MLB’s threat to cancel season deepens clash with ‘disgusted’ players

Faizal Khamisa is joined by Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith to discuss MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred's comments on the likelihood of a 2020 season.

TORONTO – Take a step back from the rage triggered by commissioner Rob Manfred essentially threatening to cancel the 2020 season, and breathe for a minute.

That collective pulse of anger was pretty intense, and suddenly it feels a lot like it did back in 1994, when the ongoing threat of a salary cap forced players into a mid-August strike that eventually led to the cancellation of the World Series.

Those were dark days. That darkness is back in a depressing way, remarkably in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, not solely because of it.

Just brutal.

Still, let’s stay rational and dispassionate, since emotion is the enemy of good decision-making, gospel among the game’s executives these days. Going on about how “these (expletives) are gonna burn it down,” as one text message I got read, can blind you from what really matters.

And what really matters from Manfred’s comments to interviewer Mike Greenberg during ESPN’s ‘The Return of Sports’ special Monday, isn’t that he’s “not confident” there’ll be a 2020 season, and that “I think there’s real risk, and as long as there’s no dialogue that real risk is going to continue.” (Even though, inconceivably, that walked back his draft day boast that, “I can tell you unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year.”)

No, the crucial stuff is in here, and it explains exactly where we’re at right now: “I have been hopeful that once we got to common ground on the idea that we were going to pay the players full pro-rated salary, that we would get some co-operation in terms of proceeding under the agreement that we negotiated with the MLBPA on March 26. Unfortunately, over the weekend while Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out there 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.”

For clarity, we’ll run that through the lawyerese-to-English dictionary: The union’s threats to file a grievance are preventing us from setting the schedule.

Or, more precisely from Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:

So, to review, owners are now willing to pay players their pro-rated 2020 salaries under terms of the deal the sides reached in March as part of a season length they determine, but are demanding a promise from the players that they won’t litigate a claim that MLB is violating an obligation to stage as full a campaign as possible.

And given that they’re worried enough to demand such an assurance, clearly the owners believe the players have a case with enough merit to pose a substantial risk.

Simple, right?

If your head isn’t spinning, then ponder this — the parties are basically at the same spot they were before the weekend when, unable to reach agreement on how many games the season should be, the union threw up its hands and said to MLB, impose your season, we’ll be there.

This, then, is just a way to force the union back into negotiations, which is an excessively generous way to describe what’s taken place thus far. Only now, there’s even more acrimony and mistrust in the process, the opposite of what you need to stage a season amid the highly contagious coronavirus back on the rise in multiple spots across the United States.

To some extent, things are in the players’ hands right now, and let’s give union head Tony Clark credit for cleverly fending off the initial attacks from ownership and stewarding the players into a position with some control, as Cincinnati Reds ace Trevor Bauer laid out so well.

Now, though, isn’t the time for Clark to overplay his hand and test whether owners are willing to follow through on Manfred’s veiled threat to cancel the season.

There’s been a middle ground in the 70ish-game range all along and it’s time for the bridge-builders on both sides to find each other and pull everyone back from the precipice.

Players have every right to be, as Clark put it in a statement, “disgusted,” and point out that “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,” he added, “and this is just another day and another bad faith tactic in their ongoing campaign.”

In that way, all this has been illuminating for the union, revealing how much power the hawks among MLB owners currently wield. That information will come in handy when the current CBA expires after the 2021 season, as will the indoctrination of an entire generation of players never before pushed to the brink.

The cost will be far too high, though, if the season is lost. Both sides will already pay dearly for wasting the goodwill a smooth return into a barren sports landscape would have offered, and the legions of new fans that could have created.

At this point, having squandered the chance to generate millions down the road, they need to stop fighting over relative pennies in the present.

“It’s just a disaster for our game, absolutely, no question about it,” Manfred said of the damage caused by the public dispute. “It shouldn’t be happening and it’s important that we find a way to get past it and get the game back on the field for the benefit of our fans.”

At least there’s one thing everyone can agree on.

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