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Manfred reverses course, says he is “not confident” of playing 2020 MLB season

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The likelihood of a 2020 Major League Baseball season being played at all has gone down dramatically after league commissioner Rob Manfred said he is “not confident” of that happening amid fractious labor negotiations with the MLB Players Association.

Manfred, walking back comments from just last week at the MLB Draft where he forecasted a “100 per cent” chance of the season happening, said on ESPN’s “The Return of Sports” special that the outlook of the games being played at all this year has grown much darker.

“I’m not confident,” Manfred said. “I think there’s real risk, and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue.”

Manfred’s comments came after the MLBPA over the weekend broke off talks with MLB on the economics of a resumed 2020 season, with union executive director Tony Clark saying “further dialogue with the league would be “futile.”

MLB team owners continue to seek salary concessions from players, making a series of proposals that have sought to pay a percentage of prorated player salaries, and each hovering in the $1.2bn-$1.5bn range in total player compensation. 

The union, conversely, has insisted that players be paid 100 per cent of prorated salaries, and its last formal offer called for about $2.2bn in total player compensation for 2020. 

The invective between the two sides escalated even further as this week began as MLB has since signaled that it will develop and release a 2020 regular season schedule, which it is allowed to do if pays players 100 per cent of pro rated salaries, only if the union agrees to waive potential grievance claims the league violated a March agreement on Covid-19-related issues.

MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem wrote Bruce Meyer, MLBPA senior director of collective bargaining and legal, on June 15 that “if the Association is prepared to allow us to construct an 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.”

Halem in that same letter also noted that some unnamed players on MLB 40-man rosters, as well as staff, have tested positive for Covid-19.

But the grievance issue was never far from any of the public dialogue surrounding the MLB talks. 

“While Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out telling reporters, players, and eventually get 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,” said Manfred on the ESPN special. “Obviously, that sort of bad-faith tactic makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances.”

Manfred’s comments, and the league’s continued aggressive stance, prompted another angry statement from Clark.

“Players are disgusted that after Rob Manfred unequivocally told players and fans that there would ‘100 per cent’ be a 2020 season, he has decided to go back on his word and is now threatening to cancel the entire season,” Clark said. “Any implication that the Players Association somehow delayed progress on health and safety protocols is completely false, as Rob has recently acknowledged the parties are ‘very, very close.’ 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.”

Individual players also chimed in behind Clark.

“Rob Manfred and the owners are walking back on their word…AGAIN,” tweeted Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, an outspoken member of the union’s executive subcommittee. “The fans do not deserve this. So I’ll say it one more time, tell us when and where [to report].”

The repeated use of the phrase “bad faith” on both sides would appear to signal the strong likelihood of grievances ultimately happening in both directions, with this battle only serving as a prelude for a larger negotiation set to happen next year on a new collective bargaining agreement that already contains wide ideological divides between players and owners on multiple issues.

Manfred did acknowledge the ongoing battle surround the talks to restart the 2020 season represents extremely poor optics for the sport, particularly given every other major US sports property has either restarted play already, or is far along in developing a plan to do so.

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