KC Royals fans recently had reason to believe their team would play in 2020. Now, darkening clouds of uncertainty hover over the major leagues.
Just last week, as the curtain was about to rise on of the more interesting amateur drafts in recent memory, Commissioner Rob Manfred gave fans of the KC Royals and the rest of an anxious baseball world reason to believe–to know–the game would go on in 2020.
It was Wednesday, to be precise, that Manfred told a pre-draft TV audience, “We’re going to play baseball in 2020–100 percent,” an unequivocal, unqualified statement that the big leagues were on the way back. Baseball lovers breathed a collective sigh of relief–the game would be played. Just the details were left to work out.
Manfred looked us in the eye. He told us baseball was coming. No matter how we felt about the man, we knew he could deliver the goods even if the clubs and players couldn’t; the bargain they struck back in March gave Manfred the power to impose a 2020 season if they failed to agree on the nitty-gritty of it all.
I interpreted Manfred’s statement here Friday as, in part, a line in the sand, warning the union that failure to accept the clubs’ next offer, or move significantly their way, would cause Manfred to drop his hammer and impose a season not much to the union’s liking, a short campaign that would yield far less pay than they want and probably deserve. Manfred is, after all, an owners’ man, hired, employed and paid by them. He’s not the independent czar of America’s Pastime too many believe him to be.
That next offer I wrote about came later that day; its pivotal component proposed a 72-game schedule the union might have been able to live with but a 70% pro-rata pay rate it couldn’t considering the players’ firm position that the March deal they struck guaranteed them full pro-rata.
The “offer” was one in name only. It merely dressed up previous offers in new numbers, proposing to pay players the same money previously offered and the same they’d get in the 48-game, full pro-rata schedule rumored to be in Manfred’s hands.
Notably, the owners again offered the cash-heavy inducement of an expanded postseason with receipts to be shared to some extent between the parties, something the union had also proposed. Postseason playoff revenue is the gravy the clubs covet.
The clubs also warned that the proposal was the last counteroffer they’d make, prompting me to write here Saturday that the offer could end the talks. The union was sure to reject it without a counteroffer–why, I asked, would the players make a counter when the owners told them they were done making proposals?
And that’s what happened. Union chief Tony Clark wasted no time Saturday announcing his membership’s rejection of the proposal, told the clubs time for talk was over, and announced the union was ready to play when and where directed. That gave the owners what they wanted–the opportunity to have Manfred establish the short season they so obviously prefer.
The clubs then quickly denounced the union and accused it, among other things, of bad faith bargaining. Monday, it seemed, would bring the expected announcement of a 48-game schedule.
Only it didn’t happen. Instead, Manfred jogged back his “We’re going to play baseball in 2020…” statement of just days before, telling ESPN Monday he was no longer confident about a 2020 season.
But there was more bad news Monday: reports surfaced, including from The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Shaikin, that the owners, who appeared to be finished talking and dealing but ready to give Manfred his short season marching orders, told the union there won’t be any 2020 baseball unless it agrees to forego any claims it might have against MLB:
Such a waiver would, of course, preclude the union from filing grievances concerning bargaining practices and its position that the parties’ March agreement assured players of full pro-rata pay regardless of season length.
And Monday’s later news that unnamed players and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 cast even more doubt on the prospects for 2020 baseball. The players and clubs haven’t yet agreed on health protocols and procedures and the increase in reported cases around the country multiply uncertainties and concerns about playing this year.
Finally, there’s the postseason. The union and the owners appear to share the desire for expanded playoffs (more money for both). But while Manfred can impose a season, he can’t unilaterally impose modifications to the postseason format–the players have to agree. The clubs, especially, want the postseason cash bonanza. Although the parties may want the same postseason things, they’re not talking, and agreements don’t flow from silence.
So, in less than a week, the promise of a 2020 season found in Manfred’s Wednesday words may be evaporating and it may be too late to stop it.
If someone doesn’t make a move soon, baseball (and the KC Royals) may have to wait until 2021.
Baseball appears caught, once again, in an unfortunate stalemate. Only if it’s timely resolved will we see the KC Royals this season.