Tuesday brought another proposal — this one from the union, for an 89-game regular season with players paid prorated shares of their 2020 salaries, according to a person familiar with the offer — that almost certainly did little if anything to improve the odds of a deal being reached. It also represented another day falling off the calendar, bringing the sport that much closer to a fate that now seems almost inevitable.
The gulf between the season baseball could have had and the one it probably will wind up defaulting to — a mini-season of between 48 and 60 games and a postseason MLB hopes can be squeezed in before an expected second wave of the novel coronavirus in the fall — is vast enough to engender disgust from all who call themselves baseball fans. (And it is worth pointing out here that there are fewer of those than ever.)
What could have been: a labor deal that satisfied both parties; a July 4 Opening Day; red, white and blue bunting on the upper decks; fighter jets flying over; a captive and sports-starved television audience that baseball would have almost entirely to itself; a regular season of at least half the typical 162 games; license to experiment with rule tweaks in an atmosphere of cooperation and expedience; and an expanded postseason of as many as 16 teams.
What probably will be: an MLB-imposed mini-season starting in late July or early August; a union left to choose between mounting a legal challenge or begrudgingly accepting those terms; multiple players announcing their intentions to sit out rather than subject themselves to the health risk; a fight over how to treat those opting out; and a constant debate over the legitimacy of the season and its World Series champion.
The possibility of a July 4 start, with all of its unmistakable symbolism, is gone. The number of games that can be shoehorned into an ever-shrinking segment of calendar is dwindling. The NBA and NHL appear poised to return to play ahead of baseball.
The gulf between what could have been and what probably will be, barring a deal, is the product of the distrustful and in some regards dysfunctional relationship between the owners and the MLB Players Association, built up over decades of conflict and exacerbated in recent years.
It is a dynamic perhaps best reflected by the fact that, nearly three months into the sport’s shutdown, in the midst of a global pandemic, with unemployment at unfathomable levels, the sides not only can’t agree how to divide a few billion dollars in revenue — they can’t even agree on whether they need to agree.
At the heart of the dispute is that MLB wants a negotiation over the economics of a season that is expected to be played entirely without fans, while the union doesn’t believe one is warranted. Union leaders contend the issue of player compensation was settled in a March 26 agreement governing the terms of the shutdown, which called for players to be paid prorated shares of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played. MLB contends the agreement pertained only to games played in front of fans — and that the reduced revenue from games without them requires renegotiation.
The union’s proposal Tuesday, first reported by ESPN, lopped 25 games off its previous offer. Per the union’s latest pitch, the 89-game regular season would begin July 10 and end Oct. 11. The union also agreed to MLB’s proposal of expanding the postseason to 16 teams. But the union stood by its demand of full, prorated salaries, which its leadership has maintained will not change.
In its most recent proposal, the 76-game pitch delivered Monday, MLB offered players 50 percent of their prorated salaries, with that figure climbing to 75 percent in the event the postseason is completed. The proposal also contained a modest tweak to free agency this offseason, doing away with the qualifying offer and draft-pick compensation mechanisms that limited the market of certain free agents.
MLB hoped the offer would spark movement, with the expectation that, if the union proposed a guaranteed (rather than contingent) 75 percent, the owners would gladly accept. The union’s response Tuesday made it clear that was not going to happen.
By this point, it seems clear MLB will only accept a deal with salary cuts, and the union will accept no deal that does — which is why Manfred’s fallback option of a mini-season looms as the likeliest outcome. Only baseball could take three months to negotiate a return, then default to something neither side really wants.
The 48- to 60-game mini-season, if it comes to that, would give the players their prorated salaries but would bring them to the field begrudgingly, while opening up a new set of issues.
Already, the sides have been going back and forth over health and safety concerns, including how to deal — in terms of compensation and the accrual of service time — with players who opt out, whether because of the coronavirus risk or for personal reasons.
With the extra-short season, and the reality of salaries trimmed by more than two-thirds their original values, the risk-reward calculation might be shifted to the point where more players decide it's not in their best long-term interests to play. But a mass defection of players could spark a messy war over labor law, with the union leaving itself open to charges of an illegal strike.
Distilled to its essence, baseball’s plight stems from a lack of trust. The union doesn’t believe the owners’ claim that they will lose significant money with every game played without fans, in the absence of further pay cuts. When the union asked for documentation of those claims, what it got back offered an incomplete picture. To put it simply, the union believes MLB hides some of its revenue streams from the players.
The distrust has been building over the past couple of offseasons, with the union seeing stagnation in the free agent market and noting the rise in industry revenue while total salaries have remained mostly flat, suggesting owners have benefited from growth far more than have the players.
And that distrust portends a tumultuous next 18 months, with free agency this offseason almost certain to be affected by this year’s diminished revenue, uncertainly over the return of fans to stadiums until a vaccine arrives and an epic negotiation awaiting at the end of 2021, when the collective bargaining agreement expires.
Any remaining optimism on either side for a deal being reached for 2020 has all but evaporated. Even in the sphere of health and safety, where the sides would seem to share the goal of getting through the season without infecting anyone, there is acrimony. As part of its proposal Monday, the owners asked the players to sign an acknowledgment-of-risk waiver, which the union took to be an attempt to deny players the right to challenge if they felt MLB had not provided a safe workplace.
On March 25, the night before what was to have been Opening Day, Manfred went on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and told host Scott Van Pelt: “The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back. Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back. Our fans will be back. Our players will be back. And we will be part of the recovery, part of the healing in this country.”
Two and a half months later, the notion of baseball’s return being part of the country’s recovery seems outdated and quaint. Whenever baseball returns, and whatever the season looks like, it will represent only an opportunity squandered.
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