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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Baseball's in Rob Manfred and owners' court; now what?

Rob Manfred and the owners now have to

Rob Manfred and the owners now have to decide how many games there will be this season (if there is one). Credit: AP/Curtis Compton

Union chief Tony Clark dropped the mic Saturday night when he declared to his MLB adversaries, “Tell us when and where” to show up for work.

And the timeframe? Clark left that up to his lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, who basically told MLB to hurry things up in another scathing exchange of letters with deputy commissioner Dan Halem.

“If it is your intention to unilaterally impose a season, we again request that you inform us and our members of how many games you intend to play and when and where players should report,” Meyer wrote in the Saturday letter obtained by Newsday. “It is unfair to leave players and the fans hanging at this point, and further delay risks compromising health and safety.

“We demand that you inform us of your plans by close of business on Monday, June 15.”

That final sentence had to be a little knife twist after MLB’s last two proposals came with deadlines attached. The Players Association believes the owners purposely have tried to stall on starting this truncated season to run out the clock and limit the number of games, so Meyer made sure to drive home that point.

And, judging by what already has transpired — the spiteful behavior from both sides — there is every reason to expect that commissioner Rob Manfred will ignore Meyer’s request and do whatever the heck he wants as far as making a schedule.

But Manfred and his 30 bosses are in a tough spot right now. Do they really want to gut this season to a bare minimum of 48 games, as Manfred threatened, and use it as a financial weapon against the players? Under the hotly contested March 26 agreement, Manfred has every right to do so, and the owners must be furious after Clark’s power move. Would they burn down this season, and subject themselves to public scorn from the seething fans, just to make sure the players are scorched in the process?

Clark dared them to Saturday night when he called Manfred’s bluff. By staying unified, the Players Association empowered Clark to go all-in despite the risk of leaving hundreds of millions on the table without a deal. That boxed in the owners, who now are left with nothing but bad choices when it comes to their bottom line.

Do the owners urge Manfred to retaliate by giving everyone less baseball? Strip the 2020 season to the studs and let the players earn as little as possible by scheduling only 48 games?

That would be a dangerously short-sighted choice. But with the pandemic robbing them of gate revenue this year, the owners are taking a massive financial hit, and they are businessmen first, after all.

The other option? The owners suddenly don’t sound as broke as they initially said they were and somehow find the money to stage a 72-game season despite having to pay those 100% prorated salaries.

If the owners are to be believed, coming up with that type of cash could hurt them through the 2021 season — curiously enough, right when the CBA expires. Maybe it would help to think of this as a long-term investment in baseball — sort of like the new $3.3 billion deal with Turner Sports that leaked out Saturday — while providing a stimulus package that could repair the sport.

Not only that, but if Manfred floats the idea of a 72-game season, at full pay, it’s possible the union could be coerced back to an agreement, which would bring significant benefits otherwise lost if the commissioner acts independently. The union’s approval means expanded playoffs with as many as 16 teams (paying more than $800M to the owners) and necessary cooperation on things such as mic’d up players. In the big picture, some goodwill couldn’t hurt, either.

But that feels like too much to ask of these bitter foes, and if the owners were willing to go only to 72 games Friday at a guaranteed 70% rate, it’s logical to see them dropping that number significantly. MLB already has determined that the regular season needs to end by Sept. 27 in order for the playoffs to be completed by Halloween, thus avoiding a potential second wave of the coronavirus.

The date for Opening Day remains fluid, however, depending on the number of games. Friday’s proposal suggested July 14, but that was for 72 games, and anything in the 50 range could delay the start until Aug. 1.

Not surprisingly, the Players Association remains convinced that MLB’s sole motivation for the October finish is to limit salaries.

“We believe your position is part and parcel of your general bad faith determination to play as few games as possible to punish players for refusing to capitulate to MLB’s demands for massive pay cuts,” Meyer wrote. “Players remain united in their stance that a day’s work is worth a day’s pay, particularly in a situation where players and their families are being asked to take on additional burdens and risks. Given your continued insistence on hundreds of millions of dollars of additional pay reductions, we assume these negotiations are at an end.”

Now it’s Manfred’s turn at the microphone. He guaranteed baseball this summer. Finally, we’ll see how much.

Timeline of MLB’s negotiations for return to play

March 12: Spring training suspended, Opening Day postponed

March 26: MLB, union reach agreement on prorated salaries. Players agreed to prorated salaries based on the number of games played and owners agreed to advance players a total of $170 million. The players agreed not to sue for full salaries in the event there was no season, and were granted full service time even if no games were played. However, this agreement also included the “economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators,” which has sparked much of the debate at the heart of the current negotiation.

May 11: Owners approve a plan for an 82-game season and the sharing of 50% of their revenue with the players, who balked, considering any acceptance of revenue sharing to be a salary cap. The agreement was never formally proposed to the players.

May 26: Owners propose an 82-game season with sliding scale pay cuts. After a full week negotiating health and safety protocols, the owners pitched a sliding scale by which the least experienced players would receive 90% of their prorated salaries, with the highest-paid players taking about 44% of their pro-rata salaries.

May 31: Players union proposes a 114-game season with no additional pay cuts.

June 8: MLB proposes a 76-game season with players receiving a maximum of 75% of their prorated salaries and a guarantee of at least 50%, as well as an expanded postseason of 16 teams and elimination of draft pick compensation for signing a free agent.

June 9: MLBPA proposes an 89-game season with no additional pay cuts. The union’s proposal included an expanded postseason, a joint $5 million contribution to aid minor leagues and charitable organizations focused on social justice issues, and a flat fee of $50 million if the postseason was canceled.

June 12: MLB proposes a 72-game season with a maximum of 80% of their prorated salaries. This proposal guaranteed 70% of prorated salaries, which could increase to 80% with a postseason.

June 13: Players union ends negotiations, with MLBPA head Tony Clark saying further talks would be “futile.”

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