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MLB Is Staring Down the Point of No Return

Rob Manfred said Monday that he’s “not confident” there will be a 2020 baseball season. It follows months of acrimonious discussions—and could spell disaster for MLB’s future. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball’s doomsday clock is closer to midnight than it’s been in almost 20 years. On Monday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN he’s “not confident” there will be a 2020 season. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported that MLB sent the MLBPA a letter threatening to cancel the season unless the players waived any legal claims (e.g., a grievance asserting that the league had not bargained in good faith over the season length) against MLB. In March, with the league on hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the league and the MLBPA struck a deal giving MLB the power to determine the schedule unilaterally, while guaranteeing players their prorated salaries and protecting the advancement of service time. Canceling the season was supposed to be a last resort, to be used only under exceptionally dire public health conditions.

Since agreeing to that deal, MLB has spent the past two and a half months attempting to wriggle out of it. Monday’s development follows months of acrimonious discussions between MLB and the MLBPA that seemed destined to result in what once felt like the worst-case scenario: an approximately 50-game regular season. Since May, the league has put forth three economic proposals; though the schedule and payment structure differed in each, they all offered the players roughly $1.2 billion in leaguewide salary, or about 30 percent of the $4.1 billion they would have made over a full 162-game season. Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty tweeted on June 8 that all three have “been the same deal worded differently.”

Yet barring a shift in public health trends that would have made it unsafe to play, the league maintained that it would use that March agreement to implement a season including some 50 games. At least then there would be some semblance of baseball in 2020, players would get paid something, and MLB would have the chance to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue during the playoffs. As recently as last Wednesday, Manfred outlined that scenario before ESPN’s draft broadcast. While Manfred said he’d prefer to come to a negotiated agreement in which players would take a pay cut beyond what they agreed to in March, he told studio host Karl Ravech there was a “100 percent” chance of a season happening in some form. “I can tell you, unequivocally, we are gonna play Major League Baseball this year,” Manfred said.

Over the weekend, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said that negotiations had bogged down, but reiterated that the players would be ready if MLB scheduled a season under the terms of the March agreement. “It’s time to get back to work,” Clark wrote. “Tell us when and where.”

Then came Monday, when Manfred told ESPN there’s a “real risk” of the league scrapping the 2020 season altogether. That he did so on a show called The Return of Sports proves that even if the season isn’t dead, irony definitely is. Taken in concert with the league’s threat, Manfred’s comment earned the players’ opprobrium.

A’s left-hander Jake Diekman tweeted that “5/6 commissioners have their shit together”; presumably he wasn’t insinuating that MLS boss Don Garber was the lone exception. Cleveland catcher Roberto Pérez said that Manfred had “lied to the world of baseball fans.” Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon, the club’s MLBPA representative, called the league’s negotiating stance “slimy, tone deaf, greedy, lying, leaking, and overall out of touch.” Taillon added, “This is not even close to what you dream of as a kid! Sorry to everyone for this playing out through the media during a pandemic. Brutal.”

It would be one thing if MLB decided to cancel the season due to concerns over public safety; even as states are starting to lift some restrictions, COVID-19 case spikes in Texas and other MLB states offer a reminder that it might not actually be safe for players, coaches, umpires, and other staffers to come back to work. On Monday, as the baseball world was still gnashing teeth and rending garments over the possibility of a canceled season, news leaked to the AP that several players and MLB staff had tested positive for COVID-19. Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle was among those who called the timing of the news dump “suspicious.”

But canceling the season because the players would neither capitulate to MLB’s demands nor indemnify the league from legal action seems almost unfathomable. While it wouldn’t meet the legal definition of a lockout, there would be little if any practical distinction.

Whether this stance is a last-ditch bluff or not, whether MLB actually cancels the season or not, Monday sends the clear signal that the league does not view playing baseball as one of its highest priorities. Rather, MLB seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring profits, no matter how that’s accomplished. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched teams slash free agent spending, resulting in the average player salary going down from 2017 to 2018, or saw MLB lobby Congress to exempt minor leaguers—many of whom make four-figure salaries—from minimum wage law. Meanwhile, the league made a record $10.7 billion in revenue in 2019, setting a record for the 17th straight season. The Braves, who are owned by publicly traded Liberty Media and therefore have to report their finances, took in $476 million, up 8 percent from the previous year.

So what happens next? The original target for a rescheduled Opening Day was July 4 weekend; that date is no longer feasible. If a season happens, MLB is set on it finishing by September 27. Realistically, a bare-bones season of around 50 games would require eight weeks, though if teams slashed travel days to the bare minimum and worked in doubleheaders, it’s theoretically possible to play 48 games in seven weeks. Add in another three weeks for organized training camp and another week to collect players who are scattered around the globe, and if the schedule isn’t announced by the second week of July, it’d be nearly impossible for MLB to finish the season by its preferred date.

The other big variable is the MLBPA’s ability to file a labor grievance. Regardless of MLB’s public demands for salary rollbacks, the March agreement doesn’t require the union to bargain on economics any further. It does, however, maintain that in setting the schedule MLB must use “best efforts to play as many games as possible” given “the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” Considering the timing and substance of MLB’s proposals, the MLBPA could file a grievance alleging that MLB is not fulfilling these obligations. If the MLBPA files a grievance and wins, the league could owe the players a huge financial payout, perhaps as much as a billion dollars. This latest threat could be a final effort by the league to avoid this case coming before an arbitrator—a possibility floated by Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer and Twins minor leaguer Brent Rooker on Monday. “Ya know who gets upset about a possible grievance?” Rooker mused. “People who would lose a grievance.”

On Monday evening, Clark put out a statement similarly responding to Manfred’s newfound pessimism. “This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning,” Clark said. “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.”

For more than 20 years after the 1994 strike, MLB and the MLBPA have managed to avoid another work stoppage. For much of that time, Manfred was a key MLB negotiator, in which capacity he won a series of resounding victories for owners. But despite decades of evidence of their own invincibility at the bargaining table, MLB this time appears to have overplayed its hand. As intransigent as the league has been, it wants at least two things from the MLBPA: assurances that it will not file a grievance, and permission to expand to a 14- or 16-team playoff format, the latter of which could generate more than $100 million in extra TV revenue. MLB would have a great deal to lose even by implementing a shortened season rather than negotiating, let alone canceling the season outright.

If MLB does pursue the nuclear option, neither the players nor owners would bring in further revenue this season. Front office staff, stadium workers, scouts, and other league employees would remain out of work. And there’s no guarantee that things would return to normal thereafter.

What happens if the COVID-19 outbreak is still raging at full force in April 2021, making it impossible to hold games in front of fans? Would MLB tell players to get back to work as normal, or would the league maintain its (legally dubious) stance that the March agreement was contingent on fans returning? Even if there is a 2021 season, the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December. Given the tenor of discussions this spring, it seems likely that the next round of negotiations will be similarly acrimonious, and it remains a remote possibility that we could lose three straight seasons. Even losing two seasons out of three would take huge chunks out of players’ careers: It could stop Giancarlo Stanton from reaching 500 home runs, Cole Hamels from reaching 3,000 strikeouts, or José Altuve from reaching 3,000 hits, to name just a few potential holes in the record book.

That’s the worst-case scenario—at least for now. If Monday taught us anything, it’s that MLB’s worst-case scenario can change in an instant.