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MLB continues to wait on its owners

“But one way or the other, we’re playing Major League Baseball.” A slogan for 2020

2020 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred took time before presiding over a gutted draft on Wednesday to address the current negotiations between the league and the players union for a potential start of the 2020 season. In doing so, he confirmed what has become increasingly obvious over the last few months.

MLB doesn’t have a deal yet because of its owners.

Manfred said Wednesday the owners would be shortly making a counter offer to the players’ proposal of an 89-game season which came Tuesday.

“It will be a proposal that once again moves in the players’ direction in terms of the salary issue,” Manfred said. “We’re hoping it’s a proposal that will elicit reciprocal movement from the players’ side, that they’ll get off the 100-percent salary demand, and recognize that 89 games at this point in the calendar and in the pandemic is just not realistic.”

Note: “once again” is doing a lot of work in that first sentence.

Playing 89 games is not realistic at this point in the calendar only because the owners have dragged their feet throughout the process.

It was the owners who approved a plan among themselves on May 11 that could have potentially started the season in early July. The big takeaway from reports of this plan was player salaries based on a 50-50 revenue split, something that was roundly rejected out of hand by the MLBPA.

But by the time the owners actually made a proposal to the players, it was May 26, more than two weeks later, and that plan did not explicitly include a 50-50 revenue split. It essentially had one, with a sliding scale of pay cuts beyond the pro-rata share the players and owners agreed to back in March.

We can’t know for sure if this was a true 50-50 split, because the owners didn’t fully open their books to the players, which is a huge part of the problem, especially in public perception. Players’ salaries are widely available and very public, while nobody really knows what owners make. It just so happens that their net worth usually starts with a “B,” and every single time a team sells, it’s for a price far greater than what was paid.

The lack of transparency by the owners was so galling that Max Scherzer, who tweets about as often as an Astro expresses sincere remorse, felt compelled to call them out.

“We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received,” Scherzer tweeted on May 27. “I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”

The subsequent offers have progressed slowly, with players taking six days to counter that first owner offer, followed by a week before the owners countered again on Monday. This time though, the players responded in less than 48 hours. The owners could have another counter this week, which would count as progress on the timeliness front.

Had owners not taken so much time with that initial offer, or not dragged their feet in responding to the union’s offer, there would be more time on the calendar for an even longer season.

But more baseball doesn’t seem to be in the owners’ plans.

“The best thing for our sport is to reach a negotiated agreement with the MLBPA that plays as many games as possible for our fans,” Manfred said Wednesday. “We do have rights under the March 26 agreement, and there could come a time when we exercise those rights.”

The two biggest hammers earned in that March 26 agreement between players and owners were the players getting pro-rated salaries based on the length of the season, and the league having the ability to implement a schedule of its choosing.

Manfred on one hand doesn’t want the players to wield their hammer, but has no problem threatening to use his.

It’s no coincidence that the rumored shortened schedule of about 50 games has the owners paying roughly the same in total salary as their two official offers.

That’s the ownership strategy in this negotiation. Keep rearranging the same offer and present it to the players, knowing it won’t be accepted. Hope the players negotiate against themselves. All while knocking days off the calendar until all that is left is room for the 50-ish game season, all the owners can apparently afford.

After all, as Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt said this week, “The industry isn’t very profitable, to be quite honest.”

We have no choice but to believe him, because the owners never lie.

“We’re going to play baseball in 2020, 100 percent,” Manfred said Wednesday. “If it has to be under the March 26 agreement if we get to that point in the calendar, so be it. But one way or the other, we’re playing Major League Baseball.”

Baseball likes to think of itself as a civic institution. The sport is important to its communities and vital to the economy, is how it gets spun when owners ask for public money to build stadiums, or raise ticket prices at a rate much higher than inflation. Baseball is too important here, it would be a shame if we had to look elsewhere to play, a common refrain.

MLB owners are using that same tactic now, but not against a city or its fans. They are threatening the sport itself.