Rob Manfred and MLB Still Have a Way Out

A path, however narrow and unsteady it may appear, still exists for baseball to be played in 2020.
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In a span of six days, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred went from guaranteeing baseball this year to a no-confidence vote. It was a cruel tease to baseball fans who have suffered enough this year without baseball.

“He’s being the pancake commissioner, where ‘I’ll flip anywhere I want to,’” said player agent Scott Boras, the maestro of metaphor and the sultan of simile. “When you negotiate publicly, once you say it, if you go down a different road you lose credibility. When he said on draft day ‘100 percent we’re going to have baseball,’ the commissioner said there’s a chicken in every pot.”

Manfred did not simply change his mind. He’s too smart for that. It was a reaction to a two-pronged shrewd gambit by union director Tony Clark. It was not just Clark’s “tell us where and when” challenge, which gave his players the look of “all we want to do is play ball,” when they have been obstinate in their position. It also was the union’s brandishing of their ultimate weapon: a grievance that the owners haven’t bargained in good faith–a $1 billion threat.

Moreover, Manfred’s case was weakened by word that TBS was giving MLB a billion dollars to remain in the postseason broadcasting business.

“The TBS contract was the rectal thermometer,” Boras said. “It illustrated the truth to all the fans, and that is the content of this game has such value even in the heart of a pandemic that you get a record contract for your rights. When I say rectal thermometer, I say it as the truest form of the temperature of the game.”

If you read carefully the statements and letters from both sides in the past few days, the term “bad faith” is everywhere. That is not by accident. Both sides, like kids in the schoolyards raising fists in a ready boxing position, are signaling readiness for a grievance. It’s the equivalent of filing legal briefs.

All along Manfred has preferred to reach a settlement rather than dictate a schedule of his choosing. In the next few days we will find out how far he will go to achieve that desired peace. There is an avenue to get there.

Manfred must gather the 30 owners and come to a final decision of how they want the economic math to work for them. One choice is to play no season at all and just absorb their losses, which is lunacy. Boras said owners told him back in March each team would lose $80 million to $110 million if no games were played. That does not include $1 billion in television revenue just from the postseason, nor all the sponsorship money for 2021 that disappears if baseball stays dark for 17 months.

They could declare a stalemate in talks and have Manfred schedule a 50-game season with players getting 100% of their pro-rated pay. Total pay to players: $1.25 billion. The players believe this has been the owners’ default position.

“The stall tactic to get to August 1,” Boras said.

MLB agent Scott Boras

That choice also opens them to the threat of the grievance that they did not bargain in good faith. Who knows how it would turn out–it’s like predicting a jury. But in any case, a grievance would likely force the owners to open their books–without the redactions that accompanied some Regional Sports Network documents they sent to players in March.

The least risky option is coming back to the players with an offer designed to reach a settlement, not one designed to take more time off the clock.

The players have made it clear they won’t take anything less than 100% of pro-rated pay–their own “chicken in every pot” declaration. They turned down a $300 million difference, or 20% pay to each player, in the last proposal just to stick to their position.

They also want more games not because of some high-minded “integrity of the season” argument, but because they make their money in the regular season. They want to push the World Series into November to do so. Their latest proposal called for 89 games.

To get an agreement, Manfred would have to give on both fronts: pay and length of season. The cost of playing 80 games, for example, at 100% pay is $2.035 billion. That’s $785 million more than the owners’ last proposal.

But with an agreement, $200 million of that is offset by money from an expanded 16-team postseason. The added cost of this proposal compared to their last offer is $582 million, or $19.5 million per team.

“We’re giving you an eight-team [per league] playoff as a given,” Boras said. “They get this right and this is an inroad to what they want down the road. The eight-team playoff is the inroad to a 32-team league.”

Playing 80 games would require pushing the regular season past its Sept. 27 scheduled end, something the owners don’t want to do because of fears about a second surge of the pandemic associated with the fall flu season. That’s a real concern not to be taken lightly.

But is there no flexibility whatsoever? What about an extension of two weeks? What if the playoffs began Oct. 15? After all, the NBA Finals are due to conclude Oct. 13. Do you want postseason baseball competing against postseason basketball or do you want premium event ad dollars to yourself–heading toward a presidential election no less?

“We have to be good partners to all sports,” Boras said. “We should not be stepping on the NBA playoffs. The NBA can have their time and we can have our own. We could do it at the end of October. From July 15 to October 15, you have 100 days to get the games in.”

Eighty games at 100% prorated pay with the World Series ending Nov. 15.

“Sounds good to me,” Boras said.

The added cost to owners: $19.5 million per team and two weeks on the calendar. (The 2001 World Series ended Nov. 4.)

Manfred told me last week that all 30 teams have been unified with him throughout negotiations. If that’s still the case–that no team is splintering in favor of no season–then he should be empowered to make one more offer that continues to move further toward the players. The mere possibility of a grievance has proved to be a powerful force.

“The key to running the race is knowing the racetrack,” Boras said. “We were allowed to play the games knowing we could resolve our differences with a grievance.

“We knew they could play and we could still have the damage provision if good faith was not achieved. It didn’t hold up the game but allowed the playing of the game. If there was any dispute as to good faith execution, we could clearly play the game and resolve our dispute in a tribunal.

“We don’t want to delay the game any further. We want to do what’s best for the game. We are looking at the economic feasibility not on a one-year basis but on a multi-year dimension for baseball. We want to get on with the game so we can continue to grow the game in 2021 and 2022.”

That prism in which the two sides view this dispute is at the heart of this disagreement. The owners see this situation as a one-off unprecedented problem: how to return to play from a global pandemic. They have a hard time understanding how players could be so fixated on money at a time of so much suffering and sacrifice.

The players view the problem as an opening to address wider economic concerns one year ahead of the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Wages have remained flat while revenues and franchise values have risen. Some of their complaints, however, arose from their own poor bargaining on economic issues in this CBA.

These past two months have been an embarrassment for baseball. The two sides can’t even agree on what they agreed on in March. The lack of face-to-face meetings have added a cold, impersonal nastiness to negotiations. Civility thrives in the real world, not the electronic, virtual one.

There is still time to change the narrative. Put players back on the field in a short season that doesn’t build toward a pennant race, but is one, and let Manfred and Clark fade to the background. There every day, baseball has great restorative powers. Manfred works for 30 owners, but because of his six-day turnaround for better or worse has become the face of this stalemate. He still has time to change it.