On ‘when and where’ and MLB’s latest proposal drama

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It’s been a wild few days for those watching the negotiations between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. Last week, MLB stopped whispering and started yelling that they could impose a 48-game season on the PA, and, in one of those moments where people in power say their opponent is doing the thing they themselves are guilty of, accused the union of negotiating in bad faith. The PA responded by telling MLB to go ahead and set a schedule — “tell us when and where” to play — and MLB suddenly changed their tune upon realizing what was happening. The Players Association had backed MLB into a corner, which is not a place the owners have found themselves in for at least a couple of decades now.

You see, MLB had publicly leaked for months about player greed and that it was the players holding up the season, which gave the union a chance to say, “fine, start the season, it’s in your hands now.” That doesn’t mean the union was going to agree with whatever they were told to do or the number of games they would then play: it meant they were giving MLB the chance to start the year for as many games as they wanted, and that there could be consequences for imposing a season length shorter than the PA believed they should have. Those consequences would come in the form of a grievance, one the rumor was would be worth around $1 billion that the league would need to pay out to the players should an arbitrator agree with the PA on the matter of MLB not doing their best to schedule as many games as is possible in a shortened 2020 campaign.

Now, there are some who are saying this means the PA’s declaration of “tell us when and where to play” was a disingenuous or hollow one, that they had no intention of actually playing because they’re still negotiating, and that’s ramped up as they didn’t just agree to the 60-game season in MLB’s latest proposal. That’s not what happened or how this works, however. Last Friday, MLB submitted a 72-game season with a payout for players that was essentially equal with the payout for their threat of a 48-game season, and on top of that, threw a deadline of Sunday in for the union to respond. The Players Association responded before Sunday with the “when and where” release, which caused MLB to submit a panic counter to their own proposal. The union said the equivalent of “we’re done talking, you’re wasting time, set a schedule so we can play and we’ll see you in front of an arbitrator to continue this discussion.” They didn’t ask for another proposal; MLB offered up another because they have zero interest in being taken in front of an arbitrator for a case they’re likely to lose, one that, again, could cost them around $1 billion as a punishment.

If you think it’s unlikely that MLB would lose such a grievance — they did, after all, win Kris Bryant’s case on service time manipulation despite the obviousness of the scheme — it’s worth pointing out that their 60-game counter (of their own proposal) includes a clause that has the two sides agreeing not to file a grievance for what’s gone down in these negotiations. Like with paying a settlement to make a grievance go away both on the record and in the public mindset (you know, like the owners did with the 2002-2003 collusion grievance), getting someone to preemptively agree that they won’t sue is done with a purpose: so that someone with cause to sue doesn’t sue. It’s not just some basic legalese tacked on to the end of every agreement. It’s asking the other party to overlook something specific.

The PA isn’t holding the Major League Baseball season hostage with the threat of a grievance, either. The point of bringing up the grievance and the “when and where” was to put the blame and the need to fix things back where it belongs, in MLB’s hands. They made a mess, now they have to clean it up. Whether MLB cleans it up by imposing a season and facing a grievance, or by agreeing to paying full prorated salaries and scheduling a number of games the union will settle for, is up to them.

And that last point is a significant one to keep in mind, too: there isn’t even a need for a legally binding clause keeping the PA from filing a grievance, if MLB would just schedule a number of games that the union would be satisfied with. The PA asked for 70 games in their recent counter to the league’s 60 — league sources started moaning to the press that this was the [extremely Comic Book Guy voice] worst proposal ever. And, on top of that, the PA’s counter saw MLB commissioner Rob Manfred go against his own statements on the in-person meeting with MLBPA executive director Tony Clark that led to the counterproposal’s existence in the first place. Craig Calcaterra already explained all this, as well as why Manfred would go back on his own public statements:

So why in the heck is Manfred now saying he thought they had a deal? If I had to guess, I’d say that this is a continued function of a thing I talked about over the weekend: Manfred doesn’t have control of the ownership group, and in order to try to keep everyone in his disparate group of owners happy, he’s having to lurch from one position to another, reacting to their anger or objections while he is also dealing with the MLBPA.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any other reason why an otherwise competent attorney and negotiator like Manfred is would conclude that a deal was done until a deal was 100%, absolutely done. Indeed, every attorney and negotiator knows that your work isn’t done until there is ink to paper.

There are plenty of negative (and true) things to be said about Manfred, but he’s excelled as a labor lawyer for the owners for decades now. He was working with them in the early 90s, during the 1994-1995 strike, as his predecessor Bud Selig’s primary labor lawyer, and now as commissioner of the entire league because of all of the work he did slowing the union’s progress and then scaling back their many gains under Selig. There is zero chance that he thought he had a deal just because he and Clark met in person and hashed out some foundational ideas, and that’s not just being said because Manfred himself, only a day before his claims he thought he had a deal, said this “could form the basis” of an agreement. “Could form the basis” of sure does not sound very much like an agreement, but hey, I’m no lawyer, only someone who knows enough about dealing with management to know that nothing counts until it’s voted on and signed.

Manfred likely does not have all of the owners on his side here, between having to go back on his own words and the whispers that somewhere between six and eight owners don’t want a 2020 season to happen at all. Selig had these kinds of issues, too, but he was always able to hold things together: it’s his ability to unify the owners against the players that gave Manfred the opportunity as a labor lawyer to scale back MLBPA gains in collective bargaining. Whether Manfred can keep the owners unified, or if we’re in for another role-reversal as the owners go back to squabbling and the players appear unified against them, is something we’re just going to have to wait on to know for sure. However, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out, as these 2020 talks are just the precursor to the 2021 CBA discussions that could very well bleed into 2022.

  • More from Calcaterra on the owners, who he believes are just stalling at this point so they can avoid scheduling a longer season. My dudes, that could still end in a grievance for you.

  • Angels’ prospect Jo Adell spoke with The Undefeated about coronavirus, the protests against police brutalizing Black people, and more.

  • Baseball Prospectus’ prospect team took Adell’s words about how baseball writers describe Black players in scouting reports to heart, and they’ll change how they discuss players: scouting explanations tend to be racialized, whether intended by the author or not. That’s just how the language has been, which doesn’t excuse it, and shouldn’t: it’s time to change that language, whether the bias is conscious or unconscious. The damage is the same regardless of intent.

  • Besides the one employee Hannah Keyser spoke to that is both sidesing things, it sounds like even MLB’s workers know the league is negotiating in bad faith.

  • Patrick Dubuque is not in favor of expanding the postseason. I totally get why the players would be fine with it for 2020 and 2021, but they have to concern themselves with making sure this isn’t normalized: expanding the postseason and making it even easier to not try and still get paid for it will do serious damage to the players’ fight to be fairly paid.

  • As Jay Jaffe writes, much of the possibility of a 2020 season rides on whether Manfred can wrangle the owners and their disparate interests.

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