But that concept, combined with the union’s formal proposal of a 114-game season, delivered via videoconference Sunday, represented the most optimistic signs in weeks that the sport could find a way back to the field this summer.
The 50-to-60-game concept, first reported by ESPN and confirmed by a person familiar with MLB’s deliberations, was less a proposal than an assertion by MLB that its March agreement with the MLB Players Association — which governed the terms of the sport’s shutdown amid the novel coronavirus outbreak — gave Commissioner Rob Manfred wide powers to determine the length of the 2020 season absent further agreement with the union.
But seen through the prism of a protracted back-and-forth with the union, the concept is best seen as the latest inflection point in a difficult and at times contentious negotiation — one that could finally point the way to a deal.
The most important aspect of MLB’s latest idea isn’t the number of games — it’s the willingness to pay players their prorated salaries. Similarly, the most important aspect of the union’s latest proposal wasn’t the 114 games — it was the willingness to make an economic concession, namely the deferral of $100 million of players’ 2020 salaries in the event the postseason is canceled or shortened by a second wave of the coronavirus.
With the union now at 114 games and MLB at 50 to 60 — the former too many to squeeze into a limited calendar, the latter too few to contest a representative season — there is a discernible pathway to a mutually acceptable regular season in the neighborhood of 80 games, played without fans and beginning around July 1. That probably would be followed by an expanded, 14-team postseason wrapping up by the end of October.
It will still take some negotiating to get to a deal. The last time MLB proposed a season around that length, its 82-game proposal was accompanied by severe cuts to players’ salaries, with the largest cuts going to the players earning the most money. MLB has contended it would lose significant money for every game played without fans unless the players agreed to additional salary reductions; the union has expressed skepticism about that claim and asked for documentation.
The 82-game proposal, not surprisingly, was rejected by the union, which has stuck by its contention that the matter of player compensation was settled by the March agreement that called for players to receive prorated shares of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played.
The concept floated by MLB on Monday, distilled to its essence, made clear MLB was willing to pay players only so much money in 2020, and it was up to the players whether they want to earn it over 50 games, 60 games, 82 games or 114 games.
Put another way: The players’ total pay over a 50-game season at full, prorated salaries would be in the same neighborhood as their total pay under the terms of the 82-game proposal at reduced salaries. What MLB did Monday was force the players, in essence, to decide whether they valued more games or more pay.
But with MLB now signaling its willingness to pay players their prorated salaries (albeit in a severely truncated season), and the union formally willing to make economic concessions (albeit under one narrow contingency), the framework is in place for a productive give-and-take.
Perhaps MLB agrees to another few weeks’ worth of games at prorated salaries, or close to them. Perhaps the union agrees to further deferrals — which is unlikely to be enough to satisfy owners worried about their cash flow — or reluctantly accepts a small, additional round of pay cuts. Perhaps the sides find other incentives — focused on improving players’ paths to free agent riches — to complete the deal.
The calendar has now become a mutual enemy of both sides, which makes the next few days critical. The first week of June was considered a soft deadline for reopening spring training in mid-June and holding Opening Day around July 4, though the sides could continue negotiating and push back the start. Each week that passes makes it more difficult to achieve both objectives of a representative regular season and an expanded, revenue-generating, completed postseason.
But for the first time in weeks, the pathway to a 2020 season — shortened, fan-less and not without risk to participants, but real, live baseball played by major leaguers in major league stadiums nonetheless — is not only visible but achievable.
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