MLB players said tell us 'when and where' to return. So tell them, Commissioner

"The owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field." -- Rob Manfred, June 15, 2020

Then do it.

It's time. It's far past time, actually. It's time to do it for the fans, to do it for the game -- to do what's right.

No more of what happened Monday -- of posturing and equivocating and suggesting the baseball season is in peril when Manfred, as one of the negotiating parties, by definition helps control that fate. The commissioner had gone on a SportsCenter special called The Return of Sports and suggested Major League Baseball might not return at all in 2020.

"I'm not confident," he told Mike Greenberg.

It felt like a dark moment until the swift and damning fallout made clear that the public clamoring for the sport despite its monthslong fight over money would not accept what Manfred was postulating. Little had substantively changed from five days earlier, when Manfred said "unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year," guaranteeing it "100 percent." His about-face came on the heels of MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark suggesting "further dialogue with the league would be futile" and asking Manfred to implement a schedule for the season, as the parties' March 26 agreement allows him.

"It's time to get back to work," Clark said in a statement. "Tell us when and where."

It was a powerful narrative -- a challenge from the players, who had coalesced around being paid their full prorated salaries, which the agreement gives them if the league does implement a schedule. When and where was an idea so powerful and relatable that for the first time in this whole mess, it didn't even seem like it was about money.

The league's retort was to accuse the union of negotiating in bad faith and planning a grievance if MLB did impose a shorter-than-necessary season, somewhere in the 48- to 54-game range. It did not carry anywhere near the emotional heft of players across the league saying, simply, we want to play. Actually, it ran in stark contrast to the notion that the owners did too.

And in the end, it might wind up being the thing that helped bring baseball back.

"The only thing I can tell you is that the owners are committed to trying to find a way through this and get the game back on the field." -- Rob Manfred, June 15, 2020

Then do it.

Manfred himself admitted in his interview with Greenberg that the interminable back-and-forth between the league and union during return-to-play exchanges over the past month has been "just a disaster for our game, absolutely no question about it. It shouldn't be happening, and it's important that we find a way to get past it and get the game back on the field for the benefit of our fans."

Manfred is the sport's public shepherd. Yes, as commissioner, he works for the 30 owners and represents their positions. And yet his admission of the "disaster" unfolding was a brutal self-own, an indictment on the negotiating positions taken by the league and how they fomented solidarity inside the union.

Rather than accept the rigidity of players' insistence on full pro rata, the league in its three proposals offered a series of similar pay cuts. While the maximum amount of dollars going to players grew in each, the union saw the proposals like fraternal triplets: They might look a little different, but they're pretty much the same.

In his interview with Greenberg, Manfred for the first time publicly seemed to acknowledge the inevitability of how the players would be paid: "I had been hopeful that once we got to common ground on the idea that we were going to pay the players full prorated salary that we would get some cooperation in terms of proceeding under the agreement that we negotiated with the MLBPA on March 26."

Perhaps he was referring to doing so in a shortened schedule, but then implementing one and inviting a grievance from the MLBPA for not "using best efforts to play as many games as possible," as the agreement mandates, would run a risk for the league.

A risk, sources said, that MLB would prefer not to take. It's why multiple sources told ESPN that a negotiated settlement with the union -- one that would pay players their full pro rata -- is now the preferred course of action. Players remain skeptical of the league's motives, much as the league's suspicion of the union persists, but there is movement toward meeting and discussing a mutually beneficial agreement, sources familiar with the thinking of the league and union told ESPN.

"The clubs are interested in finding a way back on the field." -- Rob Manfred, June 15, 2020

Then do it.

First, end the bluster. Manfred told Greenberg that a still-not-agreed-upon health-and-safety protocol was standing in the way of any agreement. While it's true that multiple baseball players recently testing positive for COVID-19 offers a stark reminder of the dangers players and others will take playing a season, Manfred five days ago had told MLB Network: "We're very, very close on the medical protocols." Even though the union had cut off negotiations on salaries, lead negotiator Bruce Meyer said to deputy commissioner Dan Halem in a letter on Saturday that the union was "available at your convenience to continue discussions on" the manual outlining health-and-safety procedures.

Next, find a reasonable compromise. This, of course, is easier said than done. If the league acknowledges it will pay players their full pro rata, though, all it takes is settling on a number of games. The league's last offer maxed out at $1.5 billion in compensation -- or 60 at full pro rata. The union's previous proposal suggested 89 games -- about $2.24 billion. Meeting in the middle, 74 games, feels workable and representative enough for a season. If the union is willing to respond to a letter Halem sent Monday with a cut to perhaps 80 games, it would represent the sort of good faith effort the league has charged the union isn't fulfilling. If MLB, also accused by the MLBPA of bad faith negotiating, were to follow with a substantive leap of its own, a deal could come together quickly.

Also: Don't forget to make sure the schedule works. Teams need to bake in at least a week to gather players at facilities and three weeks of spring training on top of that, making the earliest possible start date, in the event of an unlikely quick agreement, mid-July. The likelier opening day is closer to July 20, which leaves 71 days through the end of September.

MLB could, according to sources, consider moving off a season-ending date at which it has held firm: Sept. 27. The league has cited a potential second wave of the coronavirus as the reason for the cutoff. Pushing the playoffs into October and potentially November, while not ideal, could prove a satisfactory solution. Build in off days, schedule doubleheaders. It's not easy. It's not ideal. But then nothing is.

Whatever the parties do, they should do it fast. Every day without an agreement is another day not traveling to spring training, not preparing for the season, not playing games.

Finally, waive all rights to grieve. There will be plenty of time to fight going forward, especially with the sides at loggerheads and their current collective bargaining agreement expiring Dec. 1, 2021. A negotiated settlement in 2020 would portend well for the necessary repair of a bargaining relationship gone so sour.

Clearly it's not this easy, but it's far easier than the sides have made it. If Manfred wants to show the idea that teams finding a way back on the field is more than a talking point, he is in the best position to tell ownership labor hawks that not playing a season is simply not an option. It is, of course, but it's the worst of all, one that deserves a warning label: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS.

Monday felt like as much emergency as baseball can muster, especially if Manfred wants to make words he spoke on March 26 come true.

"The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back," he told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt on March 25. "Whenever it's safe to play, we'll be back. Our fans will be back, our players will be back, and we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country."

This is his chance, MLB's chance, the MLBPA's chance. After everything, the hunger for baseball has not faded. Even if it's to a lesser degree, baseball can be part of the recovery, the healing in this country.

They only need to do it. To start anew. To give the fans something to root for. To ensure those words repeated again and again aren't hollow.

To bring back baseball.