MLB’s Rhetoric Crafted to Avoid Grievance, Agent Says More Than 8 Owners ‘Definitely’ Want to Cancel Season

There may be more to Major League Baseball’s bombastic rhetoric than just stalling or flat-out hubris, though both still factor heavily. By constantly repeating publicly the claims that the league has made multiple entreaties to players to restart the season, despite all of them being essentially the same offer, they create an illusion of good faith. To paraphrase George Costanza, it’s not a lie if you can get an independent arbitrator to believe it.

That would come in handy in the case of a nuclear option in which the players file a grievance following the league’s implementation of a severely truncated season. But wait, didn’t the players invite the league to do exactly that? Tony Clark’s statement last weekend did indeed call the owners’ bluff, but Rob Manfred revealed on ESPN’s “The Return of Sports” special that he believes the union has other motives.

“I had been hopeful that once we got to common ground on the idea that we were gonna pay the players’ full prorated salary, that we would get some cooperation in terms of proceeding under the agreement that we negotiated with the MLBPA on March 26,” Manfred said.

“Unfortunately, over the weekend, while Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out telling reporters, players and eventually getting back to owners that as soon as we issued a schedule — as they requested — they intended to file a grievance claiming they were entitled to an additional billion dollars.”

Seems to me the simple answer here is to push the season to 72 games and shut the hell up about how owning an MLB team “isn’t very profitable.” Enough owners, however, are reportedly willing to put actions behind those words and prevent a season of any length from happening. While Manfred can set the terms of a 2020 season, he needs the backing of at least 75% of the 30 owners to do it. That means seven or more dissenting parties can scuttle the deal.

“There are definitely more than eight owners who don’t want to play,” one player agent told The Athletic.

That information runs contrary to previous reports and could just be a matter of this particular agent exaggerating a bit, but it does add a different wrinkle to the situation. Rather than just being a stall tactic, Manfred might be trying to save the season in his own weird way. More than that, he may be trying to save his job.

Labor lawyer Eugene Freedman theorized last week that the March 26 agreement that entitles players to full prorated pay was reached without the owners’ explicit approval. So the league signed off, but then owners told Manfred they didn’t like the idea of paying out so much money without fans in the stands and that he needed to fix it. That would explain why both sides are so adamant they’re right and also why the original memo of understanding hasn’t been produced.

Manfred is then caught between implementing a season of 50-some games and facing a grievance or pushing to 70-some games and failing to get at least 23 votes from owners. Is it too much to ask that we find a few billionaires to replace those would-be holdouts in the next few days? Ideally it’d be people with such stupid money that they don’t care about losing some of it in the short term.

Since that’s impossible, we can really only hope enough owners come to their senses that the league can make something work. The players have said from the start that they want to get back on the field and there’s even a trend among them on social media exhorting the league to simply “Tell us when and where.” Seems simple enough, right?

As we’ve been saying from the very start of this whole thing, it’s all going to come down to money. Viewing the owners as stewards of the game and your fandom would be a mistake, as all but perhaps a very small minority of them are in this for the asset appreciation. Maybe ego plays a role as well, like owning a team is the final evolution of a normal person having a dream car they won’t let anyone drive or a lake house they don’t visit.

The point is that this isn’t just some sort of hobby for them that they participate in purely for enjoyment. If it was, this would all be over. Manfred, too, seems entirely unconcerned with making baseball more fun and relatable, appearing instead to view the game with the same emotional detachment afforded a spreadsheet. All that matters is producing a result, happiness and collective best interests be damned.

When you get right down to it, the real problem here is that MLB doesn’t have strong leadership. Manfred is either so afraid he’ll screw up or is so obtuse that he’s been rendered completely impotent. He’s not willing to work with the union and he can’t piss off the owners, so he’s content to let these negotiations careen out of control until time finally makes the decision for him.

I’m not even mad any longer, I just feel sad that my favorite sport has gotten to this point.

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