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Manfred says he has “great confidence” of restart deal with MLBPA

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, appearing on a CNN town hall on Covid-19 (CNN)

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in a primetime interview on CNN that he has “great confidence” in the league’s ability to reach a return-to-play deal with the MLB Players Association.

Appearing on May 14 on a special Covid-19 town hall on the US cable news network, Manfred said the MLB is aiming to return to action in early July in existing MLB venues without fans, providing clearance can be gained from local health officials. But to do so, the league must first also reach an agreement with the union that will cover both health-related and economic issues. MLB owners early this week approved a proposal that was presented to the MLBPA and offers an even 50-50 revenue split on any money generated during an abridged 82-game season.

Numerous players and union leaders have quickly expressed doubt on that measure, believing they already reached an agreement with owners on player pay reductions due to the pandemic, and also fearing the offer could lead to subsequent moves toward a salary cap long opposed by the MLBPA.

But that prior agreement was predicated on playing with attending fans. And since the initial resumption of MLB play would occur with closed doors and without any gate receipts, management believes it has standing to revisit that issue.

“I think that whenever there’s a discussion about economics, publicly people tend to characterize it as a fight,” Manfred said on the CNN interview. “Me personally, I have great confidence that we’ll reach an agreement with the players’ association, both that it’s safe to come back to work and work out the economic issues that need to be resolved.”

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, who would have earned $7m in a normal 2020 season, was among those to quickly sound off on management’s plan, saying it would represent further salary cuts beyond the prior agreement with the league to pay players on a pro-rated basis this year. Snell said he would not play under those conditions, particularly given the still-present health risks from Covid-19.

“The risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why the hell would I think about doing that?,” Snell said. “It’s not worth it. I love baseball, but it’s just not worth it.”

Snell’s comments were quickly decried as obtuse and greedy given overall unemployment rates in the US now standing at their highest levels since the Great Depression. But he quickly found support from other MLB players.

“He ain’t lying. He’s speaking the truth, bro,” said Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper in a live Twitch stream. “I ain’t mad at him. Somebody’s got to say it, at least he manned up and said it. Good for him.”

Manfred the owners’ proposal to the players contains an “extraordinarily detailed” set of health provisions about 80 pages in length. Among the key provisions included are testing of players and other baseball personnel for the virus multiple times per week that would be supplemented by antibody testing, daily temperature checks and symptom analyses, rigorous cleaning of stadiums and team facilities, distance working measures for facility personnel, and modified team travel provisions. 

Players testing positive for Covid-19 would be quarantined, and though that would trigger additional testing and contact tracing, it would not necessarily lead to teammates and other players being quarantined as well. Aiding MLB on the Covid-19 testing and protocols will be the Utah-based Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, which oversee’s the league’s current drug-testing program.

The commissioner said no player would be forced to return to play amid the current situation, and added MLB is closely studying the resumption-of-play measures currently being undertaken in places such as South Korea and Taiwan.

“We hope that we’ll be able to convince [players] that it’s safe,” Manfred said. “At the end of the day, however, if there’s a player with either health conditions or just their own personal doubts, we would never try to force them to come back to work. They can wait until they ready to come.”

Manfred also said ongoing hiatus due to Covid-19 would represent a loss of nearly $4bn to owners if the entire 2020 season cannot be played. Heavy fiscal losses will still occur even with resuming without fans given that roughly 40 per cent of the more than $10.5bn MLB generates in gross revenue each year is tied to the gate, and Manfred said the ongoing hiatus has been “devastating” financially for the clubs.

“Playing in empty stadiums is not a great deal for us economically, but our owners are committed to doing that because they feel it’s important that the game be back on the field, and that the game be a sign of a beginning to return to normalcy to American life the way we’ve always enjoyed it,” Manfred said. “We’re a big business, but we’re a seasonal business, and unfortunately, this crisis began at kind of the low point in terms of us for revenue. We hadn’t quite started our season yet. And if we don’t play a season, the losses for the owners could approach $4bn.”