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MLB-MLBPA sparring deepens, Manfred says deadline near

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred (L), and Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Confusion continues to surround the ongoing talks to start the 2020 Major League Baseball, as the league and MLB Players Association cannot even agree on what even transpired during a face-to-face meeting earlier this week between MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and union executive director Tony Clark.

The MLBPA on June 18 made a counterproposal for a 70-game season, 10 games longer than the last management offer, lasting from July 19 to September 30. The union’s bid also contained provisions to expand the playoffs from the current 10 teams to 16 as soon as this year, a universal designated hitter, and corporate uniform patches that would be a first for MLB in domestic games.

That proposal, however, exposed the vastly differing interpretations of what transpired during the Manfred-Clark meetings earlier this week that represented their first in-person contact in three months. 

The union believes those sessions were essentially designed to restart talks.

“In my discussions with Rob in Arizona we explored a potential pro rata framework, but I made clear repeatedly in that meeting and after it that there were a number of significant issues with what he proposed, in particular the number of games,” Clark said. “It is unequivocally false to suggest that any tentative agreement or other agreement was reached in that meeting. In fact, in conversations within the last 24 hours, Rob invited a counterproposal for more games that he would take back to the owners. We submitted that counterproposal today.”

Manfred, conversely, said he thought the “jointly developed framework” that he referred to coming out of the meeting was not a new floor for renegotiation.

“I don’t know what Tony and I were doing there for several hours going back and forth and making trades if we weren’t reaching an agreement,” Manfred said.

“At several points in time, I went back to the list of issues with Tony and reviewed where we were, and I did that again at the end of the meeting. We shook hands and we both agreed we were going to – push was the word – push our sides to reach an agreement consistent with that framework,” he said.

The commissioner further said the 70-game proposal was not workable either from a timing or public health perspective, citing recent concerns from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of a potential second spike in Covid-19 cases this fall.

“I told [Clark] 70 games was simply impossible given the calendar and the public health situation, and he went ahead and made that proposal anyway,” Manfred said.

There remains distrust within the union camp on that particular point, however, given that just a week ago, owners put forward a 72-game proposal, raising suspicions among players that management’s true endgame is to get to an expanded postseason and the potential of lucrative new media contracts as soon as possible.

On monetary terms, the sides remain roughly $300m apart in total compensation between player payments for the additional 10 games in the MLBPA proposal and other benefits the union proposed such as an enlarged postseason pool for players and an event split of incremental TV revenues in 2021 from additional playoff games. 

Each game of a proposed season represents about $25m in player compensation.

If a negotiated agreement cannot be struck, Manfred retains the ability to implement the length of the regular season, and the league has previously threatened to do so for a 50-game season. 

But doing so would forego the opportunity of key revenue enhancements such as the enlarged playoffs, which require union approval, and would likely result in a formal grievance from the MLBPA, and introduce the risk of financial damages owners would have to pay. 

Either way, Manfred suggested an endpoint was coming soon to the negotiating saga.

“This needs to be over,” Manfred said. “Until I speak with owners, I can’t give you a firm deadline.”