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Players reject MLB offer, ask league to set a 2020 schedule

Tony Clark, executive director of Major League Baseball

Port St. Lucie, Florida: Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Tony Clark answering questions about the sign stealing scandal before a spring training workout on February 19, 2020 at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Newsday via Getty Images

The Major League Baseball Players Association has rejected MLB and the owners’ latest offer of terms under which to play the 2020 season. They have also issued a statement saying that, rather than provide yet another counteroffer, they simply want Major League Baseball to set a 2020 schedule and be done with it.

The statement from Tony Clark:

Players want to play. It’s who we are and what we do.

Since March, the Association has made it clear that our No.1 focus is playing the fullest season possible, as soon as possible, as safely as possible. Players agreed to billions in monetary concessions as a means to that end, and in the face of repeated media leaks and misdirection we made additional proposals to inject new revenues into the industry – proposals that would benefit the owners, players, broadcast partners, and fans alike.

It’s now become apparent that these efforts have fallen upon deaf ears. In recent days, owners have decried the supposed unprofitability of owning a baseball team and the Commissioner has repeatedly threatened to schedule a dramatically shortened season unless players agree to hundreds of millions in further concessions. Our response has been consistent that such concessions are unwarranted, would be fundamentally unfair to players, and that our sport deserves the fullest 2020 season possible. These remain our positions today, particularly in light of new reports regarding MLB’s national television rights – information we requested from the league weeks ago but were never provided.

As a result, it unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.

ESPN reports that MLBPA chief negotiator Bruce Meyer has sent a letter to MLB separately from this statement saying, “We demand that you inform us of your plans by close of business on Monday, June 15.”

As for Clark’s statement: the “fullest season possible” likely refers to the players’ two offers of a 114-game and an 89-game season. The “billions in concessions” reflects the players’ agreement to forego guaranteed 2020 salaries, which are based on a “championship season” of whatever length is set, and their agreement to instead go with prorated, per-game salaries. The “new proposals” which would “inject revenues” into the league likely refer to the players’ offer of expanded playoffs for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

As for the third paragraph, we reported last week on ownership claiming that baseball is unprofitable, which is an evergreen claim of ownership, as implausible now as it always has been. The context for Clark’s comment near the end, about “new reports regarding MLB’s national television rights” comes from a report yesterday afternoon that MLB and TBS have just agreed to a new $1 billion playoff TV package which replaces the old $350 million package. The “dramatically shortened season” Clark references no doubt refers to leaks from MLB to the press over the past few weeks that Rob Manfred will impose a 48-50 game season if no concessions are given by players.

In the wake of Clark’s statement, Major League Baseball issued a statement of its own. One that, as we’ll discuss below, is inflammatory, is wildly misleading, and which contains numerous assertions that are unsupported by facts or evidence:

“We are disappointed that the MLBPA has chosen not to negotiate in good faith over resumption of play after MLB has made three successive proposals that would provide players, Clubs and our fans with an amicable resolution to a very difficult situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The MLBPA understands that the agreement reached on March 26th was premised on the parties’ mutual understanding that the players would be paid their full salaries only if play resumed in front of fans, and that another negotiation was to take place if Clubs could not generate the billions of dollars of ticket revenue required to pay players. The MLBPA’s position that players are entitled to virtually all the revenue from a 2020 season played without fans is not fair to the thousands of other baseball employees that Clubs and our office are supporting financially during this very difficult 2020 season.

We will evaluate the Union’s refusal to adhere to the terms of the March Agreement, and after consulting with ownership, determine the best course to bring baseball back to our fans.”

First off, Major League Baseball’s statement that the players are negotiating in bad faith is simply not true.

“Bad faith” negotiation is a distinct legal notion in which a party pretends to negotiate in an effort to reach as settlement but has no real intention to do so. A party acting in bad faith plays the game for effect, for delay, or for public relations purposes. There is no objective reason to believe that that’s what the players have done. They have moved in their offers and counter offers to the owners in terms of numbers of games played and they have offered the owners a lucrative additional round of playoffs for the next two seasons. They have attempted to move toward the owners.

The same cannot be said of Major League Baseball.

As we discussed recently, MLB’s offers have, basically, all been the same offer dressed up in different ways. Indeed, in light of that non-movement -- and in light of their mischaracterization of the March Agreement, which we’ll get to next -- the claim of “bad faith” fits Major League Baseball’s negotiating stance far better than it fits that of the players.

The assertion in the statement that there was a “mutual understanding” that players would only receive full prorated salaries if there were fans -- thus requiring the players to make further salary concessions -- is likewise simply not true.

Nowhere in the the March 26 Agreement does it state that the salary structure should or must change if fans are not present. If it did, MLB’s statement last night would have cited the exact language which requires it rather than refer to a “mutual understanding.” I will note that by way of my personal legal experience, claiming that there was a “mutual understanding” of a contract term is a pretty classic dodge employed by parties who know that a contract does not say what they wished it did but who want to imply otherwise.

So let’s talk about what the March Agreement actually says, not what MLB’s press release implies that it says.

It has been widely reported and confirmed by the parties on multiple occasions that the March agreement between owners and players gives players the right to receive prorated pay on a per-game basis for any season played. The owners, meanwhile, have the right to set the length of any season played. It also specified that “The Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators.”

Given that the sides could have, but did not, specifically state in the March Agreement that players must make salary concessions if there were no fans, what then are the discussions of “economic feasibility” it refers to?

I would argue that that means the two sides would discuss what could be done to make fan-free games a more financially viable proposition. Things like adding additional rounds of playoffs, which the players have proposed, or changing things on the field such as having players wear microphones of the creation of different in-game revenue or marketing initiatives. Advertisements on uniforms, perhaps. Different rules regarding off-field expenses for lodging or travel, perhaps. Anything besides the one specifically set term, which is salary.

The kicker here is that MLB has admitted as much. While it can say what it wants in a press release, in at least two formal letters sent to the MLBPA during negotiations, MLB’s chief negotiator Dan Halem and legal counsel Pat Houlihan have admitted that salaries are a settled term. Specifically, in a May 18 letter to Tony Clark:, Halem said "[MLBPA] is free to take the position that players are unwilling to accept further reductions.” In a May 22 letter Houlihan said “We agree with the [MLBPA] that, under the Agreement, players are not required to accept less than their full prorated salary.”

These admissions -- and, more importantly, the literal terms of the March Agreement -- completely negate MLB’s claims as set forth in their press release. It’s a better idea, both in life and in legal disputes, to believe the legal documents and the admissions of the parties, not their P.R. gambits. MLB would have you believe otherwise.

That’s not the only misleading part of MLB’s statement:

  • The claim that MLB has made “three successive proposals” that would “provide an amicable resolution” is rather rich given that, as we discussed above, MLB’s proposals have all been repackaged version of the same basic proposal;
  • The claim that that the players think that they “are entitled to virtually all the revenue from a 2020 season played without fans” is interesting given that, as has been reported, the players have asked the owners to give them detailed financial information to support their demand that players must make salary concessions. The MLBPA has asked for financial information to validate the league’s revenue projections. They say the league has not backed up the numbers. If players’ salary demands are going to “eat up all the revenue” MLB should open its books show its work. It hasn’t; finally
  • MLB’s claim that the players have “refused to adhere to the March Agreement” is simply not true. It has not stated, publicly or privately, how the players have not adhered to it. Even in its press release it merely refers to the “mutual understanding” of what the Agreement was “premised on.” If it wishes to accuse the MLBPA of violating the March Agreement, MLB has the right to file a grievance. I highly doubt it will do so.

More cosmically than all of that, contracts mean things. Their specific terms matter. No one knows this better than Major League Baseball.

When a team leaves a ready-for-the-majors rookie in the minors for three extra weeks in order to manipulate his service time, it is foregoing the “mutual understanding” and “premise” regarding the promotion of minor leaguers (i.e. that teams will do so when the players are ready) and is instead relying on the letter of the CBA which allows clubs to promote players when it wants to. Ask Kris Bryant how that works.

When that rookie breaks out huge in his first season, makes the All-Star team and wins the Rookie of the Year Award and becomes a huge, huge star that excites fans and boosts attendance, we may all expect that the club will reward him with a substantial raise for his second year. Clubs routinely forego those expectations, however, and instead renew these players’ at salaries barely above the league minimum. Why? Because the letter of the operative contracts do not require them to do otherwise. Ask Pete Alonso how that works.

Now that dynamic applies to Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball is having a temper tantrum about it.

MLB entered into an agreement that provides the players prorated salaries and allows MLB to set the season’s length. MLB has admitted that it knows that those are the terms. The players are, quite reasonably, holding on to that which they obtained in negotiations and have offered MLB more in the form of expanded playoffs. It has asked MLB for financial documents to prove its claim that prorated salaries are simply unworkable, but MLB has not opened its books to make its case.

Rather than accept or acknowledge that -- rather than admit that it made a not-so-great deal for itself back in March -- Major League Baseball has chosen to gaslight the public as to what the March Agreement actually says and to cynically and erroneously lambaste the MLBPA as a bad faith actor in last night’s press release.

It’s not a good look for the league. It’s now, in all likelihood, going to result in a comically short 2020 baseball season that will only serve to increase the mistrust between the league and the union and therefore stoke the fires for the bigger fight coming after the 2021 season when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is due to be negotiated.

We’re in dark times, folks.

Follow @craigcalcaterra