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Wednesday, August 14
Updated: August 15, 4:10 PM ET
Latest problem more than a 'bump in the road'

By Jayson Stark

NEW YORK -- You had to know a day like this was coming on the baseball labor front.

For weeks now, the news had been too upbeat, the negotiating climate a little too serene, the progress a little too steady.

Couldn't last.

Didn't last.

What happened Wednesday in these negotiations isn't unusual. Negotiators spend their whole lives slamming into walls, picking up the debris and then looking around for a detour.

But no matter how philosophical the owners' lead negotiator, Rob Manfred, tried to be afterward, this sure felt like more than a "bump in the road" on the way to peace, tranquility and a world without work stoppages. If this was a bump, Mount Kilimanjaro is just another mound of dirt.

No matter how routine those bad negotiating days might be, this one came two days before a conference call by players to set a strike date. At the beginning of the week, it looked as if they might never have to set one. Now it looks as if they have no choice.

And once that strike clock starts ticking, you never know what crazy, unpredictable forces could propel these two long-feuding sides in directions they may not be able to control.

Over at the players' union Wednesday, they weren't talking about this development. Not a word. Not even a grunt. Wouldn't even comment on that "bump-in-the-road" review from the other side.

You always hesitate to read too much into no-comments and furrowed brows. But the looks on the faces of the union's negotiators as they burst out of the revolving doors of the MLB offices told a more riveting story than "Gone With The Wind." And it wasn't good.

As best we can piece this together, the players' side laid out a new payroll-tax proposal Wednesday morning. It was, apparently, designed to send signals to owners about the kind of tax that would lead to a deal, with the exact numbers to be negotiated later.

The owners' team, it's believed, then promised to get back to them later in the day with a counter-proposal. Though no one has said this was supposed to be a pivotal presentation, it had that feel -- as union negotiators waited around all afternoon, until after 6 p.m., to be summoned to the MLB offices to hear it.

The right counter-proposal should have triggered a lengthy session and more upbeat talk heading into Thursday. Instead, the full negotiating teams barely stayed in the same room for a half-hour.

Then the meeting broke up in a huff. And the union honchos headed back to the office to spend the night trying to decide where to go next.

Just judging by the look and feel of all this, the only place they can possibly go next is to the conference-call operator, to set that strike date.

But it shouldn't have had to come to this. Should it?

Both sides have acknowledged that unlike in 1994, they at least have the framework for an agreement clearly sketched out this time. Both sides also have known forever that this payroll-tax issue was hanging there, and that their ability to resolve it was the key to making a deal.

So you would have thought the owners, in particular, would have had a feel for what they could have expected to get on this front from a union that has had philosophical problems with the whole tax concept from the beginning.

Not that the union doesn't have some moving to do on this issue, too. But at least the players made a proposal that sent signals that it was amenable to a certain kind of tax under certain conditions.

And it's believed their proposal had enough creative twists that some serious negotiating could have resulted in a tax system that would have at least caused George Steinbrenner to think twice before he signed another $15-million-a-year free agent, even if it didn't necessarily stop him.

Had the owners just made a move to meet the union halfway on this, they might have been on the way to solving this last gargantuan obstacle.

Instead, every indication is that they've moved further apart -- with no firm plans, as of late Wednesday night, to even meet face-to-face Thursday.

"Draw your own conclusions," one person involved in the talks told us Wednesday.

Well, we've drawn them. But we don't like the looks of the picture we just drew -- because we've seen it before. Too many times.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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