It was shortly after 6 p.m. Monday when Rob Manfred broke his silence to reporters camped out at Roger Dean Stadium.
This was the eighth straight day of negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Players Association in Jupiter, Florida, and the talks were moving into the eighth hour, trying to beat Manfred’s deadline for canceling regular-season games, as he pledged to do if no deal was struck.
"We’re working at it," the commissioner told the group.
Great. After all the wasted time, and with baseball shut down for nearly three months because of Manfred’s lockout, only now — on Feb. 28, hours away from torching games and players’ salaries — did the owners’ side finally give the impression of hustling for a new collective bargaining agreement.
And that hustling continued well past midnight into early Tuesday morning, with the 13 sessions totaling more than 16 hours, until both sides decided to return at 11 a.m. to try to complete the deal. Opening Day had yet to be canceled, as the deadline was extended to 5 p.m. Tuesday.
"We made progress," an MLB spokesman said. "We want to exhaust every possibility."
Why did it have to come to this? Manfred implemented the lockout on Dec. 2 — when he had the audacity to say pulling the plug on the sport’s offseason would hasten the pace of negotiations — and apparently then lost the phone number of union chief Tony Clark as MLB went into radio silence for 43 days afterward.
It was all part of the owners’ strategy, of course, to run as much clock as possible before Manfred slapped the players with the artificial deadline of Feb. 28 for a new CBA or he would be "forced" (by his own hand, actually) to scrap the March 31 Opening Day and however many games beyond it. Not postpone, mind you — cancel, meaning no chance for the players to make up that lost salary.
Manfred framed the deadline as a logistical move, that the players would need a month of spring training to adequately prepare for an on-time start to the regular season. But it was more bullying of the players, who nonetheless signed on for eight straight days of discussions in a race against that deadline.
Turning the process into such a contentious, bitter fight was terrible for baseball, regardless of whatever peace agreement ultimately is reached. MLB’s lockout not only delayed spring training indefinitely but wiped out exhibition games through March 7. So instead of the sport romancing its fans all over again for the past two weeks and giving them the chance to get out of the cold to watch real, live (albeit practice) baseball, their loyal customers were bombarded daily with unlovable concepts such as the competitive balance tax, pre-arbitration bonus pools and minimum-salary fluctuations.
These are all necessary parts of doing business, of course. But did the owners, with Manfred the head of the spear, have to make it so painful for the players — and especially the younger ones — to get a more deserving share of this $11 billion industry?
And while all this was going on — or not going on, based on the weeks and weeks of inactivity — the rest of us got to wonder how much of the season would end up a casualty of this whole messy affair.
The owners never seemed to mind, either. Rather than drum up enthusiasm for their teams during the winter with more free-agent signings and trades — beyond the pre-lockout blitz — they closed ranks behind Manfred and were fine with squeezing the players until the last possible minute. These are the people we’re supposed to trust to grow the game?
Earlier Monday, in a case of curious timing, Derek Jeter quit as CEO of the Marlins, citing a difference in vision for the franchise. The former Yankees captain was hailed as a hero by the players, who assumed that Jeter bolted because the Marlins wouldn’t make the commitment (financial?) to build a championship club.
Whatever this new CBA looks like, whenever it gets done, this adversarial relationship between owners and players continues to be damaging for baseball. Manfred and his billionaire boys club should have been working on that long before Monday night.