Yesterday was ugly.
In case you haven’t been able to keep up, here’s the rundown:
- After weeks of negotiations which have gone nowhere, the players called the owners’ bluff over the weekend, asking the owners to set the season, as is the owners’ right. “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where,” Tony Clark wrote on Saturday;
- In response, yesterday Major League Baseball’s chief negotiator told the players that MLB will not set a season unless the players agree to sign a waiver absolving the league of negotiating in bad faith. The specific fear is clear: the March Agreement between the sides required that the parties would “best efforts to play as many games as possible.” MLB’s negotiating stance has, quite clearly, been to play as few games as possible so as to save money. They’re worried the players will file a grievance and that an arbitrator will rule against them, costing them millions in damages;
- Against that backdrop, Rob Manfred went on ESPN last night and said he was not sure that a 2020 season can even be played. Meanwhile, the league leaked to the Associated Press that several players have tested positive for COVID-19.
There is A LOT to unpack with all of that, so let’s unpack it.
I have been arguing for some time that, in my view, MLB has been negotiating in bad faith. That, contrary to the requirements of the March Agreement, it has been trying to play as few games as possible. MLB’s request for a waiver, in my mind, stands as an admission on MLB’s part that that’s what it was doing. It thought it could get away with it because for close to 20 years MLB has not received solid, unified pushback from players and it thought that, once again, it could divide the union and just bully through and get what it wants like it has so many times before. This time the players didn’t blink, though, and Manfred’s game was revealed for what it was.
Why was Manfred playing the game in the first place, though? Why have they been assuming bad faith positions? My guess is because while players are unified, owners are split.
Pursuant to rules that govern owners’ behavior, 23 of 30 owners have to agree to any given course of action. I strongly suspect that there are at least eight owners, and likely more, who don’t even want a season. Who think they’d lose money if they even played and don’t want to bother. If that’s the case, Manfred did not have a mandate to negotiate in a way that would result in a season the players would agree to. His hands might effectively be tied. Again, given how strong and unified ownership has been in recent years this is not a thing fans who have come to the game in the past 20 years or so are used to. Historically, however, inter-ownership squabbles like this have been the defining trait of labor negotiations and I suspect that they have reared their head once again. Bud Selig was pretty good at herding those cats. Rob Manfred has never truly had to try and he seems to be failing.
Is there another possibility? Sure. Some are suggesting that Major League Baseball’s request for a waiver from a grievance and/or the cancellation of the season is itself a negotiation tactic:
One player side person said Manfred’s suggestion tonight is all part of a long-running stall. Not sure about that but this is definitely dragging on needlessly.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) June 15, 2020
Is that possible? Maybe. But I’m struggling to see how it’s not even more bad faith to use a waiver request over bad faith claims to delay things. It’s one thing to haggle over terms, but to use the mechanics of the process as a means of running out the clock until only the shortest of seasons can be played strikes me as even worse than being intransigent. If the league truly fears having a grievance filed against it over the way it’s proceeded for the past couple of months — and The Athletic reported last night that it genuinely does — this would likely make things worse, not better.
Which leads me to believe that, yeah, Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball are worried. Worried that their negotiating positions have backed them into a corner from which they cannot escape and that’s why yesterday happened.
So what about that leak of the positive COVID-19 cases? Why did that come yesterday?
As Bill noted last night, some players are suspicious about the timing of that report. The rationale for that suspicion: if a COVID-19 outbreak is seen as a bigger risk to the season than has been previously portrayed, putting on the season in a responsible manner becomes an increasingly difficult task. How might Major League Baseball bang the season without being accused of doing so for bad faith financial reasons? By citing health concerns, genuine or otherwise.
At least that’s how that line of thinking would go. For my part, I’m independently skeptical that a season can be safely put on regardless of any alleged tactical concerns at play here and I’m increasingly skeptical that MLB should even try. That’s a separate topic, though, which I’ll likely address soon. Just know now, though, that as far as the parties are concerned, that leak of positive tests might have a separate purpose. At least some players are taking it that way, making things even more difficult.
So where does that leave us?
Nowhere. MLB’s letter and Manfred’s comments on ESPN last night have gone over terribly with the players. The MLBPA used the word “disgusted” in their statement last night. There is no reason to believe that the players will submit another offer at this point. I would not be surprised if their negotiator sends a letter in response to MLB — and I would not be surprised if that letter is nasty — but I believe the players will stand by their “set a season, tell us when and where” demand from this past weekend.
That leaves the ball in Rob Manfred’s court. I can see three courses for him.
- First: he could try to convince those eight or more owners who I suspect are gumming up the works to come off of their position. That may be extraordinarily difficult, especially if those owners are truly don’t care if baseball is played in 2020. Even if he does that, it means he’d need to submit another offer to players, which would be rather embarrassing because he submitted the last rejected offer, and lawyers do NOT like to be seen as bidding against themselves. And even if he does that, he’ll have to do it knowing that in doing so he’s risking getting a grievance filed against him by the players based on everything he’s done to date;
- Second: he could suggest to the MLBPA that they submit the whole matter to an independent arbitrator who will determine what the shape of the season would be. That has its own drawbacks, not the least of which is that eight or more owners who do not even want a season are going to want one even less if they don’t have control over what it looks like. If Manfred can’t get approval from 23 owners to submit a fair offer to the players, he’s very unlikely to get approval from 23 owners to take it out of their hands completely;
- Finally: Manfred could simply cancel the 2020 season. He could say it’s economically unfeasible to play and throw in concerns — genuine or pretextual — about the health risks of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic and say “see you all in Spring Training 2021.” The problem with that, of course, is that (a) that still might cause the players to file a grievance; and (b) it would be perceived by basically the entire world as Manfred’s ultimate failure. Especially if, after that happens, the NBA, NFL, and NHL all resume play. Moreover, while such a move might please the eight or more stubborn owners it might piss off the non-stubborn owners who want to play, putting Manfred’s job at risk. Outside of the ownership club, it will make him a disgrace.
The first option may be the only realistic one. I’ve been surprised, fairly constantly, for the past three months, however, so at this point I have no idea what Major League Baseball will do.