The fact union chief Tony Clark and baseball commissioner Rob Manfred began meeting face to face this week was encouraging. But whether the KC Royals play soon remains to be seen.
Fans of the KC Royals, like those of the 29 other MLB clubs, want to see baseball before 2021. And while the threat of COVID-19 lurks, it is the continuing, almost inexplicable, inability of the players and owners to agree under what conditions 2020 baseball can be played that block the game’s resumption.
The parties’ positions are clear and entrenched.
The players insist on full pro-rata pay for all games played and want to maximize pay by playing as many games as possible. Although that’s their bottom line, they also want clubs to allow players at high coronavirus risk to opt out but earn service credit for a full season played. (I suspect this isn’t a deal-breaker for the KC Royals and they won’t object). They’re also agreeable to expanding the postseason field from 10 to 16 teams for this year and next and want a sizeable share of playoff revenue.
The owners, on the other hand, already hurt by lost revenues and certain to suffer more without paying customers, really don’t want to pay full pro-rata salaries regardless of season length and don’t want as long a season as their players do. They want the postseason over before November, citing a potential second pandemic wave as a huge risk to games and health (while quietly worrying about competing with football for TV attention).
These are the main sticking points over which Bruce Meyer and Dan Halem, lead negotiators for the union and clubs, respectively, have unsuccessfully waged war for the past few weeks. Rank pessimism turned to optimism last week when Manfred pronounced he was sure baseball would be played this year (remember, he has the authority, subject only to the owners’ approval, to impose a season of any length if the parties can’t agree on one).
But pessimism reigned again when the players rejected a club proposal and Manfred said he was no longer as confident about playing.
Then came Sunday when Manfred met with union chief Tony Clark and, later in the week, announced his belief that he and the union chief had forged the framework for a deal. The clubs reportedly offered (among other things) a 60-game season at full pro-rata–their best full pay offer yet–expanded playoffs and a $25 million postseason player pay pool. And they offered to forgive part of the $170 million salary guarantee they made to the players in March.
Reports permeated the Internet that at least some of the clubs thought they had a deal. Only there was no agreement, at least in the players’ minds, because they responded Thursday with a counteroffer assenting to expanded playoffs but proposing 70 games at full pro-rata, a $50 million player postseason pool, partial forgiveness of the $170 million salary pool the owners agreed to in March, and other pot-sweeteners:
From my perspective based on many, many years of negotiating labor, employment, and other agreements, it seems unlikely Clark and Manfred actually reached a binding agreement Sunday. One or both may have been armed with ranges within which to negotiate, but both are ultimately beholden to their clients–Clark to the union and Manfred to the owners–and almost assuredly did not have on-the-spot authority to bind those clients. Union membership has to ratify; owners have to approve.
What seems clear, however, is that the two men agreed to take what Manfred termed the “framework” back to their clients for consideration.
But whether Manfred and Clark reached a substantive, nuts-and-bolts agreement Sunday doesn’t matter today. Neither side acts like a deal is in place. So where do they go from here?
The danger in writing about this unfortunate saga is, as I’ve said before, that the talks take more turns before a piece goes live on Kings of Kauffman; that’s why I work these stories late at night, when the principals are likely done with business until the next day. Assuming nothing’s changed, here’s where I think things stand.
By all accounts, the union and clubs each appear willing to waive any dispute-related claims they might have against the other, such as failing to bargain in good faith. This is significant because it extinguishes potentially high monetary liability for those claims. There won’t be a deal without mutual waivers, so each side will waive.
Both parties appear willing to implement the DH in both leagues this year and next (which will inevitably sound the death knell for NL pitchers batting) and the players will likely concede to at least temporarily allow clubs to place commercial endorsements on uniforms. (Ugh. Don’t get me started. I shudder at the thought of such things defacing the classically simple KC Royals jerseys).
By making their most lucrative full pro-rata pay offer yet, the owners are admitting there won’t be a season of any length without complete full pro-rata. The players simply aren’t going to play any games for less. Will the owners accept the union’s 70-game proposal? Not likely, because 70 contests probably push the edge of the clubs’ no November baseball envelope too far. Neatly splitting the difference at 65 seems logical and may happen. But time is on the owners’ side–the longer they take, the shorter a potential season becomes.
But what may irk the easily irked owners is the players’ proposed 100% increase in the postseason player pool. Going from $25 million to $50 million may not seem like much for billion-dollar clubs considering the cash-cow that is the postseason–especially with more teams and games–but these are franchises and owners who, in these troubled times, bristle faster than usual at any suggestion that they spend more.
It’s easy to say this problem can be easily solved by splitting the differences in games and playoff pool money–65 contests and $37.5 million–and declaring the deal done. But the parties don’t trust each other, seem ensnared in what each considers principled positions, and are naturally concerned more with their own interests than what the fans think.
I’ll be surprised if they quickly split the difference. But I’d take it. I’m ready for baseball, and the players and owners will survive if they meet in the middle.
The players and clubs might be making incremental progress toward resolving their painful labor dispute. Let’s hope for an agreement and the resumption of KC Royals baseball.