Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association found themselves at odds again Wednesday following a face-to-face meeting between commissioner Rob Manfred and union executive director Tony Clark, tempering optimism about a potential return-to-play deal between the sides, sources told ESPN.
Following a four-hour negotiation in Phoenix between the leaders Tuesday, MLB emerged believing the framework of a deal had been agreed upon, sources said. The union disagreed with that accounting, and players Wednesday said they view the proposed 60-game schedule as too short.
It left baseball in a similar position to where it has spent most of the past two months: deviating views leading to a standoff instead of a start date for the season.
While there remained hope that an impasse could be avoided, the parties considered the flexibility of their positions Wednesday night, according to sources. Absent a deal, the league has the ability to implement a season of its desired length, likely around 50 games, per a March 26 agreement between the sides, a move that probably would lead to a grievance from the players. The union surveyed player leadership about the proper path forward, cognizant that its decision could sour owners and prompt the league to implement a season instead of coming to a negotiated agreement.
The conversation between Manfred and Clark centered on a 60-game season that would start July 19 or 20 and end Sept. 27, sources told ESPN. Players would be paid their full prorated salaries -- a total of $1.5 billion, or about 37% of their full-season salaries -- and would receive another $25 million for postseason play and $33 million in forgiveness on the $170 million advance they received in the March agreement.
The postseason would expand from 10 to 16 teams for the next two seasons, and a designated hitter would be added to the National League in both years. The league would donate $10 million to social justice initiatives and teams would be allowed to add advertisements to their uniforms, sources said.
In a settlement, both sides would agree to waive their right to grieve, a cudgel each has considered using -- and a maneuver that would exacerbate the already tenuous relationship between the parties. The fragility of the discussions was palpable, sources said, with both sides acknowledging that a deal could fall apart and prompt owners to call on Manfred to set a schedule or perhaps cancel the season altogether.
Whether that's saber-rattling or reality should become clear in the coming days as the drawn-out process that has stalled baseball's return comes to a conclusion. The relationship between the sides has degraded, with each group accusing the other of bad-faith negotiations as they disagreed on the language and intent of the March 26 agreement.
The MLBPA long held that the deal called for fully prorated salaries, something the league had not offered until Tuesday. Though the discussion of 60 games was met with skepticism by player leadership, union sources said there remained a pathway to a deal at a slightly higher number of games or with additional salary-advance forgiveness.
For days, players had rallied around words used by Clark when he cut off negotiations Saturday following the league's third proposal: "It's time to get back to work. Tell us when and where." Players amplified the when-and-where slogan on social media before reports of Manfred and Clark's discussions answered them: July 19 or 20, at home ballparks around the country.
"At my request, Tony Clark and I met for several hours yesterday in Phoenix," Manfred said in a statement Wednesday. "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 yesterday, I am encouraging the clubs to move forward and I trust Tony is doing the same."
Before Manfred's statement, the union had tweeted: "Reports of an agreement are false."
Prior to Manfred's discussions with Clark, the league had offered three proposals, each of which included pay cuts. The last offer by MLB was for 72 games with a maximum payout of 83% of their full salaries, or $1.5 billion. The union's previous proposal had been for 89 games at full pro rata, a total of $2.24 billion.
Following Clark's when-and-where comments, Manfred said Monday on ESPN's The Return of Sports special that he was "not confident" a 2020 baseball season would be played, walking back previous comments that "unequivocally, we are going to play Major League Baseball this year" and pegging the likelihood at "100%."
"I'm not confident," Manfred said. "I think there's real risk, and as long as there's no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue."
Manfred's comments prompted the face-to-face meeting where Clark lives and led to a framework that would include a new spring training that begins June 28, lasts for three weeks and leads to a season that would conclude Sept. 27. The league has held firm in its targeted Sept. 27 end date for the regular season, citing fears of a second wave of the coronavirus and endeavoring to satisfy its postseason television partners.
The potential wiggle room in the schedule -- MLB's 72-game proposal was made less than a week ago -- led players to believe they could reasonably push for a longer season than 60 games, sources said. Whether they deliver such concerns back to the league in a proposal, and how the owners view that, will be key factors in determining not just when and where baseball returns but if it does at all.
ESPN's Buster Olney and Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.