Can the MLB Players Association Hold the High Ground?

photo: Rob Manfred, KC mayor Sly James, Tony Clark (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)

As most who are reading this probably already know, Major League Baseball has prepared a definitive proposal to open the 2020 regular season. If numerous media reports are accurate, the details will be presented to owners on Monday, and with approval, it will progress to the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) leadership on Tuesday.

Gaining agreement with the players appears to be a major challenge, with a possible shift ahead in which fans could take the side of the owners against the players.

The greatest concerns of players to be resolved before they return are their health and safety, followed by their compensation. In reality, the two are intertwined.

“If there’s no fans in the stands, there is an intrinsic risk that players are going to undertake,” MLBPA executive board member and New York Yankees catcher Chris Iannetta told ESPN.

“There is an intrinsic risk that support staff and coaches are going to undertake, and we should get fairly compensated for taking that risk for the betterment of the game and the betterment of the owners who stand to make a huge profit off the game.”

On the risk minimization matter, precious few details have been shared, other than testing is supposed to be extensive. The specifics of what will happen if anyone in the 30-team contingents test positive are still unknown, as well as whether any still-uncomfortable player could opt out of this season.

But for a moment at least, let’s make an assumption, albeit a huge one, that the above matters could be resolved satisfactorily for all of the players – or at least the vast majority of them.

That would still leave the not-so-small matter of money.

While all sides are saying they want to play in 2020, every such statement has implicit conditions attached.

The reality is that the owners appear to have much more to lose if that cannot occur. In the first round of negotiations announced on March 27, the players received an assurance that if no games are played, they will receive the same individual service time in 2020 as in 2019. This has significant future compensation and free agency benefits to players.

Further, the players were given a 2020 salary advance of $170 million that does not have to be repaid. They also believe they will receive a per-game proration of their 2020 salaries if play begins – a major point of contention with ownership.

On April 20, MLBPA head Tony Clark was asked if the players were willing to discuss a further reduction in pay if games are held in empty stadiums. His response was very clear. “That negotiation is over,” Clark replied.

Let’s take the worst case scenario – the players do not accept the owners’ offer, talks break down and there is no MLB in 2020.

For the aforementioned reasons, the owners would be in a huge hole, already having given on service time and advanced all that pay. Granted, $170 million is only a sliver of the estimated $4 billion aggregate MLB team payroll over a full season, but remember that in this scenario with no televised games, incoming revenue to the game this year would be a comparative trickle.

As a result, at first blush it would seem that the MLBPA has the upper hand. The owners appear to need the players to be willing to take the health risks (whatever they believe them to be) and accept ownership’s reported revised offer of a flat 50 percent percentage of 2020 revenues, rather than full salary prorated.

This risk-sharing compensation approach has been deployed in other professional sports for years, but in good times, MLB has consistently resisted the concept while holding its financial statements extremely close to the vest.

Now, during a major downturn, ownership’s tune has apparently changed.

Would the MLBPA be willing to trust MLB’s word on its books this one time? Would you?

So, how open will MLB really allow itself to be in return for securing pay concessions from the players?

That brings us back to our worst case assumption again.

MLB has done a good job in recent weeks raising fan expectations that all of the nagging issues can somehow be resolved in the next 60 days such that games can begin in most, if not all, home ballparks.

If the MLBPA digs in its heels on health and/or compensation, will they be painted as uncooperative, selfish and worse by the many fans who do not care about anything other than seeing their beloved baseball again?

The negotiations in the upcoming days and weeks should be fascinating to watch. Perhaps both sides can find enough motivation to make the necessary compromises to work this out. But what is our confidence level they can actually pull it off?

The players seem to have the advantage now, but if they are not careful, they could end up taking a beating in the court of public opinion.

In the process, MLB ownership and Commissioner Rob Manfred could actually become objects of widespread fan sympathy!

If so, it would become one of the most unlikely reminders of just how strange 2020 has become.

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