MLB to start season after players reject offer

Mike DiGiovanna and Bill Shaikin
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
A baseball with MLB logo is seen at Citizens Bank Park before a game between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies on June 28, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pa.

Unable to forge an agreement between owners and players on compensation, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred exercised his authority Monday to impose a pandemic-shortened regular season expected to be 60 games without fans in stadiums.

Manfred's mandate was issued after nearly three months of contentious negotiations spurred by the owners' demands for players to take additional pay cuts to help cover the financial losses teams would incur from playing games in empty stadiums. Players pushed for a longer season and full prorated salaries, regardless of how many games were played.

After the players' union rejected the owners' latest 60-game proposal Monday afternoon, one that would have included an expanded postseason format, a universal designated hitter, 104 percent of prorated salary for players and a guaranteed $25 million in playoff pools in 2020, MLB released a statement that said in part:

"In view of this rejection, the MLB clubs have unanimously voted to proceed with the 2020 season under the terms of the March 26th agreement. In order to produce a schedule with a specific number of games, we are asking that the Players Association provide to us by 5 p.m. (EDT) tomorrow with two pieces of information. The first is whether players will be able to report to camp within seven days (by July 1). The second is whether the Players Association will agree on the Operating Manual which contains the health and safety protocols necessary to give us the best opportunity to conduct and complete our regular season and postseason."

The season is expected to start around July 24.

The move came despite Manfred's last-ditch effort to broker a deal in the wake of a five-day exchange of accusations and insults that began June 10 with the commissioner saying, "We're going to play baseball in 2020, one-hundred percent," and Major League Baseball suggesting June 15 it might cancel the season.

A break in the stalemate appeared to come last Tuesday when Manfred flew from New York to Phoenix for a four-hour face-to-face meeting with MLB Players Association head Tony Clark and made the owners' first proposal that included full prorated salaries for players.

By Wednesday, Manfred said the sides had "a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement" for a 60-game regular season and an expanded post-season that would have included 16 teams, up from the usual 10.

But players deemed a 60-game season too short, and in countering with a 70-game proposal on Thursday, Clark said it was "unequivocally false to suggest that any tentative agreement or other agreement was reached in (Tuesday's) meeting."

The owners rejected the 70-game proposal. The players then rejected the owners' 60-game proposal by a 33-5 vote of its executive committee Monday afternoon, leaving Manfred little choice but to impose a shorter season in which players will receive full prorated pay but for far fewer games than they hoped to play.

The move is expected to prompt the union to file a grievance over salary lost by players in a fairly bargained season, a threat that Manfred has said the union has put at about $1 billion. The other alternative _ canceling the season entirely _ would have left the sport dark for 18 months.

"While we had hoped to reach a revised back to work agreement with the league," the union said in a statement, "the players remain fully committed to proceeding under our current agreement and getting back on the field for the fans, for the game, and for each other."

The league is expected to be realigned into three 10-team regional divisions, with teams facing opponents only in their division to minimize travel.

The sides discussed expanding the postseason from 10 to 16 teams for the next two years, but it appears players will not grant that revenue-boosting lever to the owners.

Rosters will be expanded from 26 players to 30 or so players to account for the probable cancellation of the minor league season. Teams are expected to carry taxi squads of 20-25 players to supplement big-league rosters.

After rejecting the owners' offer of a 72-game season at 70 percent of their prorated salaries June 12, players all but dared Manfred to exercise his authority to impose a regular season of 50 games or so June 13, with Clark saying, "It's time to get back to work. Tell us when and where."

Players grew even more frustrated two days later when, in a letter to the union, MLB said it would not honor the players' demand to announce a schedule unless the union, which believed it could pursue hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in a grievance, waives legal claims against the league.

Both sides accused the other of negotiating in bad faith, Clark saying he was "disgusted" at a bargaining process he described as "futile," and Manfred saying the union's tactics "make it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances."

The ill will between players and owners, Manfred added, "is just a disaster for our game, absolutely no question about it." Amid such rancor, talks broke down.

The agreement, struck two weeks after the coronavirus outbreak shut down spring training in Arizona and Florida, also contained language committing owners and players to "discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators."

With a loss of billions of dollars from tickets, parking, food, drinks and merchandise, which owners say account for roughly 40 percent of a team's overall revenues, owners pushed for a further reduction in player salaries, claiming they would lose more money by playing games without fans than by not playing at all.

Owners argued that players were obligated to renegotiate salaries for games played in fan-free ballparks. The players disagreed, refusing to negotiate on the issue of pay because they said the owners had not provided sufficient information to document their claimed losses.

The bickering between billionaires and millionaires over money, amid a backdrop of double-digit, pandemic-induced unemployment and nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, did not go over well with fans.

Seven official proposals were exchanged - four from the league and three by the union, which preferred to play as many regular-season games as possible and preferred to extend the postseason deep into November, with playoff and World Series games potentially being played at neutral sites.

Manfred balked at November baseball because it would increase the chances of the season being interrupted by a potential second wave of the coronavirus and because MLB's television partners - the ones that would provide $787 million in postseason broadcast revenue - want the postseason completed in October.