News Analysis: Simmering anger between MLB team owners and players could jeopardize season

Bill Shaikin
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark.  (LM Otero; Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Two men walk into a room and ... no, this is not the setup to a joke. This is the setup to explain why two sides getting closer to a deal sound so far apart.

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball owners agreed to a 60-game season. On Thursday, players proposed a 70-game season.

Split the difference and play ball, right? Not so fast ... and maybe the owners call the whole thing off.

Both sides would like players to report to training camp in about a week and start the season in about a month, but we’ve heard that refrain for some time now.

On Monday, after suggesting on national television that owners might cancel the season, commissioner Rob Manfred flew to Arizona to meet with Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ union.

The two met Tuesday. Manfred walked into the room and thought he left with a deal all but done. Clark walked into the room and thought he left with a significant concession that could lead to a deal.

On Wednesday, Manfred said in a statement: “We left that meeting with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement and subject to conversations with our respective constituents.”

For the first time, the owners had agreed to pay players the prorated salaries provided under a March 26 agreement. The season would be 60 games, and the two sides would finalize the rest of the agreement.

That was how Manfred and the owners understood it.

On Thursday, Clark issued two statements, one of which said: “I made clear repeatedly in that meeting and after it that there were a number of significant issues with what he proposed, in particular the number of games. It is unequivocally false to suggest that any tentative agreement or other agreement was reached in that meeting. In fact, in conversations within the last 24 hours, Rob invited a counterproposal for more games that he would take back to the owners. We submitted that counterproposal today.”

The difference in salaries between 60 and 70 games is $250 million in an industry that made $10.7 billion in revenue in healthy times last season and projects to make $2.75 billion even in a coronavirus-delayed, fan-free season. That difference amounts to about $8.3 million per team, less than the Dodgers paid Matt Kemp not to play for them last year.

On Thursday, however, anger on both sides threatened to blow up the road to what should be an obvious resolution.

The owners believe the union reneged on a deal. Indeed, by lengthening the proposed schedule and adding deal points, one league official said the union did not move toward a deal but instead “went backwards in every direction.”

The union believes Manfred is trying “to save face” with owners by pressuring the players into an agreement that they say they did not reach. “Not even a handshake agreement,” said a union official.

Then what, a league official asked, took four hours to draw up?

One agent wondered why the union thought it was a good idea for Clark to have a one-on-one meeting with Manfred, since Manfred is a skilled and experienced labor negotiator. The league thought Clark was there to make a deal; the union thought Clark was there to cut through the acrimony of lawyer letters and steer the two sides toward a deal.

After the players demanded “tell us when and where” last weekend, the league official said, the players came back with “when and where plus what we want.”

But the “when and where” was about a season the owners would impose, at a length the owners would impose. That could prompt the union to file a grievance over salary lost by players in a fairly-bargained season, a threat that Manfred has said the union has put at about $1 billion.

As part of their proposal Thursday, the union offered to waive any such grievance. That waiver, plus consent to league proposals for expanded playoffs and advertising patches on uniforms, could be worth what the union believes would be “hundreds of millions” to owners.

The union also proposed that players could be housed in a quarantine or “bubble” format for the postseason if a second wave of the coronavirus makes it necessary.

The split of postseason revenue still would be at issue. The idea of playing 70 games in 74 days probably would necessitate doubleheaders, a reduction in games, or both. A player at high risk for the coronavirus would be allowed to opt out this season and still get paid, but what about a player that lives with someone at high risk?

Those are serious matters for negotiation, but none should be an insurmountable impediment to an agreement. In the coming days, we’ll find out if the anger on both sides might be.