Should the sides sign off on the health and safety protocols for navigating the coronavirus outbreak, spring training camps could reopen July 1, with Opening Day about three weeks later and a regular season that could still be 60 games — but without the expanded postseason the sides had all but agreed to. MLB has insisted the season must end by Sept. 27, with the postseason contained to October, to guard against a second wave of the novel coronavirus wiping out the playoffs.
The union’s 38-player board, consisting of an eight-member executive subcommittee and representatives of all 30 teams, voted 33-5 against MLB’s latest proposal, a person familiar with the vote confirmed. Even though the players could wind up with the same length of schedule they rejected, the move retains for the union the leverage of a potential grievance accusing the owners of negotiating in bad faith.
The MLBPA executive board “reaffirmed the players’ eagerness to return to work as soon and as safely as possible,” the union said in a statement. “To that end, we anticipate finalizing a comprehensive set of health and safety protocols with Major League Baseball in the coming days, and we await word from the league on the resumption of spring training camps and a proposed 2020 schedule.”
In response, MLB released a statement saying its 30 owners had voted unanimously to proceed despite the lack of a deal; the March 26 agreement between the sides governing the terms of the sport’s shutdown gives Commissioner Rob Manfred the power to implement a schedule as long as players are paid full, prorated shares of their 2020 salaries.
In its statement, MLB asked the union to inform its officials by 5 p.m. Tuesday whether players are willing to report to camps by July 1 and to agree to the health and safety protocols.
The statement also said MLB officials were “disappointed” by the union’s rejection of the “agreement framework developed by Commissioner Manfred and Tony Clark” — a pointed reference to last week’s meeting of the commissioner and the union’s executive director at Clark’s Phoenix-area home, which produced wildly differing interpretations of what was said and agreed to. MLB contended the men reached a handshake deal on a 60-game season; the union characterized that framework as merely a proposal.
“The framework provided an opportunity for MLB and its players to work together to confront the difficulties and challenges presented by the pandemic,” MLB said in its statement.
The statement then listed the items the players chose to give up by rejecting MLB’s proposal: a universal designated hitter for 2020 and 2021 (it will still be used in both leagues in 2020 alone), a guaranteed $25 million in 2020 playoff pool money, $33 million in forgiven salary advances paid in April and May, and the chance to earn 104 percent of their prorated salaries.
The inability to strike a deal — after weeks of talks, proposals, angry letters and recriminations — reflects the distrust between the sides, as well as deep philosophical differences and differing interpretations of their March agreement.
“While we had hoped to reach a revised back to work agreement with the league,” the union’s statement read, “the Players remain fully committed to proceeding under our current agreement and getting back on the field for the fans, for the game, and for each other.”
The unyielding nature of the sides’ positions — mostly focused around how, and how much, players would be paid — destroyed the chances of an earlier deal, which could have allowed the sport to move forward on its preferred plan to launch the season around July 4.
The players proposed as many as 114 games over the course of the talks; the owners at one time offered 82. In their most recent proposals, the union pitched a 70-game season, the owners 60. The difference in total salaries between the offers was about $250 million, or about $8.3 million per team.
Ultimately, with its vote Monday, the union’s executive board decided the enticements MLB was offering were not enough to warrant ceding the players’ biggest bargaining chips, including the threat of a grievance. That grievance, should it be filed, is likely to accuse MLB of stalling over the course of these past few weeks in an effort to pay players as little as possible. However, by implementing a 60-game season, rather than a shorter one of 48 to 54 games that MLB officials had floated in the past, the owners could undercut the players’ legal case.
In the March agreement, the players won the right to earn full, prorated shares of their salaries for 2020, based on the number of games played; MLB contended the agreement called for further negotiations, and further pay reductions for players, owing to lost revenue from games played without fans.
Only in MLB’s fourth and final offer, the 60-game proposal made Wednesday, did the owners agree to pay players full, prorated salaries.
Despite the obvious acrimony between the sides, they still must hammer out the terms of the health and safety protocols, which are now more important and daunting than ever, with coronavirus case numbers spiking in several states that are home to major league teams. Last week, at least five players and three staff members of the Philadelphia Phillies tested positive for the virus, and USA Today has reported at least 40 players and staff members across the sport have tested positive.
Among the bigger issues is how to deal with players — in regards to both pay and the accrual of service time, which determines when they are eligible for free agency — who decide to opt out of competing this season, either because of health risks or personal preference. Even some healthy players, including those whose wives are due to give birth, could balk at playing amid a pandemic for what amounts to around a third of their salary.
Unlike other sports, MLB has been aiming to play its season with teams in their home stadiums — as opposed to a single-site, quarantined “bubble” — which ratchets up the degree of difficulty when factoring in elements such as travel between cities and varied health restrictions from state to state.
But with the lengthy, intense economic battle now resolved — if not amiably — the sides can focus all of their attention on health and safety. The trajectory of the season remains to be seen, with the coronavirus having the biggest and final say, but for the first time throughout this saga, the starting line is now in view.
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