 2, a move that Manfred claimed was meant to expedite a deal, only to go silent for the subsequent 43 days. And when MLB’s squeeze play didn’t work, Manfred twice went to deadlines, the first on Feb. 28.

The pressure to avoid whacking games, and the players’ accompanying salary, got the two sides to hunker down in Jupiter, Florida -- at a vacant spring-training complex -- for nine consecutive days. Some reported a deal was close at 3 a.m. Tuesday, only to have the deadline extended and then ultimately expire at 5 p.m. that same afternoon.

Manfred assured us then those games were gonzo, and despite an awkward chuckle or two by the commish at the podium, he seemed to be serious. Not long after, the first week of the season disappeared.

Until MLB needed to resurrect it over the past 24 hours, dangling those games -- along with the salary (a total of $20 million per day) -- as a carrot to lure the Players Association back to the table. As of Tuesday night, the owners also had raised the CBT to $228 million from $220 million, growing to $238 million by the last year of the deal.

The CBT remains the crown jewel of all the core economic issues, the item getting all the attention, and its salary-cap implications make that number a pivotal part of these entire negotiations. But that’s been a constant throughout. The gravity of the CBT has never changed.

Toying with the regular season, however, is a dangerous game and MLB recklessly waving around the ax as leverage over the players is probably more damaging to the fans in the long run. By the time we got to Tuesday, the second week of the season already was in jeopardy. It was simple math by that point, going by Manfred’s assertion that teams would require a month of spring training (players believe three weeks is sufficient).

We were just waiting for the announcement when MLB suddenly crafted an alternate reality, one in which a 162-game season could magically reappear, along with the accompanying salary and service time. Maybe it was a clever negotiating ploy, but it doesn’t say much for Manfred’s credibility after he convinced us that first week was toast, that MLB had no choice but to cancel those games.

Evidently, they did. And if they’re able to go back on their word so easily, what are we supposed to believe? That MLB franchises are not good investments? That lower payroll thresholds and higher tax rates are critical for the competitive balance of the sport? That teams can’t afford raises across the board for both veterans and younger players?

It’s all subject to negotiation. We get that part. Bartering with the truth and sacrificing fans’ affection for an edge could be a costly mistake, however.

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