Major League Baseball and its union have yet to come to an agreement to play games this season. John F. Martin/Associated Press

The Major League Baseball Players Association’s proposal regarding the pandemic-delayed 2020 season, delivered to the league Sunday, contained a handful of intriguing ideas that, taken alone, could foster a compelling, competitive and satisfying enterprise for a sport desperate to get back on the field.

Among them: a 114-game regular season for 2020, ending October 31; a 14-team postseason in both 2020 and 2021; and a fair, two-tiered mechanism for dealing with players who opt out for medical or personal reasons. At the very least, those specific proposals left room for a substantive, healthy give-and-take in future negotiations.

But the dispute between MLB and the union regarding the terms of the 2020 season, which has now been delayed 9½ weeks by the novel coronavirus outbreak, is fundamentally over money – and in that regard the sides remain an ocean apart, with time running short.

As as the sport entered what had been considered its deadline week – when an agreement would need to be reached to launch “spring training 2.0” in mid-June and the regular season around July 4 – it was still unclear how, or whether, the league and the union can bridge their differences and get baseball back on the field.

The union’s proposal Sunday was notable for what it did not include: namely, any concessions on 2020 salaries. Though this was to be expected, after union leaders, including Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, signaled last week their continued opposition to further pay cuts, the proposal served to entrench the players even deeper into that position.

In the league’s own proposal last week, it had called for a second round of cuts to player salaries on a sliding scale, with the most severe cuts going to the highest-paid players. The league contended it would lose significant money for every game played without fans unless the players agreed to the additional salary reductions.

The players had previously agreed in March to accept prorated shares of their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played. In the 82-game season proposed by MLB, that means players would receive roughly half their original salaries.

The current dispute stems from the vague language in that agreement: The players believe the matter of compensation was settled, while the owners contend the agreement pertained only to games with fans present, and that games without fans requires a second “good faith” negotiation to account for the lack of in-stadium revenue.

The union’s firm stance – no further discussions over salaries – informed its proposal Sunday. That proposal contained only one small financial concession: players would agree to defer with interest $100 million in 2020 salaries, focused on the highest-paid players, in the event the postseason is canceled or shortened. The union also framed the expanded postseason and an offer to contest a Home Run Derby and All-Star Game in the offseason as revenue-generating events for the league.

The union also proposed a $100 million salary advance for players at the start of “spring training 2.0”; a $170 million advance agreed to in March was scheduled to expire Sunday.

MLB worries that a second wave of coronavirus in the cooler weather of the fall could jeopardize the postseason, its primary source of revenue, which is one reason the league proposed a shorter regular season and a postseason contained within October. Players, however, earn more in salaries for each regular-season game, based on the pro rata agreement from March, which informed their proposal for an additional 32 games (beginning June 30) and a postseason pushed into November.

The union’s opt-out proposal, meantime, called for players who choose not to play in 2020 to be divided into two categories: Those who are deemed high-risk (for example, because of preexisting medical conditions) or who live with someone deemed high-risk would receive both their salary and their accrued service time, while those who do not meet those criteria would receive service time but not pay if they opt out.

The respective proposals from MLB and the union leaves the sport still in need of a major breakthrough in economic negotiations. The main reason for optimism is the shared understanding that the nuclear option – killing the 2020 season in a dispute over money – would have devastating consequences for the sport, both in the short and long term.

The first week of June was considered only a soft deadline for a late June/early July start to the regular season, and the sides could continue negotiating and push back the targeted Opening Day. But each week that passes makes it more difficult to achieve both objectives of a longer regular season (to maximize players’ prorated pay) and an expanded, completed postseason (to maximize owners’ revenue).

Now that the union has formally raised the possibility of deferred salaries – something many in the industry have predicted would be a part of any agreement – it would make sense for that to be one avenue of future negotiations, perhaps untethering it from the contingency of a lost postseason and/or expanding the amount of relief for teams worried about cash flow. But that alone likely won’t be enough to satisfy the owners.

As a result, as the union now awaits MLB’s response to its own proposal, the sides remain philosophically opposed on their core beliefs, with the owners insisting they will lose billions in 2020 without salary concessions, and the union insisting players won’t accept all the health risk and also subsidize owners’ losses to play in 2020.
With a long way to go to an agreement and a short time to get there, the way forward remains difficult if not impossible to see.

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