MLB tells union it won't start season unless players waive right to grievance hearing

Bill Shaikin
A baseball is shown on the grass at the Cincinnati Reds' spring training facility in Goodyear, Ariz. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and owners have responded to the MLBPA's calling to report back for training for the 2020 season.  (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Five days after Commissioner Rob Manfred guaranteed there would be a 2020 season, Major League Baseball suggested it might cancel the season entirely.

In a letter to the players’ union, MLB said it would not honor the players’ demand to announce a schedule unless the union waives legal claims against the league. In particular, the league asked the players to sign away the right to a potential grievance hearing in which the union believes it could pursue perhaps a billion dollars in damages and instead return to a bargaining process the union has abandoned as “futile.”

At the end of a turbulent day, in which union chief Tony Clark said players were “disgusted,” Manfred and Clark traded accusations of “bad faith,” and some of the game’s stars lit up social media with their anger, a league that has enjoyed 25 years of labor peace crept ever closer to the specter of labor disaster: a 2020 season canceled because owners and players could not agree on money; a 2021 season with revenues reduced because of coronavirus-related restrictions on ballpark attendance; and a 2022 season that could be delayed or wiped out because of a lockout or strike.

The developments come at a time several baseball executives are growing increasingly concerned with the league’s negotiating strategies, fearing that the owners are alienating players at a time the game cannot grow without both sides working together, according to a management official speaking on condition of anonymity.

In addition, owners have grown increasingly concerned about the viability of a season amid a rise in coronavirus cases in areas where MLB games would be played. As the Associated Press first reported, several unidentified players already have tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Monday, the first business day after Clark said “further dialogue with the league would be futile” and demanded that MLB tell players “when and where” to report, owners held a conference call on which a negotiated settlement was prioritized. Manfred said “no dialogue” between the sides would put the season at “real risk.”

Under a March 26 agreement between owners and players, Manfred has the authority to dictate the number of games in the season or decide there will be no season.

"The owners are a 100% committed to getting baseball back on the field," Manfred told ESPN. "Unfortunately, I can't tell you that I'm a 100% certain that's gonna happen."

Manfred had told MLB Network last Wednesday: “We’re going to play baseball in 2020. One hundred percent.”

In the letter Monday, the league asked the union to resume negotiations or submit the matter “on an expedited basis” to arbitration. The issue at arbitration would be whether, given the fan-free games, players would be obligated to take less than the prorated salaries provided in that March 26 agreement. The league suggested negotiations for a 2020 season could proceed after an arbitrator’s decision that MLB believes could be obtained in days or weeks; the union believes even an expedited arbitration process could take up to a year.

In regards to Clark’s demand, MLB told the MLBPA: “If the Association is prepared to allow us to construct and issue a 2020 schedule and announce a Spring Training report date, and waive any claims that by doing so we have violated the March Agreement, you should let us know.”

Manfred said an agreement for MLB to pay full prorated salaries — to which the owners never have formally agreed — could have prompted the union to back off its threat of a grievance.

"I had been hopeful that once we got to common ground on the idea that we were gonna pay the players full prorated salary, that we would get some cooperation in terms of proceeding under the agreement that we negotiated with the MLBPA on March 26th," Manfred told ESPN. "Unfortunately, over the weekend, while Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union's top lawyer was out telling reporters, players and eventually getting back to owners that as soon as we issued a schedule — as they requested — they intended to file a grievance claiming they were entitled to an additional billion dollars.

"Obviously, that sort of bad-faith tactic makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances."

The union believes lingering negotiations are a stall tactic by the league to minimize exposure in a possible grievance. While players could argue that longer seasons would have been possible because owners had proposed them, owners could counter that they made every effort to reach a negotiated settlement and a short season was the only option after negotiations were exhausted.

“Players are disgusted that after Rob Manfred unequivocally told players and fans that there would '100% be a 2020 season,' he has decided to go back on his word and is now threatening to cancel the entire season,” Clark said.

“This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning. This has always been about extracting additional pay cuts from players and this is just another day and another bad faith tactic in their ongoing campaign.”

There was no shortage of players sharing their exasperation on Twitter.

From Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer: “Rob Manfred and the owners are walking back on their word . . . AGAIN. The fans do not deserve this. So I’ll say it one more time, tell us when and where.”

From Toronto Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw: “Every day somehow continues to get worse. MLB should be embarrassed . . . everyone involved. I’m embarrassed. This is a joke.”

From Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, with a nod to the less dysfunctional NFL: “What’s good @Eagles?”