The news comes one day after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred flew to Arizona to meet in person with MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark in a last-ditch effort to strike a deal and two days after Manfred told ESPN during a taped interview that he was “not confident” there would be a 2020 season and that the inability to reach a deal was a “disaster for our game.”
“We left that meeting [in Arizona] with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement and subject to conversations with our respective constituents,” Manfred said in a statement Wednesday. “ … Consistent with our conversations yesterday, I am encouraging the Clubs to move forward and I trust Tony is doing the same.”
If a deal is reached in the coming days, players could report as soon as next week for a “spring training 2.0” lasting about three weeks, with an Opening Day in the second half of July. The sport has been effectively shut down by the novel coronavirus pandemic since spring training games were halted March 12. The 2020 season will be played, at least initially, without fans.
MLB’s 60-game proposal satisfied the players’ demands to be paid full, prorated shares of their original 2020 salaries, but union negotiators are pushing for a longer season, with the calendar leaving room for a regular season of up to 75 games. On Friday, MLB proposed a 72-game season; five days later, their newest pitch trimmed that by 12 games.
Both sides have essentially agreed on an expanded, 16-team postseason, and MLB has been consistent in saying it wants the postseason contained within October, as opposed to pushing it deeper into the fall or winter, because of fears that a second wave of the coronavirus could lead to its cancellation.
The union had made it clear players would not accept any agreement that didn’t earn them full, prorated salaries for 2020 — a structure negotiated into the March 26 agreement between the sides governing the terms of the shutdown. Players have held firm on salaries throughout the negotiation despite MLB’s persistent claims that the greatly diminished revenue from fan-free games required players to accept further pay cuts.
MLB’s concession on prorated salaries represented the breakthrough that allowed talks to be revived just days after the union effectively ended them when Clark said in a statement: “Further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
Clark’s statement Saturday reflected the union’s acknowledgment that Manfred had the power, as outlined in the March agreement, to set the terms of the 2020 regular season in the absence of a deal as long as players were paid pro rata. Two weeks earlier, as a negotiating ploy, MLB signaled its willingness to implement a 48-to-54-game season — though it never formally proposed it.
The union had made it clear any effort by Manfred to implement a season unilaterally would be met by a grievance claiming MLB had failed to meet the standard, also negotiated into the March agreement, of making a “good faith effort” to play as many games as possible.
As part of its new proposal Wednesday, MLB asked the union to waive its right to file that grievance. However, a person familiar with the union’s stance said it had not agreed to do so.
MLB’s three previous proposals each called for players to accept additional pay cuts, with the most recent offer, made Friday, guaranteeing players 70 percent of their prorated salaries with an opportunity to make up to 83 percent if the postseason is completed.
At least theoretically, the owners’ losses by paying full, prorated salaries could be partially made back through the extra income from an expanded postseason, the network television contracts for which generate much of the industry’s revenue. MLB’s proposal Wednesday called for expanded postseasons in both 2020 and 2021.
Because of the deep bitterness that has characterized this negotiation, which has plunged labor relations in the sport to their lowest point since the 1994-95 players’ strike, it would be unwise to assume a deal before one is actually signed.
The matter of the right to file a grievance, in particular, could remain a sticking point; the union proposed as many as 114 games in its initial offer, and its leadership believes part of MLB’s strategy in making incrementally improved offers the union clearly would not accept was to effectively run out the clock on the negotiation to play as few games as possible.
At the same time, MLB owners, already staring at significant losses this year because of the lack of in-stadium revenue, could balk at approving a deal that would subject them to the possibility of a grievance carrying a penalty of up to $1 billion were they to lose.
Meanwhile, the increasing spread of the virus in recent weeks throughout the Sun Belt — states that are home to about a third of all big league teams — represents another significant challenge to playing baseball in 2020.
Still, in the span of a few days, baseball has gone from a “disaster” to a “jointly developed framework” that “could form the basis” of a deal. And it brings the sport the closest it has been to getting back on the field since the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues were shuttered more than three months ago.
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