An early June deadline for baseball owners and players to agree on how to squeeze in a season is closing in.
Yet with a little more than two weeks on the clock, the sides have vast swaths of territory on two key issues to cover before they can even get close to an agreement, according to industry sources.
The issues can be boiled down to 1. What will baseball look like in order for it to be played safely during the COVID-19 pandemic? And 2. How much will players get paid for games in a shortened season in front of no fans?
The first question is being hashed out. The second has not even been posed.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Major League Baseball was waiting on the players’ union to respond to the 67-page, 2020 Operations Manual draft the owners presented last week. The document lays out the medical, health, and safety protocols owners are asking players and support staff to follow for games to resume.
Details include extensive testing, social distancing at ballparks, quarantining away from ballparks, and rules about wearing masks, showering (discouraged at the ballpark), and spitting (prohibited at the ballpark). There is a great deal more, and the union is still registering feedback and answering questions from players, who held a video conference Monday to discuss the document.
MLB relied on its medical, health, and safety experts to produce the report.
The union has hired its own virologists, epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and health policy experts. The union is poring over the document, weighing input from consultants and players. Once concerns are addressed and signed off on, answers will be sought on questions regarding players or family members with underlying health concerns and those players’ opt-out rights.
The plan will not proceed without approval of those taking the risk of playing, all of whose windows for lucrative salaries are much shorter than the owners’ long-haul approach.
That risk is closely linked to the players’ skepticism about any economic plan that asks them to take further pay cuts. Another consideration for the players is why they should be asked to bear a share of the losses for a down season when owners do not offer to share profits in economically good seasons.
It should be emphasized that MLB has not yet made a compensation proposal to the union, just as it has not presented a realignment plan.
MLB has said it will lose $4 billion if there is no season. In a presentation to the players on May 12, owners painted a dismal picture of the financial losses without games.
The union has asked the league to provide pertinent information that would support the owners’ claims of potential losses. MLB is in the process of gathering that information.
Without a formal proposal for compensation from the owners and without the additional documentation, the union has not had something concrete it can present to the players. But the union believes a framework is already in place: the March 26 agreement the sides reached on a variety of issues, including the draft, signing bonuses, accrued service time, a $170 million payroll advance for missed time in April and May, and most importantly, an agreement that salaries would be prorated for games played.
MLB believes that a clause in the agreement allows it to revisit compensation if games are played in front of no fans, a situation in which revenues would be dramatically reduced.
The union maintains that no such opening for further compensation talks was implied, and further maintains that the players will receive their prorated salaries based on games played and not endure another pay reduction.
Each side is aware of the outcry that would result from a standoff that lasts long enough to scrap the restart plan. The sides have a little more than two weeks to reach a middle ground that would allow baseball to be played and stave off a ruinous negative reaction to no agreement.
They have a lot of work to do, and a short amount of time to do it.