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Distrust to dysfunction: How fraught MLB, union talks to restart season boiled over ... again

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

The players’ union asked — demanded, really — “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where,” to which Major League Baseball two days later has responded, Please sign here.

In an increasingly bitter negotiation that has turned a coronavirus-delayed season into a full-blown work stoppage, MLB will not issue a plan for an abbreviated season until it is sure that action would not trigger an expensive grievance, sources said Monday night.

Per a March 26 agreement that addressed an eventual resumption of play, MLB could only implement the terms of a season, “After consulting in good faith with the Players Association.” That includes the scheduling of spring training, the length of the regular season, roster rules and a postseason schedule, among other variables. 

As negotiations have not led to agreements in player compensation or the specifics of scheduling, health and safety, on-field rules or other areas, league lawyers believe commissioner Rob Manfred could not unilaterally impose a schedule, for one, without being in violation of the original agreement, sources said.

In correspondence Monday, MLB lead negotiator Dan Halem requested legal clarity from his union counterpart, Bruce Meyer, basically asking if the “When and where” statement released the league from those restrictions. He also asked the union to waive its right to a grievance. Even then, the league’s preference is to return to the negotiating table, though it would appear any hope for goodwill and even minimal cooperation has evaporated in a relationship gone sour.

MLB suspects the union strategy was to goad Manfred into the legal mistake of violating the contract. The players could seek $1 billion or more through a grievance process. (A union grievance would likely revolve around a claim the owners failed to make “best efforts to play as many games as possible” as laid out by the March deal.)

Rather than risk another $1 billion in losses, a source said, a percentage of owners are prepared to forgo the season. That is not Manfred’s preference, a source said at the end of a day in which the commissioner had downgraded his optimism for any baseball this summer from 100 percent to something less than that, over five days. In between, the union abandoned negotiations and asked that the season start as soon as possible.

Days after players seemed to pave the way for Major League Baseball to name the length of season team owners were OK to pay for, commissioner Rob Manfred declared he is no longer certain there will be a season. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

“I’m not confident,” Manfred told ESPN. “I think there’s real risk. As long as there’s no dialogue that real risk is going to continue.”

Union chief Tony Clark responded that “players are disgusted” by the change of messaging, adding, “This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning.”

In that back and forth, in another moment of distrust, another day was lost, pushing the season — if there is to be one — back again. 

You could argue the moment was too big for both of them, for Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, except that couldn’t be true.

The moment wasn’t all that big, demanding only that they steer a baseball season through a summer that would be touchy but not unforgiving.

The novel coronavirus would call how a season would go, or not. All the league and the union could do was draw a schedule, protect the vulnerable and play the games unless — or until — they became too dangerous. So little was expected. What’s a baseball season in the eye of a pandemic?

Nothing. Meaningless.

Little to no negotiating is taking place between the league, lead by commissioner Rob Manfred, and the union, led by Tony Clark. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/WBCI/MLB via Getty Images)

But they could try. The players would be kind enough, even courageous enough, to stand out there, take an honest paycheck and promise not to spit. The owners would create a safe environment, commit to a difficult day knowing it was surrounded by many, many profitable days, and keep their complaints to themselves. Maybe it would work.

Failure — a season that never began, or one cut short — would have resulted from the best intentions of professionals who assessed a fluid situation and then led with their consciences.

Those aren’t big moments. Those are do-your-best-and-see-what-comes-of-it moments. 

It would be complicated, and it has been. It could be frightening, were someone — player or personnel or their families — to become seriously ill. It would be a hard job, but those are the jobs they signed up for. It would be uncomfortable, because judgments are severe and leadership demands better.

But, big? 

Seen the unemployment numbers, including thousands in their own ballparks? Seen the health care workers? Seen the shuttered businesses? Seen the death toll?

These guys were supposed to put baseball back together again in an inconvenient time. That was it.

Is there not a decent enough man or woman on each side who, together, could find the ground between kumbaya and a knife fight? Can a single piece of correspondence not reach its destination without having already been leaked and parsed and tacked to a bulletin board?

Is this, today, how baseball conducts itself? When it is put into a position not to be profitable, but to be kind?

This wasn’t even a big moment. This was going to be easy. All they had to do was lead.

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