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Bring baseball back? Rob Manfred and Tony Clark can't even agree on what 'agreement' means

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

It’s not important anymore, and only one side is telling this version of the story, but two days ago commissioner Rob Manfred, a veteran of decades of successful labor negotiations, believed he had reached the framework for an agreement to play the 2020 baseball season. He was wrong. He might’ve been right. I wasn’t there. But then he was wrong, because two days later his adversary — the Players Association — was still negotiating.

(This, by the way, coming five days after the union declared it would no longer negotiate, thus introducing the snappy “when and where” movement that is, today, still a nice T-shirt.)

So, the unrewarded optimism of Wednesday gave birth Thursday to a divide of 10 games, which amounts to another $300 million in player pay. The union has proposed 70 games at full prorated salaries, among other economic items it views as still in play, while owners fume over the collapse of a framework that apparently was made not on, but of, cocktail napkins. That agreement/non-agreement/hallucination proposed a season of 60 games at full prorated salaries. When you’re counting nickels and dimes, as the owners would have everyone believe they are, the union has just demanded another six billion nickels.

Conveniently, those would fit into the abyss that doubles here as a negotiating table.

Tony Clark, the executive director of the players union, issued two statements inside of an hour Thursday, effectively heading off any ideas that there might be labor harmony or a framework for a deal or even a framework for harmony.

The clock is ticking on Major League Baseball's attempt to restart the season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

First, at 3:09 p.m. ET, and clearly operating off MLB’s message that what they had Tuesday night was the basis for an agreement, he stated, “We delivered to Major League Baseball today a counterproposal based on a 70-game regular season. … We believe this offer represents the basis for an agreement on resumption of play.”

Then, at 3:56 p.m. ET, though there’d been no public response from MLB, Clark circled back, saying, among other things, “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,” and “It is unequivocally false to suggest that any tentative agreement or other agreement was reach in that meeting.” He continued, “In fact, in conversations within the last 24 hours, Rob invited a counterproposal for more games.”

That must have gotten a rise out of Manfred, because Manfred then responded through MLB Network and USA Today, “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.” Also, he said, given the economics, the virus and a possible second wave of the virus come fall, a 70-game season was “simply impossible.”

One of them has it wrong, and either Manfred completely whiffed the tenor of the conversation or Clark did, or Clark was surprised to learn the players would not abide by the deal he struck, or at least one of the two entered into the meeting planning to create the ensuing public spectacle.

Only they know for sure. In any case, what remains is a negotiation between two men who apparently can’t agree on what “agreement” means. Nevertheless, Manfred was by Thursday night running the new proposal past the team owners, many of whom thought they were done with this two days before.

There are options. The owners could agree to the union’s latest terms. That won’t happen. The owners could seek a middle ground, settling at 64 or 66 games. That’ll take some maneuvering, especially among those already leaning toward canceling the season and starting over next spring. Not that long ago they’d spend $9 million on a middle reliever, and today they won’t spend it to save a season, but at least hardly any of them had to pay for a stadium.

They could have the commissioner impose a 50-game season, which is where negotiations appeared headed a week ago, except that would expose them to grievances and potentially another $1 billion loss, which is why Rob Manfred got on that plane to Phoenix to begin with. So, they find themselves in the thick of negotiations, after the union said it was through with negotiations, which came before Manfred was sure he had a deal.

Which all seems about right anymore.

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