MLB, players make progress to play in 2020, but can't agree on length of season

PHOENIX — Major League Baseball and the players union are making headway towards an agreement to play the 2020 season, with the players receiving their full prorated salaries, but the two sides continue to argue about the length of the season, two high-ranking executives with direct knowledge of the talks told USA TODAY Sports.

The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

While MLB and players were optimistic early Wednesday that a deal was close to being finalized – with a 60-game season that would begin July 19 –  the mood soured by nightfall with the union seeking a longer schedule.

The MLBPA, strongly disputed any agreement in principal principle was ever reached, and tweeted, “Reports of an agreement are false.’’

The renewed optimism of an agreement was triggered when Commissioner Rob Manfred flew to Phoenix on Tuesday night to have a one-on-one meeting with union executive director Tony Clark. The meeting ended with each believing they finally found the structure to a deal. Clark promised he would present the deal to the players, and Manfred to the owners, with each side having to formally approve any deal.

“At my request, Tony Clark and I met for several hours (Tuesday) in Phoenix,’’ Manfred said in a statement. “We left that meeting with a jointly developed framework that we agreed could form the basis of an agreement and subject to conversations with our respective constituents.  I summarized that framework numerous times in the meeting and sent Tony a written summary today.

“Consistent with our conversations (Tuesday), I am encouraging the Clubs to move forward and I trust Tony is doing the same.”

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While team owners appear to be in favor of the 60-game season, paying full prorated salaries, several players and agents say the union is insisting the season be longer. The union requested an 89-game season in their last proposal. If the season begins July 19, there would be 71 days on the calendar until Sept. 27.

MLB has been adamant about wanting to conclude the World Series by the end of October. The league fears a second wave of COVID-19 could prematurely end the season, costing them about $900 million in TV revenue. In addition, the league says its national TV partners don’t want postseason games played in November.

The two sides are expected to re-engage in serious discussions Thursday in hopes of reaching a formal deal by this weekend. The owners want to stick to a 60-game schedule while the players union would like to play close to 70 games, which would be worth an extra $250 million.

This was the first time MLB’s owners agreed to pay full prorated salaries, a stance the union never wavered from during the negotiations. In return, the players consented to an expanded postseason the next two years, from 10 to 16 teams, and agree not to file a grievance.

MLB also agreed to implement a universal DH not only for 2020, but also in 2021. The union would also receive $25 million in a postseason pool, and forgive $33 million of their original $170 million in upfront money that expired May 24. The two sides would contribute $10 million to social justice programs.

The players union, which originally sought a 114-game season, extending the World Series into deep November, will receive about $1.51 billion of their full salaries if there’s a 60-game season. It’s equivalent to the 83% of their prorated salary they would have received in MLB’s last proposal if the World Series is completed, but $300 million more in guaranteed salaries.

Manfred had the authority to implement a 2020 season but wanted the owners and players to reach an agreement, believing it was important that he met with Clark. It came on the heels of the union halting negotiations on Saturday night, with Manfred saying he was no longer confident there would be a 2020 season.

“I think there’s real risk,’’ Manfred said on ESPN, “and as long as there’s no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue. ... The owners are a 100% committed to getting baseball back on the field. Unfortunately, I can't tell you that I'm a 100% certain that's going to happen.’’

Clark immediately responded in a statement, saying: “Players are disgusted that after Rob Manfred unequivocally told players and fans that there would ‘100%’ be a 2020 season, he has decided to go back on his word and is now threatening to cancel the entire season. 

“This latest threat is just one more indication that Major League Baseball has been negotiating in bad faith since the beginning. This has always been about extracting additional pay cuts from players and this is just another day and another bad faith tactic in their ongoing campaign.”

Once an agreement is officially reached, the players are expected to be given seven to 10 days to report to spring training, with most simply training in their own home cities. The spring training will last three weeks, with teams permitted to play three exhibition games.

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