The growing expectation is that the Players Association is not going to deliver a financial response to MLB’s initial proposal in time to reach an accord before Monday’s soft June 1 deadline to restart the game by Independence Day weekend.
So let’s start a game of seven questions on that subject:
1. Does the deadline matter? Not really. The general feeling has been that the sides have until next weekend, maybe a day or two more, to reach an agreement that would allow teams to gather by the weekend of June 12-14 and have three weeks of spring training 2.0 and start the season July 3.
2. So then next weekend is the deadline? Kinda. Sorta. And no. The best outcome for the game is to renew the national pastime on Independence Day weekend. But there is no rule that it must start then. For example, it could start Aug. 1 with the regular season extended through October and a postseason, perhaps at neutral sites, played in November. But MLB has cautioned that cooler weather could bring a stronger wave of the coronavirus, jeopardizing the postseason, when owners make their largest outlay from national TV. Also, there are concerns about national TV partners having schedule openings in November that already are set aside for October.
3. So why wouldn’t it get done this week? Maybe it will. A fruitful 24-48 hours would change everything. But the sides are fighting about money, and the relationship is bathed in distrust, especially from the players toward the owners. Owners want the players, who already know they will lose their salaries for games not played in 2020, to take another financial haircut from their prorated salaries, which would total around $800 million. The owners say they need this reduction because of lack of revenues from not having paying spectators.
4. So it’s the money, stupid? Yes. Well, mainly. The folks I talk to on both sides still feel for the good of the game a deal will get done. But no one puts it at 100 percent. In fact, many put it at quite less than that. Beyond the money, the biggest reason is divisions on both sides.
There are owners who would just as soon not play already, and that number will grow if, in their calculation, they have to lose even more to stage games. There are players and agents who believe the March 26 agreement did — as MLB states — necessitate a new negotiation over salaries if games were played without paying customers, versus the union’s stated position that the March 26 deal said players will be paid their prorated salaries for games played, period.
Thus, this is not just a fight against each other. Infighting on both sides is not new. But the levels are high and the environment unique, producing quite a lot of internal tension on both sides. The extra soap opera layer is what is creating doubt as much as anything.
5. So is there a solution? There’s always a solution. Understand that a lot goes on below the surface that are not formal bargaining sessions. For example, sub-committees for both sides are in regular contact discussing health/safety protocols and rules — like the DH, expanded playoffs, etc. And, despite the rhetoric, I have yet to hear anyone privately say issues from those arenas will scuttle a deal.
Perhaps momentum will come out of especially agreements on how to return the game safely, since it bonds the owners and players versus the virus.
Also, there could be moderating voices. What you tend to hear publicly are the firebrands. But, for example, the Players Association has been in steady dialogue with its members and has forever stated that the players run the union, not the union staff. Thus, the percentage of players who are willing to give on full prorated salaries will be vital. Is it 5 percent or 55 percent, for example?
Conversely, no person would take a greater historic hit than commissioner Rob Manfred if there is no major league baseball this year, particularly if every other sports league gets going within the pandemic. Perhaps union executive director Tony Clark’s job is more immediately in peril depending on the resolution — another external pressure point, by the way — but Manfred’s reputation could be sealed in the next week or two. That should be a pressure point toward a deal because commissioners are always thinking about legacy.
6. So how does a deal get done? The sense received by both sides is to find a way not to be trapped by just 2020 pay. Manfred is going to need to convince hawkish owners to budge more because whatever financial hardship is endured this year will be made so much worse if the sport plays no meaningful games for 18 months. Think, save $1 today to lose $5 tomorrow.
The players should, yes, try to make as much as possible this year, but the next couple of markets will look bleak, especially for arbitration-eligible players and free agents, no matter what. Thus, any safeguards to the system that can be applied for 2021 and 2022 to help players with compensation — such as a higher minimum wage, no luxury-tax penalties, etc. — should be extracted.
Not playing this year, if governmental and medical officials provide their blessings, would clobber the reputations of the institution and individuals, plus damage earning power and perhaps franchise value. Imagine not rising to the common good amid a pandemic and expecting your fan base to just be waiting for you anyway when spring training opens in February 2021. It leads to the last question:
7. Will those strong external pressures motivate a deal?
Probably. But there are real bad feelings, historic hate and other hurdles making it less than a sure thing.