MLB-union salary war will end if they clear this hurdle first

The Players Association was expected to deliver its response to MLB’s 67-page health and safety manual Thursday while the league is supposed to provide answers to economic questions raised by the union by Friday.

One of these issues is more vital to tackle first and completely. Because as the saying goes, you have nothing without your health.

This is not about minimizing the import of the financial element; it is about prioritizing the health/safety for two reasons:

1. Most basically: unless local, state, federal and medical officials plus MLB and the Players Association can sign off on the health and safety rules to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, then why even bother fighting about salaries that will not be paid anyway without games?

2. If the sides can reach agreement on the health/safety, it will exert mutual (and staggering) pressure on both sides to find common ground on the much more contentious issue of pay.

Failing to get the game back on the field when the supposed hard part is done — authorities and participants concurring that the game be played safely in a pandemic — due to inability to reach a financial arrangement becomes the first line of obituary stuff. Commissioner Rob Manfred does not want that to be his legacy, nor does union executive director Tony Clark.

Reaching an agreement on the health/safety should provide momentum and motivation to solve the financial chasm. For it is an area of natural partnership and it really would be their historic combatants working together to satisfy each other and jurisdictions to fight a common killer enemy.

The union’s health response covered testing frequency, protocols for positive tests, in-stadium medical personnel, protections for high-risk players and family, access to pre-and-postgame therapies, and sanitization protocols.

There should be no adversarial position here. Yes, the expectation is that the players will ask for the ability to shower after games, especially if the team is about to go on the road, and want reconsideration of using equipment for physical maintenance such as hydrotherapy pools. Of course, there will be a request for as much testing as possible.

But all of that falls into areas of agreement if the medical permission and equipment is provided. The teams and players want sanitary, health and safety. Both sides lose if the regulations do not stop mass infection among participants and/or they are seen as draining medical supplies and personnel required by the public. They need each other to create the best practices, to find the fine line to playing the game as normally as possible in this abnormal time.

They should do what they did not in their May 12 meeting and bring their top medical/infectious disease experts to the virtual table. I would feel better if I were a player, coach or trainer if I heard the medical people on both sides were in agreement after Zoom-looking each other in the eyes rather than just hoping Manfred, Clark and their non-medical assistants know all the right questions to ask and places to find the answers.

But if we do get to that point of medical/safety kumbaya, then this was the opinion of an executive with extensive history with both MLB and the union: “Simplify it — if the pandemic allows us to play we will play.”

Translation: if the sides settle the unprecedented — playing with no previous roadmap on how to deal with a pandemic — then something they have done before, namely make a financial deal, will happen. If you look at it through that prism, then we are in a familiar negotiating place — both sides have stated entrenched positions and rhetoric followed by hard negotiations and a deal at the eleventh hour.

What is the eleventh hour? I would think the sides have to be in agreement by June 1 to begin spring training 2.0 by June 15 and the season July 1.

The union asked for a bunch of financial information to see why MLB says it has to pay players less than the prorated portion of their 2020 salary based on games played as the sides’ March 26 agreement states. MLB claims the March 26 deal says that a new negotiation must be undertaken if games are played without fans — and there will be no paying spectators to begin.

MLB is unlikely to provide all of the look-behind-the-curtain material the union wants. But if I were a betting man, when the sides get to the financials, MLB will relent from the floated 50-50 revenue sharing plan for this year because of belief the union will forever equate revenue sharing with salary caps and that is a no-go. I would suspect MLB will try to create the same financial results with written vows of no salary cap in the future and promises of bigger outlays in 2020 if there is a full postseason, since that is the big moneymaker for teams.

But that is about splitting the financial pie. Which is difficult. Yet, historically the sides eventually get there (albeit one time, if you want to see the worst outcome here, a World Series was lost first). I don’t think the sides are Thelma and Louise and will drive off the cliff together and keep baseball off the field for 1 1-2 years until 2021, producing greater disaster for themselves and the institution.

That is why the health/safety has to be settled. If they can do that together, they really should — and I think would — feel like any other obstacle can be overcome.

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